Ellis Marsalis Center for Music has Many 'Fathers'

August 27, 2011
By Keith Spera

Two days before Thursday’s official unveiling of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, I asked Harry Connick Jr., a driving force behind its creation, if he felt like an expectant father.

“Sort of,” Connick joked. “I guess if I lived in a commune, and it was polygamous, and you didn’t know who the father was.”

His point was, it takes a village to raise a Village. The new,multimillion-dollar arts education center in the Musicians’ Village has many fathers.

Among them were Connick’s close friend, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and the duo’s longtime manager, Ann Marie Wilkins.

She, Connick made clear, handled most of the grunt work — the paperwork, the endless meetings, the logistics, the sweet-talking, the arm-twisting.

“There’s people that are way ahead of me in the credit line for this,” Connick said. “I’ve been a big mouthpiece for it, and tried my best to raise money for it. Ann Marie, they should canonize her. She made this happen. We just do what she says.”

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, under executive director Jim Pate, developed the Musicians’ Village from an idea Marsalis and Connick hatched while driving to Houston soon after Hurricane Katrina to entertain evacuees.
To build the Village’s 72 single-family homes and five duplexes in an empty plot in a hardscrabble swath of the upper 9th Ward, many thousands of volunteers swung hammers alongside each new home’s owner.

The Ellis Marsalis Center for Music was designed, funded and built separately. The $7.4 million construction cost was covered by private donations, state tax credits and fundraisers staged by Connick, Marsalis and others.

The Center will serve children in the surrounding upper 9th Ward and beyond with after-school programs in music, dance and more. The meticulously designed performance hall, with 150 moveable seats, can be used for recordings and live broadcasts

Connick says the vision for the Village always included a community/arts center. “It was just a matter of getting the village up and running first.”

Katrina, Connick said, laid bare New Orleans’ self-defeating tendency to dwell on the past without embracing, and planning for, the future.

Before the storm, “the idea of New Orleans not focusing on keeping up with the times was totally fine. We have Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras. For the next thousand years, that’s just the way it was gonna be. Who needs wireless internet access across the city? We don’t need that modern stuff. We’re New Orleans.

“New Orleans was like your uncle who’s always at home when you go over there to watch the football game. One day your uncle is going to get old and maybe have a stroke or Alzheimer’s or die. You have to be ready for change. The storm really reinforced, if not introduced, that idea to me.”

In New Orleans, “there were forward-thinking people, don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t one of them.”

Not that tradition, and traditional music, is without merit. One benefit of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music’s location is that students can interact with older residents of the surrounding Musicians’ Village.

“Not only will musical ideas rub off, but the work ethic, and the history, and the stories they tell,” Connick said. “It would behoove any young musician to go talk to Smokey Johnson or Bob French or Chuck Badie. It’s a different ilk of player. They come from a different time.

“It’s just like when I talk to my dad and he tells me about World War II. We just need to be quiet and listen and do what they tell us. Then we can interpret that how we want.

“That’s what the Center is about: It is a physical place, a tangible place, where the tradition can be passed along.”

To that end, the first-ever performance in the center’s 150-seat performance hall during Thursday afternoon’s dedication ceremony was an intimate “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans,” with Connick on piano and Branford on snake-charmer soprano sax.

As promised, the hall’s acoustics are pristine. They flattered every performance: The Marsalis family’s lively strut through “Twelve’s It,” Ellis Marsalis’s elegant solo piano “Django” and, especially, the 13 young voices of the Eleanor McMain High School Choir.

Under the direction of Clyde Lawrence, the 10 girls and three boys of McMain soared on “Lift Every Voice.” A richly deserved standing ovation followed this perfect example of the youthful artistic endeavor the center was built to foster.

Connick’s lovely 13-year-old daughter Kate sang “A Lot Like Me,” a song her father wrote to promote two new, New Orleans-themed dolls released by American Girl, a supporter of the center. Kate sang over a prerecorded track, accompanied by her father on piano.

Taking it all in from the front row Thursday was Gov. Bobby Jindal, who would later recall his own ill-fated attempts to master the violin. He sat next to Ellis Marsalis, the center’s namesake and the man Connick credits with his own success.

Nearby was actress Renee Zellweger, Connick’s wife, Jill, and the youngest of the couple’s three daughters, along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis.

During the ceremony, the center’s lounge was named after the Dave Matthews Band. The band’s $1.5 million “challenge grant” ultimately raised $3 million for the center.

The architects, builders, audio engineers and major donors all received shout-outs. Connick and Marsalis surprised Jim Pate, “Cowboy” in Connick’s parlance, by naming the performance hall after him.

Connick and Marsalis also coaxed their spotlight-shy manager to the stage to accept a bouquet of roses. Wilkins, a Jamaican-born, Harvard-educated attorney, took on Branford as her first management client in the 1980s. During a six-month trial period, she met an 18-year-old Harry Connick Jr. She’s managed both ever since.

Suffice to say, over the past few years, the Ellis Marsalis Center itself has likely been her most demanding, and time-consuming, client. She is one of the center’s “fathers.”

Of which there are many.