Ellis Marsalis Center for Music opens in New Orleans

Back in January 2010, I took a cab ride from my New Orleans hotel early that morning to the Musicians’ Village in the Upper 9th Ward. The Musicians’ Village is a community conceived by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., to provide adequate housing for artists and musicians of the city who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Once the cab driver stopped telling me that it would be much “safer” for him to take me on a tour to see all of Brad Pitt’s houses rather than drop me off in the middle of what he called a “rough” neighborhood, he let me out and I was able to see this wonderful community.

Photo by Kevin Kniestedt

Of course it ended up being too early in the morning for me to catch any musicians out and about in the Village (as it should be…what decent working New Orleans musician is up and about at 9:30 in the morning?).

I was, however, able to briefly talk to two men who were surveying a lot at the end of the block. This was the site that would end up hosting the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music.

Photo by Kevin Kniestedt

The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music opened on Thursday, hosting local residents, fellow musicians, supporters, friends and family for its grand opening, including Governor Jindal of Louisiana and Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans, and actress, Renee Zellweger.

There was also a performance from Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., who played a major role in developing the Center as well as the Musicians’ Village (in partnership with Habitat for Humanity).

The Center is not only a performance hall, but will allow opportunity for local students and musicians to take advantage of recording space, classes, computers, and community rooms.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put it best in his address to the crowd at the dedication:

“The dedication of the Ellis Marsalis Center is about more than money and bricks and mortar. It is another sign of the rebirth of a great city – a city that will be a beacon of entertainment and inspiration for our children and generations to come. Through wars, hurricanes, and floods, one thing has remained unchanged – our people are strong and like none other.”

Groove Notes: The New Orleans Conclusion

When I do get out of town, I want to make it count. It has been over a week since I returned from my first trip to New Orleans, and I wanted my emotions from the trip to die down a little bit before I finished my review of it, maybe to just be able to write with a clearer head.

The experiences, be it jazz related or not from this trip, are still extremely vivid. So ahead of time, forgive me if this entry seems personal, and shares a variety of personal thoughts in addition to just “jazzy” ones.

One thing I wanted to make sure I saw while I was there was the Musicians’ Village. This is a community conceived by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., to provide adequate housing for artists and musicians of the city who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Once the cab driver stopped telling me that it would be much “safer” for him to take me on a tour to see all of Brad Pitt’s houses rather than drop me off in the middle of what he called a “rough” neighborhood, he started pointing out remnants of Katrina devastation as we headed through town. It has been 4 1/2 years since Katrina hit, and while his voice began to crack when talking about what people went through, this was just a preview of how the people of this city are not over what happened here.

It ended up being too early in the morning for me to catch any musicians out and about in the Village (as it should be…what decent working New Orleans musician is up and about at 9:30 in the morning?). However the opportunity to see this community built for and by the people who have helped make New Orleans what it is was incredibly inspiring.

While not something that people always think of when New Orleans is mentioned, I also paid a visit to the National World War II Museum on Magazine Street. I am certainly a museum fan, but the museum offered a truly emotional experience. I don’t doubt that my traveling partner, nor myself will ever be able to get the images of the brave soldiers who stormed the beaches from our memory. Definitely a moment that choked us both up.

The Louis Armstrong Park was closed for repairs. Still, the park seemed inviting enough for the two of us. There are certain things you have to see, so you see them.

The park hosts the Mahalia Jackson Performance Center, Congo Square, and the old studios of the legendary radio station WWOZ.

I came to realize, as I was literally stuck in a gate leaving the park, that I had eaten way to well on this trip. My traveling partner may very well have wet herself while dying of laughter while I squeezed myself out, and it was at that moment that I dedicated myself to the gym upon my return for 2 1/2 hours, every single day.

The last couple nights I was there I had the opportunity to see Charmaine Neville one night and trumpeter Terence Blanchard the next, both at Snug Harbor. These are two musicians deeply rooted in the New Orleans community. Again, with Charmaine Neville, evidence of the lingering effects of Katrina are still vivid in her mind, as she spent a great deal of time thanking those who recently visited for their help in still ongoing repair efforts.

