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National jazz center proposed for New Orleans

Post-Katrina commission eyes criticism that city hasn't touted its legacy
/ Source: The Associated Press

While the city builds better levees and new homes, a mayoral arts commission is recommending that the city not forget to reclaim its legacy as the birthplace of jazz.

The commission recommends building a National Jazz Center, which would be a museum, performance hall, recording studio and archive rolled into one.

The recommendations — which were to be presented to Mayor Ray Nagin on Tuesday — also call for creating new artistic districts, increasing the teaching of arts in schools and setting aside 2 percent of eligible capital bonds for public sculptures, murals and other artwork.

The ideas are part of a broad rebuilding plan being rolled out by the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, a panel appointed by Nagin after Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29.

The panel is coming up with a variety of ideas on how to rebuild the city — from abandoning some residential sections of the city to overhauling schools and city government.

On the cultural side, the commission’s recommendations tackle a long-standing complaint: that New Orleans has done a miserable job in promoting itself as the birthplace of jazz, the quintessential American form of art.

Many important buildings in jazz history have fallen into disrepair or tumbled down. Even the home of Louis Armstrong was allowed to be demolished.

The report also endorses a plan to preserve several old buildings on Rampart Street associated with Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet and other jazz greats and turn them into a jazz park.

The old brick buildings, some of the only buildings left in New Orleans with ties to Armstrong, are largely in a state of neglect and a lack of signs on them leaves tourists passing by without realizing their importance.

“In Vienna every place Beethoven looked at, it’s marked by something,” said jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the co-chairman of the commission’s cultural committee.

'We don’t have the musicians'The report says the most immediate concern is recovering from Katrina. The storm’s flooding and winds hit musicians, community theaters, dance studios, artists, night clubs, second-line bands and Mardi Gras Indian tribes particularly hard.

“We’re not going to sit here and pretend that what we’re doing is more important than levees, but we all know that without its culture, New Orleans isn’t New Orleans,” said Cesar Burgos, chairman of the cultural committee.

An estimated 11,000 people working in the cultural sector have lost their jobs and the ranks of musicians are down from more than 2,500 before Katrina to about 250. Uninsured damages to the cultural sector are estimated at about $80 million, the report says.

“We’re still not open because we don’t have the musicians,” said Deborah Guidry, an assistant manager at Preservation Hall, the French Quarter jazz mecca.

But Jason Berry, a New Orleans writer and jazz historian, questioned building a major museum dedicated only to music. He champions a museum in honor to the entire city, especially if many neighborhoods are razed. He also worries about repopulating New Orleans.

“Poor people made the culture of this city from the ground up and they are the ones who have been displaced,” Berry said. “The report begs the question: How do we get those people back?”