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Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis: The Musician’s Village 6 Years After Katrina

| August 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

It takes more than five hours to make the 350-mile trip from New Orleans to Houston. On Sept. 7, 2005, that proved to be plenty of time for old friends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis to start imagining a way to help get their hometown back on its feet.

That journey really began a week before, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Singer, songwriter, pianist and actor Connick, who now lives in Connecticut, raced to the city to check on his family and see if he could lend a hand. Upon his arrival he began to hear about the astonishing scene unfolding at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, where thousands of evacuees had been directed to gather. They expected food, water and transportation out of the disaster area—but instead found only starvation, dehydration and hopelessness.

Harry Connick praying over bodies outside the convention center

Ignoring the rumors of rampant violence that had scared the media away, Connick went to investigate for himself. What he found was a scene of utter desperation and justifiable anger, but no danger. He convinced the NBC network to bring cameras there, and soon the nation knew just how horrific the situation in New Orleans had become—and how little had been done for those who were too poor to get out of the city in time. “He started that ball rolling,” testifies Marsalis, the famed jazz saxophonist who has known Connick for more than three decades. “He had a bird’s-eye view of what was going on there before just about anybody else.”

And so it was that on Sept. 1 NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbado told viewers of how he had accompanied Connick earlier that day back inside the convention center to survey the scene: “He spoke to them and told them that he will do anything he can to help them. They seemed to appreciate that. He’s the only person of authority—believe it or not, a musician—to go in there and tell them that things are going to be OK.”

But Connick was far from finished. He quickly planned a return trip with fellow native son Marsalis, who now lives in North Carolina. Along with Marsalis’ brother Delfeayo, a highly regarded trombonist and producer in his own right, the friends surveyed the still-shocking scene a few days later. Then they got on Interstate 10 and headed due west to visit the 10,000 refugees from New Orleans who had been relocated to the Houston Astrodome. Along the way, they began to talk about doing something—anything—to help their city rebuild its community and preserve its proud musical legacy.

At first they imagined creating a music school along the lines of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which both men had attended as children and which had boasted among its faculty Marsalis’ legendary pianist father, Ellis. “We were toying around with the idea because it appeared to us that there didn’t seem to be much of a future for the music, now that most of the musicians had been evacuated,” Connick explains.

By the time they arrived at the Astrodome, that idea had broadened into what would eventually become the Musicians’ Village. In partnership with Habitat for Humanity, the Village offers Big Easy residents who lost their homes in Katrina (and Rita, which followed later that same month) the opportunity to own an affordable new house in an environment centered around the city’s rich musical community.

By the following January, New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity had purchased the eight acres of land in the city’s Upper 9th Ward that would become home to the Musicians’ Village. Now the project has erected more than 70 single-family houses and is home to dozens of families. The Village’s centerpiece, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, opened this month on August 25. It’s a $7.4 million arts, education and community center that will be providing after-school music classes with a performance space and classrooms where musicians can pass along their wisdom to the next generation.

What follows is a conversation we had with Branford and Harry on the third anniversary of Katrina in 2008, and the warm and easy repartée between the two was palpable. They first met when Marsalis was a teenage saxophonist only beginning to consider following his trumpet-phenom brother Wynton into the profession. Connick was a child-prodigy pianist who longed to be, as he jokes, “the lost Marsalis brother.”  The two settled in to discuss their hopes for the Musicians’ Village and for the beleaguered but buoyant city they adore.

What did growing up in New Orleans give you that you couldn’t get anywhere else?

Marsalis: New Orleans gave us all the tools we needed to leave the city and succeed. When Harry first started hitting it big I told people, “Man, this ain’t no accident.” They were trying to use traditional pop-culture standards for Harry, and I said, “You can’t use those. He writes his own songs, his own arrangements and sings his own songs. Who in the hell does that?” Sometimes when people in popular circles want to do something new, they need to put on a new suit or change their hairstyle in order to create a buzz. With Harry, it’s all been music. There were the movies, but the music is about the music.

Connick: But even what got me to do movies came from New Orleans. Musicians are entertainers down there, so it’s all the same thing to me. Whether you’re interpreting some complex jazz piece or interpreting a script, it all comes from the same brain—and that brain was developed watching people take risks and do things that were fascinating. There’s no inhibition down there.

Harry, what are your memories of going through the Convention Center for the first time after the storm?

Connick: I’m not going to lie, I was scared. The first people I saw were two dead bodies. Inside there was a very large crowd of upset people who had been there for three days with no food or water. These people were in a state of shock. They couldn’t believe nobody came and got them, because that’s where they were told to go. Our local government said, “Go here and we’ll take care of you.” And nobody showed up. It was tragic, man. It was just awful.

What do you think essentially went wrong?

Marsalis: At the time, a friend from Portugal sent me this hot email: “What is wrong with your country? Look at these starving people! How can America do this?” He went through the whole rhetoric of the time. I wrote back, “What is the national Portuguese plan for poor and indigent people in case of an emergency?” An hour later he wrote back, “Perhaps I spoke too harshly.” The reality is that as a matter of rule, since Biblical days, we don’t treat poor people well. The news media was trying to make it into a race issue, and it wasn’t. It was clearly a class issue. Before Katrina, you couldn’t find anywhere that had a plan for poor people to get out. So I think it’s unfair to single out the Bush administration. I agree with Harry 100 percent that they were grossly negligent, but there’s been a history of negligence in our country when it comes to these kinds of things. There’s probably been a history of negligence in every country across the world toward people that don’t significantly contribute to the tax base.

