Congo Square Rising Up
By Scott H. Thompson
Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center bring comfort and jazz to the city of New Orleans.
It's been about nine months since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005. Today, the area is slowly being rebuilt. Jazz at Lincoln Center Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis has led efforts to heal his native city but his journey there this past month was planned well before the unforeseen disaster. Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO) performed a series of free events for people of all ages, including concerts, master classes, clinics, and workshops during a weeklong residency, April 17-23. The events were co-sponsored by the state of Louisiana and the French Quarter Festival in New Orleans.
For its New Orleans debut with Marsalis, the LCJO performed a world premiere composition called Congo Square, which was dedicated to the city and co-written by Marsalis and Yacub Addy, the Ghanaian drum master whose band Odadaa! helped present it. Congo Square then toured Florida, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C., and is now being showcased in New York, May 4-6, in Rose Theater at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
The piece is an extended composition about 80 minutes in length and inspired by the public square in New Orleans where, from the mid-1700s to the late-1800s, Africans gathered on Sunday afternoons to dance and play a variety of African and European instruments. Due largely to the fact that New Orleans was originally a French colony, the square was the only place in the United States where slaves could regularly perform African music and dance. Elsewhere in the British colonies (and later in the U.S.), African drumming was regarded as a menacing form of communication and was banned, punishable by death. Historians agree that the unique exception of Congo Square is what made it possible for New Orleans to become the birthplace of jazz at the turn of the 20th century.
Marsalis serves as a Chair on Lieutenant Governor Mitchell J. Landrieu's National Advisory Board for Culture, Recreation and Tourism, which is working to rebuild Louisiana's tourism and cultural economies. He is also part of the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin's initiative to help rebuild New Orleans culturally, socially, economically, and uniquely for every citizen.
"With these performances we hope to bring some joy to the people who are working so hard to bring the city back," says Marsalis. "New Orleans is my home no matter where I go in the world. All of my music speaks to the essence of that culture."
"The idea for the Congo Square project has actually been in the works for a few years now, but is even more resonant and important for us to carry out considering recent events," says Derek E. Gordon, Advisor to the Board of Directors of Jazz at Lincoln Center. "New Orleans and, specifically, Congo Square are crucial to the origins of jazz and to our national cultural history, and this important commission, residency, and tour reflect Jazz at Lincoln Center's desire to honor and build upon that legacy and share it with audiences in Louisiana and beyond. We extend special thanks to Lieutenant Governor Landrieu and State Senator Diana Bajoie for their strong support and commitment for the New Orleans residency, without which it would not have been possible."
As part of the New Orleans events, Jazz at Lincoln Center presented its Spring 2006 Jazz in the Schools Tour, New Orleans: Melting Pot of Sound, featuring the Juilliard Jazz Ensemble. This tour explored the magic and mechanics of New Orleans jazz while emphasizing audience participation and active learning. Juilliard artists included Thomas Barber (trumpet, leader); Andrew Gutauskas (soprano saxophone); James Burton (trombone); Dan Kaufman (piano); Yasushi Nakamura (bass); and Carmen Intorre (drums). Musical selections included "When the Saints Go Marching In," Rev. Gary Davis's "Whoopin' Blues," "Down By the Riverside," and more. The Jazz in the Schools program is for students in grades 2-9. Performances in New York take place every March, April, and November, in local schools and at Frederick P. Rose Hall.
In addition to those recent events, Jazz at Lincoln Center also produced the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert and Auction last September 17 at Frederick P. Rose Hall. Participants in that five-hour marathon performed New Orleans standards and songs evoking the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, in a thrilling concert that was nationally telecast on PBS's Live From Lincoln Center and distributed to BET Jazz and other television outlets, including VH-1 Classic and VH-1 Soul, drawing roughly seven million viewers nationwide. Millions more listened on radio via XM Satellite Radio, NPR, and other stations.
To date, over $3 million has been raised for the Higher Ground Relief Fund that was established by Jazz at Lincoln Center and administered through the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. These funds have been distributed to provide general hurricane relief and to benefit the musicians, music industry-related enterprises, and other individuals and entities from the areas in Greater New Orleans who were impacted by Katrina. A live recording of the Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert was released by Blue Note Records and proceeds exceeding $100,000 have been donated to the fund. The CD is currently available for sale in records stores and at www.bluenote.com. For more information, visit www.jalc.org.
Scott H. Thompson is Assistant Director for Public Relations at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Special thanks to Mary Fuss and Zooey Tidal for their contributions to this article.
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