The History of Musicians’ Village

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(Photo credit: Scott Landis)

If it were only the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans could claim to be the one of the most significant contributors to music in American history, but the musicians of New Orleans have been significant contributors to every facet of popular music since pop music was born, from rock’n’roll to heavy metal, from rap and hiphop to soul and funk. The influence of this city’s musical heritage cannot be overstated, and despite being influential in the development of almost all of popular music, the music of New Orleans still retains its indigenous flavor. Brass bands, funk, bounce, rhythm and blues, and of course jazz (especially trad jazz) all sound like New Orleans; they keep the local accent. You hear music here that you can’t hear anywhere else.

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Ten years ago, in the wake of the levee failures and storms that devastated the New Orleans area, Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis realized that the indispensable musical heritage of the city was threatened by the loss of housing and the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. NOAHH Executive Director Jim Pate had previously identified the former location of Kohn Elementary School (closed long before the storm and reduced to an empty lot) as a good place for a major neighborhood building project. Because Harry had worked with NOAHH before, he reached out to Jim and together with Branford they devised Musicians’ Village as a neighborhood that would provide options for affordable housing, which would give musicians incentive to return and remain in New Orleans, carrying on its unique musical legacy.

“This is very exciting because it uses the Habitat model-–building homes and communities–-and takes it another step, to helping hope for the future,” said Harry Connick, Jr., describing their vision. “Children will grow up in the neighborhoods, in a safe and secure environment, and at the same time have the opportunity to become a part of the musical and cultural scene of New Orleans.”

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Before the storm, Baptist Crossroads (a project of First Baptist Church New Orleans) had pledged to build 40 homes with NOAHH; after the storm, they recommitted and joined NOAHH in starting Musicians’ Village. NOAHH purchased the Kohn Elementary lot in the Upper Ninth Ward, and there they began the plans for the 77-home Musicians’ Village (with 5 elder-friendly duplexes). Reaching out to the city’s musical community, NOAHH identified eligible musicians, working with their sometimes non-traditional payment records to ensure that they qualified for the homeownership program. The planning stages went by quickly, and as volunteers and supporters began to bring unprecedented resources to the affiliate, construction began.

“I have a deep sense of personal satisfaction as I see people coming and going in Musicians’ Village,” said David Crosby, Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church of New Orleans and one of the leaders of Baptist Crossroads. “The children who live there have never previously slept in a home their family owned. We helped make homeownership possible for their families. Some of those children previously lived in substandard housing. Now they go home to a clean and safe environment with all utilities working. Their economic future is significantly improved. They have a real chance at the American dream.”

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity groundbreaking ceremony for the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in the Musicians' Village

In the early months after the storm, infrastructure was severely damaged if not outright destroyed, and local government had trouble processing the needs for rebuilding. While these issues were being sorted out, volunteers who joined NOAHH gutted houses instead of building them. The start of construction after the storm–in Musicians’ Village and elsewhere–was a major turning point in the city’s early recovery. At NOAHH, many families who had already been in the program had not yet started home construction when the storm hit, and some of the first homes in Musicians’ Village went to these families. Because part of the vision for the Village was to pass on the city’s musical heritage, these first homeowners were an integral part of making that a reality, especially their children.

By summer 2006, the first of the homes were complete. Over the next several years, as NOAHH expanded its focus to meet the needs of the city, the Village began to take shape. The plans called for more than houses: a toddler-friendly pocket park and a community center would be at the heart of the village, and of course, new streets had to be built where none previously existed. The intent behind Musicians’ Village was preservation, and in order to preserve the music and culture of New Orleans, musicians needed homes, reasonable access to resources, a place to teach the next generation of musicians, and a place to play and share their music–and for people to come and listen. The addition of the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music (EMCM) provided that place, a place to bring the community together.

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In September 2007, work had begun on the EMCM. Named for the patriarch of the musical Marsalis family, the center now features classrooms, performance spaces, and more for the local community. At-risk youth are taught to play instruments and about the music of New Orleans, and local artists are given access to its many resources. Across the street is Hurwitz Park, a small park for small children, named for Robert Hurwitz, a major sponsor of Musicians’ Village and president of Nonesuch Records. In 2007, both were still empty fields. The groundbreaking ceremony featured music from Harry Connick, Jr., Branford and Ellis Marsalis, and partner families, including Shamarr Allen and Stephen Walker.

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With the help of over 40,000 volunteers and supporters, by 2010, the homes and streets were completed, and the EMCM was well underway. At the 5th Anniversary Build-A-Thon in commemoration of Hurricane Katrina, a topping off ceremony was held, and by 2011, the center was complete.

NOAHH Executive Director Jim Pate said, “Seeing Musicians’ Village come to fruition is inspiring. As we first started construction, it served as a symbol of recovery that brought others back to the neighborhood. Now, it stands as a symbol of the impact affordable housing can have.”

Since then, though there have been trials and tribulations, the Village has flourished. In the intervening years, some homes have been sold, some homeowners have moved on, but most have remained. The Village has changed, but it has remained true to its original mission. Neighbors play music together, and the EMCM has become a place of learning.

As the musicians have settled into their homes, they have begun to make connections and share their music with those living around them. Older musicians like Little Freddie King, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, and Smokey Johnson have both their history and their talents to share, while up-and-coming artists like Calvin Johnson and Shamarr Allen are making a name for themselves locally and beyond. There are also residents whose work is connected to the local music industry and culture, from radio DJs to Mardi Gras Indians. The vision of Jim Pate, Branford Marsalis, and Harry Connick, Jr. has come to fruition, and the musical heritage of the city is not only actively being preserved, but it continues to grow and flourish. In the years to come, the Musicians’ Village will be an enduring symbol of the recovery of New Orleans and the birthplace of future musical legends.