Connick: We pay a lot of money to live in this country, and you’ve got to wonder where it was going. There were helicopters flying overhead, there were many opportunities for these people at least to be dignified with some food or water. The Mississippi River is right behind the convention center—it would have been a matter of a phone call to get these people on a barge and get them out of town. I don’t get it, to this day. It was a display of incompetence and neglect. The whole thing was a gross embarrassment.

A few days later the two of you performed for evacuees at the Astrodome. What was that like?

Connick: They had us up in some press box. All the people are down on the field level, and we were half a mile away up in the sky playing music. We were putting all our heart and soul into the music, and we realized that nobody cared. You couldn’t blame the people for not caring. I mean, they lost everything they had, and I don’t think they were in the mood for a concert. These poor people, the last thing they wanted to do was listen to music.

Marsalis: Here’s the thing I’ll never forget: There were a lot of Hollywood celebrities coming with police escorts to visit the evacuees. So these policemen came to escort us, and Harry turned to them and said, “Look, I don’t mean no disrespect. But it would be really difficult for me to go and visit my people down there with you standing there giving the impression that I need to be protected from them.” And they backed off. We went down on the grounds and talked with people, prayed with people, hugged people and listened to people. There was nothing else we could do. When we were leaving, the guy escorting Harry said, “You know, I’ve been watching this unfold for the last week and a half. I’ve seen a lot of celebrities come down here and take pictures in front of the people, but I haven’t seen anybody come down here and be with the people.” It was one of those great moments where Harry showed what he’s really about.

Connick: Thank you, bro. But I really didn’t feel like I had much of a choice.

Marsalis: But you know what I’m saying, Harry. There were other people—who don’t need to be named—coming in there with security guards and cameras, and it was just a photo op. I was raw anyway, and it just made me madder watching some of that foolishness go on. No, Harry stepped up big-time.

From your perspective, how is the city doing now?

Connick: This was a huge natural disaster. People don’t realize how big it actually was. So New Orleans is doing pretty darned well. It’s only been a few years, and you’re talking about a huge area that was destroyed. You’ve got to give it 10 years, anyway. Man, it takes a hell of a long time to put a city back together.

It’s odd to say this considering the tragic circumstances in which this project began, but the Musicians’ Village seems like a great environment for anyone who loves music. Yet it wouldn’t have existed without this horrible event having taken place.

Marsalis: My dad is a very circumspect fellow. He doesn’t get very emotional. A week after the storm, I called him. He was in Baton Rouge, and they were on their way to North Carolina because they had been told they wouldn’t be able to go into their houses for six months. I told him about the Musicians’ Village idea, and he said, “You know, when I think about everything that’s going on here, I’m reminded of a quote from F.W. de Klerk, who was the president of South Africa right at the transition, when apartheid was being dismantled. They interviewed him and were talking about the [anti-apartheid African National Conference’s] violence, and violence against the ANC. He said, ‘In history we have learned that violence is often the midwife of change.’” I held on to that. In this case, the violence of the storm has definitely been the midwife for change for musicians in the Upper 9th Ward.

Is there a concerted effort to spur collaborations among Village musicians from different genres?

Marsalis: The great thing about crossbreeding is that it just happens. If it’s deliberate, it’s not really organic. It’s like living with somebody—over the course of time you end up picking up their tics and habits. When you take people from different backgrounds and put them next to each other, they start to rub off on one another. It will begin to manifest itself in the records we hear in the coming years. These musicians will be adding elements that did not exist in their conception before.

Connick: The Village doesn’t exclude non-musicians, but it turned out 80 percent of the occupants are musicians, and it’s a very interesting cross-section. There’s old and young, there’s classical and jazz, there’s blues and Latin music. It’s incredible.

Marsalis: We have musicians from around the city congregating with one another, communing with one another, speaking with one another, having an influence on one another in a way that hasn’t happened in the city for the last 40 years.

What is the Ellis Marsalis Music Center like?

Aug. 25, 2011 at the Ellis Marsalis Music Center Opening

Connick: It’s a community hangout with really cool benefits. It has teaching facilities, a computer room, a performance space, recording equipment. If me and Branford played a concert there you’d be able to record it.

Marsalis: There’s a park outside the building. It’s designed to be used for various community events. The idea is to have a center where we can avail ourselves to the community for a variety of things. Musicians can sign up to teach classes.

Connick: There’s a guy named Bob French, who’s a legendary New Orleans drummer. When Branford and I were coming up, if you wanted to learn anything from him you’d have to go hear him gigging around town. This is an opportunity for people to sit in a room with a guy like that and say, “How do you do that? How do you get that press roll? How many paper clips do you put on your cymbal to make it sizzle?” This is a formal opportunity for these traditions to be passed on, which is needed now. It’s a real beacon of hope for this music, which was disappearing real quickly.

What are your hopes for the overall project?

Connick: My hopes for the Village have been surpassed. People are living there, and it’s far greater than I ever thought it could be. I’m looking forward to seeing the coffeehouses, jazz clubs, clinics, gas stations and grocery stores that will arise outside the Village. If we had been able to help get one person into a house, I would go to bed with the biggest smile on my face. But we’re talking about 80 families so far, and that’s just the start. So I’m real happy. It’s far surpassed anything I could have imagined.

—    By Chris Neal

Photos by: Cheryl Gerber; Melissa Phillip; George Long; Gerald Herbert

Excerpted from Performing Songwriter Issue 112

Category: Best of PS

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