Jazz center and park in New Orleans proposed


NEW ORLEANS -- Can jazz save this city?

A number of influential figures in New Orleans and Chicago are betting millions that it can, recently proposing a jazz-based version of Chicago's Millennium Park for the forlorn area near New Orleans' now-infamous Superdome.

If the Chicago owners of the Hyatt Regency New Orleans and their Crescent City partners can pull together $716 million in financing, New Orleans will have a 200,000-square-foot National Jazz Center, a 20-acre jazz park featuring live music performances and an under-the-stars amphitheater and band shell.

The complex will be home to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and the centerpiece of a larger plan to refurbish the hurricane-battered Hyatt Regency New Orleans and erect new government buildings.

But what makes this development different from any other ambitious civic project in America is its embrace of a music integral to the city's identity, before and after the hurricane: jazz.

"If you put this in the middle of Kansas City, I doubt it would be a success," says Laurence Geller, chief executive of Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc., which owns the Hyatt Regency New Orleans.

"But being in the birthplace of jazz, it can. The city needs something to coalesce behind, and I think it's jazz," he says.

At the heart of the venture is a proposed National Jazz Center, which will include a major performance space seating 1,200 to 2,000 people; a black-box theater for 300 to 500 listeners; an interactive museum; and rehearsal space for NOJO and other New Orleans musicians. Though reminiscent of New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center complex - which also combines performance, rehearsal and exhibition space in a sprawling urban venue - the National Jazz Center will have an artistic profile all its own, say its planners.

"You can go to a concert any night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, but you will not see a jazz funeral or a second-line parade there," says Irvin Mayfield, founder and artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

"It's the ceremonial aspects of New Orleans music that you will see at the National Jazz Center.

"But that's not all. I can envision our interactive museum having an experience where you can see what it feels like to sit inside the Duke Ellington band. Or there could be a hologram of Miles Davis' Quintet, with smoke in the room and people buzzing, and you're thinking, 'Man - that's what it was like to see Miles Davis in the '50s.'

"We're looking to make a performing-arts center that has a jazz-joint sensibility: sophisticated but down-home. We're looking to make this a hang spot."

The idea, says Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne - who designed plans for the development - is to create the antithesis of the staid, buttoned-down concert halls that define classical orchestral music in America.

"This will be radically different than a symphony hall," says Mayne, whose California-based Morphosis firm has created a general concept for the ensemble of buildings but has yet to work on detailed plans for the jazz edifice.

"The National Jazz Center needs to have an extemporaneous, spontaneous feeling," adds Mayne, speaking by phone from Italy. "It couldn't be more different than a classical concert hall."

Moreover, says Mayne, the feeling of jazz will extend beyond the National Jazz Center, stretching from its doorstep, across a six-block-long park and on to the amphitheater and band shell.

"The connective glue to the whole project will be music and performance, the sensibility of jazz."

The bittersweet irony here is that such a venture - a $70 million-to-$80 million National Jazz Center, plus attendant grounds and amphitheater - would have been inconceivable before the hurricane. But after that disaster, jazz advocates in New Orleans and across the country were jolted into action.

Though the story of the new jazz development played big in New Orleans, some observers argue that a massive edifice runs counter to the in-the-streets nature of much of New Orleans music, and others wonder if such a project is needed at all.

Qualms notwithstanding, the planned National Jazz Center and adjoining jazz district stands as New Orleans' first major rebuilding venture since Katrina, and therefore it has stirred passions.

Adds architect Mayne, "We're just starting the conversation, but I believe we're showing the potential that can come out of disaster."

Howard Reich writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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