The 36th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which concludes this weekend, is - as in years past -- attracting some of the biggest names in the music business -- from jazz stars Ellis Marsalis, Fats Domino, and Terence Blanchard to pop music giants Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Dave Matthews. It's the first Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city last autumn, and forced many of the city's native-born musicians to leave their homes; with the slow pace of reconstruction, few have been able to return.
Many of the artists performing at the festival this year will also be spending time off- stage, helping a not-for-profit housing group called Habitat for Humanity construct a unique Musicians Village with 81 homes. The centerpiece of this three-hectare Musicians' Village will be a performance hall and classrooms.
"Musicians have been the lifeline to this city because it's a tourist town," jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis recently told NBC television. "We don't have a lot of business infrastructure here. Without the musicians, it would be difficult to sustain that."
Marsalis, who was born in New Orleans, has been working hard since last year's storm to help other New Orleans-area musicians whose lives were transformed by Hurricane Katrina. Many were scattered across the United States and the clubs and jazz halls where they earned their livings were all closed.
Marsalis says he hopes to use the resources of his own record company, Marsalis Music, to help bring these musicians back to New Orleans. "One of the things we'll do with my record company is have the local New Orleans musicians -- finding them first of all - and create a fund to have them play concerts. Or we'll have them record for us. We're talking about a lot of things right now."
The Musicians Village is one of the primary things Marsalis and others are talking about right now.
Jim Pate of Habitat for Humanity, which has a long tradition of enlisting volunteers to build free houses for the needy, says the location for Musicians Village -- in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward -- suffered relatively minor damage from the hurricane. "The neighborhood had some flooding, but not severe flooding. It's safely within a fairly secure levy system; a part that's going to be rebuilt is nearby," he says.
The neighborhood has electricity, water and sewer services, and people who lived there before Katrina are all starting to come back, so the new residents of the Musicians Village won't be alone.
Branford Marsalis says working with Habitat for Humanity has been a good experience. "When musicians, for a change, actually own their homes, it sets a great precedent," he says. "It may allow the musicians to establish a better [regular] clientele and [let them] do better than they have been doing."
Marsalis' partner in the Musicians Village project is another well-known jazzman, singer Harry Connick, Junior. "We need something concrete like this Musician's Village to ensure that [jazz] history continues to flow from one generation to the next," Connick says, adding the Village offers hope that New Orleans' jazz heritage will endure.