If you watched the Spike Lee film When the Levees Broke, you may recall seeing Terence Blanchard walking his mother through her house following the hurricane. Since then, Blanchard has completely dedicated himself to the rebuilding of New Orleans, and on that night I got to see him continue to be one of the most prolific storytellers via his trumpet.

New Orleans was a lot of things for me. It was great jazz and haunted hotel rooms. It was Beignets and Cafe Au Lait. It was a muffaletta sandwich on the Mississippi River, and late night karaoke. It was Snug Harbor, the Spotted Cat Music Club, Pat O’ Brien’s, Preservation Hall, Blues Alley, and DBA. It was the Frenchmen Street All-Stars, Terence Blanchard, The Hot Club of New Orleans, Charmaine Neville, and the everyday brass band that just went playing down the street like it was an everyday walk. It was a overtime field goal followed by a city-wide celebration. It was head-butting over which street is the right street to go down, and of course, me being wrong about it. It was jambalaya and Po-Boy sandwiches.

It was Sidney Bechet, Pete Fountain, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, the Marsalis Family, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Mahalia Jackson. It was the ghosts of Congo Square.

But mostly for me, it was seeing a city that has rebuilt after major fires, and continues to rebuild after a massive hurricane. It was seeing people who 4 1/2 years ago lost their home celebrating in the streets. It was seeing that the people of this city will never allow it to be destroyed.

Go Saints! Who Dat!

Groove Notes, Live From New Orleans Day 2 (Music and Football)

Groove Notes, Live From New Orleans, Day 1

Groove Notes, Live From New Orleans Day 2 (Music and Football)

So yesterday, to say the very least, was a big day in New Orleans. The New Orleans Saints football team was playing against the Minnesota Vikings in a game that could send the Saints to their first Super Bowl in the teams 43 year existence. As I mentioned yesterday, New Orleans is a city that takes advantage of any reason to celebrate or have a party, and yesterday was far from an exception.

The game was in the evening here, but the anticipation of it was going strong all day long. As we walked down Bourbon Street, there was not a step you could take without hearing music in some form. The street was blocked off to traffic by mid-morning, and crowds were already out. I was perhaps the most out-of-place person on Bourbon Street, being the only one in town not wearing a Saints jersey or t-shirt.

One of the assumptions that I had going in to this trip was that, sure, there would be good music, but I didn’t realize that genuinely good music would be everywhere. I assumed that the great music would be limited to the Preservation Hall and House of Blues-like establishments, but even the “amateurs” are groups I would be happy to see in any top-tier jazz club.

As I walked in to the famous Pat O’ Brien’s bar for lunch (which consisted of free chili dogs and potato chips…that’s right, free), even the dueling pianists were impressive. Most times a dueling piano bar you get cheesy guys pounding out classic rock while modifying the lyrics in some perverse fashion for a laugh. Here, you had two smokey voiced laidies from Mississippi singing everything from jazz to Billy Joel to church music.

Street musicians might often suggest an untalented panhandler. As I settled into my seat at the Chartres House Cafe for a plate of crawfish cakes minutes before the football game was to start, a brass band came passing right by my table, led by a trumpeter who performed a solo I would have recorded, pressed, and packaged if I had the opportunity.

During the game, a man who introduced himself as an advertising executive named Bo told me that a world-famous jazz musician was to be performing in a tiny room free of charge on the fourth floor of the Wyndham Hotel. I was happy with what I was seeing on the street.

The Saints won that evening, and 4 1/2 years after Katrina, the city finally had a victory, and their team was going to the Superbowl. They celebrated accordingly. Bourbon Street was packed with people cheering, with music from every balcony, and no more than two seconds went by without someone shouting “WHO DAT?”, the Saints adopted motto.

Groove Notes, Live From New Orleans, Day 1

Our weekly “1,000” and “Clash” posts will be taking a weeklong hiatus, but for good reason.

