Designing for Culture and History in New Orleans

Neal Morris's (LF '10) office sits squarely in the middle of a historically African American neighborhood and shopping district undergoing an urban renaissance in New Orleans. So he was perfectly situated to get himself drawn into the middle of a project that nods to an important moment in musical history by securing the future of orchestral jazz culture in the city. He tells the story.

It is well known in New Orleans that Louis Armstrong learned to play jazz at the Colored Waif’s Home on the back side of City Park Avenue after he was arrested for shooting a pistol in the air on Rampart Street in the French Quarter. The date of his release was June, 1914.

In 2013 New Orleanians were embarrassed to learn that there was not a single performance space in the city designed for and dedicated to the performance of orchestral jazz. (Think Duke Ellington, or more recently, the type of music played in the excellent 2014 film, Whiplash.) Irvin Mayfield, who grew up in New Orleans, was the protégé of Wynton Marsalis and in recent years is seen both locally and nationally as the embodiment of Armstrong’s spirit. He runs the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and wasted no time pointing out to anyone who would listen (and often to those who wouldn’t) that New Orleans lacked a hall for a Jazz Orchestra–his Jazz Orchestra.

A developer usually figures out the project and then retains the services of the creative and construction team necessary to move the project forward to completion. But this project was unusual. By the time the Jazz Orchestra approached the developer, they had decided on a building and a location. They didn't own it, they just knew were they wanted the hall to be and they needed to figure out a way to design it, renovate it and pay for it. The structure had been built in the 1840s as a market. In the 1920s it was part of an African American shopping district. Now it is located on a boulevard that is undergoing an urban renaissance. (Café Reconcile, where many of the Loeb Fall 2014 Study Trip events were held, is right down the street.) It was important to Mayfield and his team that the hall happen in this neighborhood. My office is right down the street, so I thought it was a great idea.

Equally as important, I saw a dedicated board of directors, passionate New Orleanians, and a project location that would allow for the layering of New Market tax credits, historic tax credits, state theater infrastructure tax credits, and capital outlays from the State of Louisiana. Where the musicians saw a historic building ready to become a performance hall, I saw a historic building that would stimulate the perfect storm of state and federal dollars necessary to pay for it. Out of an approximate $10 million budget, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra had to raise about $1.4 million.

Two weeks ago there was a trial run while the acoustic engineers “tuned the hall.” Later this month the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra will swing at a grand gala. This puts the opening of the New Orleans Jazz Market, give or take a few months, exactly 100 years from the date of Armstrong’s release to the world.

All photos © Peter Vanderwarker 
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