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Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis: In New Orleans, It Takes a Village

Branford Marsalis in New Orleans
Harry Connick Jr. helps to rebuild in New Orleans (courtesy of Habitat for Humanity International)

Since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast last August, numerous organizations have held fundraisers to help the city get back on its feet. As expected, many jazz and music-oriented organizations came to the forefront to help displaced New Orleans musicians rebuild their lives, but even though more than seven months have passed since the hurricanes first hit, large portions of the city are still uninhabitable.

Crescent City natives Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis were witnesses to this devastation and what it had done to their city. “Branford and I were on the road together, talking about doing something to help the rebuilding process. We came up with the idea of putting a school together to teach traditional New Orleans music and we began talking to Ann Marie, our manager,” Connick says. But the musicians wanted to create a project with a broader vision. After more discussion and a look at the resources they each had available, they came up with the New Orleans Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH) Musicians’ Village.

The Village will be a community of families where most heads of household are musicians who lived in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina. It will be located in the city’s Upper Ninth Ward, an area that suffered severe flood damage, but not as badly as some other parts of New Orleans, and will contain 75 single-family homes, six senior-friendly duplexes and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. NOAHH will also build an additional 100 homes in the surrounding area for other musicians and homeowners.

As with all Habitat for Humanity projects, families who are to live in the houses also help build the houses, giving families a “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out,” in Habitat terminology. Instead of a down payment, partner families contribute 350 hours to building their home and the homes of other partner families. Homeowners also pay back the cost of their home – typically about $60,000 – through a 20-year interest-free mortgage, which is normally less than what the families were previously paying in rent, according to NOAHH.

“Musicians in New Orleans have historically been at the bottom of everything…the wages they make more often than not” don’t allow them to buy their own house, Marsalis says. The Musicians’ Village should change things, at least for some families.

“The response has been tremendous,” Connick says. “People think it’s a great idea, and it’s the only idea so far that’s been presented in a real way. This is something concrete that seems to be the first so far.”

In addition to acting as progenitors of the idea, Marsalis and Connick are also serving as honorary chairmen of NOAHH’s post-Katrina rebuilding efforts, collectively known as Operation Home Delivery. In their roles as chairmen, they “try to keep people aware of what needs to be done, to keep putting the message out, to keep people’s conscious level up to maintain funding and contributions,” Connick explains.

Marsalis agrees: “I’m running my mouth and asking for money. I’m doing interviews, concerts, saying, ‘We need help, here’s the website,’ going to New Orleans, just trying to make people aware.”

Already, there have been many fundraisers and contributions to the Musicians’ Village fund. The project has enough seed money to break ground thanks to funds raised through the “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy” concerts on Sept. 20 and benefit compilations including Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now and Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast.

And when the village is finally completed, “Musicians will be able to own their own homes for the first time, have places where they can live, have a thriving community in the city where music is at almost the center and have a great place for kids to grow up,” Marsalis says.

“If we can get one person in a house that doesn’t have one, that’s all I want to accomplish. I just want to do whatever small part I can,” Connick says.

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