This week I will be posting live from New Orleans. It is my first visit here, and there is so much to soak up and talk about, especially musically.

I will start by saying that I am making a pact with myself to only post entries while eating beignets and drinking cafe au lait from Cafe Du Monde. Of the 30 or so emails I received ahead of time from listeners and readers about what I should do while in New Orleans, Cafe Du Monde was on almost every single list. Delicious.

For jazz fans, you know you are home when you get off the airplane in New Orleans and are almost immediately greeted by a giant statue of Louis Armstrong, and the few shops and restaurants in the airport almost all have the word “Jazz” in their name.

While day one was only a half-day, and half of that was taken up by a nap, I wasn’t going to waste my first night. New Orleans is a city that will take advantage of any reason to celebrate, and with the Saints playing for the NFC Championship today, the crowds were out at night. There is music of all forms everywhere, but my first night I decided to head to Frenchman Street.

One restaurant had live reggae, and across the street was live blues at a small bar. A dixieland band was playing on the street for donations, but I wasn’t stopping until I made it to Snug Harbor, self described as New Orleans premier jazz club. I had a fried chicken sandwich, a Hurricane, and enjoyed a wonderful night of tribute to Django Reinhardt.

The social scene at these jazz clubs, restaurants, and bars is completely different than what I have previously been familiar with. It is a party, not just a show. I made reservations for Tuesday night, when Terrance Blanchard is going to be playing. After Snug Harbor, I went across the street to a place called the Spotted Cat music club, where a band called the Frenchman Street All-Stars were playing. This was high energy, high intensity jazz, the way I always imagined jazz being played in a small New Orleans club. Crowded, a little greasy, but standing room only, loud, and with a quintet that tore the roof off of the place. People cheered for solos like solos are supposed to be cheered for.

This was Day 1. As previously mentioned, I plan on seeing Terrence Blanchard on Tuesday, as well as a visit to the Musician’s Villiage, among many other music related activities. I’ll keep ya posted.

A New Orleans Pre-Funk with Holotradband

If you are a listener of my radio program, you have no doubt heard my excitement about my first trip to New Orleans next week. Listeners have been emailing with their suggestions of places that I HAVE to visit, raising that excitement to an unreal level.

Being the overwhelmingly impatient person that I am, I needed to get some sort of New Orleans fix, any New Orleans fix in before I left.

I found my fix.

I am ashamed to say that I have never ventured to the New Orleans Creole Restaurant in the Pioneer Square district of downtown Seattle on a Tuesday night before. For six years, a seven piece group named Holotradband has been performing a wonderful blend of New Orleans and Chicago style jazz. It took my own selfish desires to finally seek out this band, and I realized immediately that I had been missing out for way too long.

My friend (the friend who I am heading to New Orleans with) and I sat down, and our table was soon filled with orders of pan-fried oysters, pan-fried catfish strips with creolaise dip, and ice-cold Hurricanes. The food and drinks paired perfectly with the music of Holotradband, who with their three-horn front delivered the early sounds of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Clarence Williams.

A couple got up to dance. My friend asked if I danced, and I reminded her that I am regularly the tallest, most untalented dancer on the dance floor, but I might consider it. Shortly after, about six younger dancers, dancers that appeared to have been in lessons since birth, made their way to the dance floor. I was forced to revoke my previous consideration, knowing now that  I would not only be shown up, but tragically embarrassed. Truthfully, it remained impossible to keep, at minimum, from tapping my foot. The band communicated, not only with each other flawlessly, but with the audience as well.

All in all, it was a great night out, and a wonderful way to prepare for my trip, and I will no doubt will return in the future when I simply need another fix. The food was affordable and tasty, the cover was free, and the band was fantastic.

Holotradband has CD’s available. When speaking to a band member about them, he said that “they might not be perfect studio quality, and will sound a lot like what I was listening to tonight.”

“Perfect”, I said. “I wouldn’t want them any other way”.

You can visit Holotradband’s website at www.holotradband.com, where you can read up on the band, hear their music, and purchase CD’s.