by Catherine Curan
Before Wynton Marsalis and Yacub Addy premiered their groundbreaking collaboration, Congo Square, in New Orleans last year, Len Riggio got an exclusive preview.
Score in hand, Marsalis had traveled downtown from Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York’s Columbus Circle, where he serves as artistic director, to visit the Barnes & Noble chairman’s office in the Flatiron District. The two men had known each other for more than a decade, since they were both given humanitarian awards from the New York Urban League in 1996.Marsalis talked to Riggio about the combination of the big band jazz his orchestra plays, and the African beats of Odadaa!, drum virtuoso Addy’s ensemble. “He had the sheet music out and he was kind of tapping out the beat,” Riggio says. Passersby stared curiously and Riggio was entranced. “His enthusiasm for the project [was so compelling] I said, ‘Whatever you are looking for, I’m in.’”
In addition to $250,000 from Riggio and his wife, Louise, Jazz at Lincoln Center lined up $90,000 from the foundation and Northeast unit of New Orleans–based power company Entergy. However, bringing Congo Square to live audiences, and now a wider public with the launch of the CD this fall, required selling an atypical arts project. Donors had to be engaged by the unique musical composition Marsalis and Addy created, as well as the history behind Congo Square in New Orleans. Jazz at Lincoln Center also had to grapple with the logistical and funding challenges created by Hurricane Katrina, which hit just after the original composition was complete. For example, the budget increased by $200,000 because of the post-Katrina lack of infrastructure in New Orleans.
Riggio and Entergy executive Mike Kansler came to the project with different objectives and very different backgrounds, but both have forged strong connections with Marsalis. After Entergy donated $10,000 to Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2004 and Kansler attended a performance, he met Marsalis. The musician’s work teaching and promoting jazz education, in addition to serving as artistic director of the nonprofit, caught the attention of Kansler, whose company runs a nuclear plant in New York state. “It seemed like a good thing for Entergy to be involved in, especially being a fairly major part of the community in Westchester County and somewhat tied into the city,” he says.
Entergy’s business track record raises questions about its philanthropic mission. The company has been publicly lambasted for leaks, unplanned shutdowns and the failure of warning sirens at its Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester. Kansler oversaw the facility as president of Entergy Nuclear Northeast before being promoted to president of Entergy Operations and chief nuclear officer earlier this year. In its hometown of New Orleans, the company’s local subsidiary is widely reviled for declaring bankruptcy after Hurricane Katrina, receiving a government bailout, and then passing on storm-related costs to the customers struggling to rebuild.
Kansler says there was no way to avoid passing on high energy costs to ratepayers. “We’re just trying to be a good corporate citizen and this is one way we do it,” he says. “It works very well for us and Jazz at Lincoln Center.” Marsalis says corporate decisions made by Entergy are separate from its philanthropic efforts. “That’s outside of what my relationship is with Mike,” he says. “I don’t discuss that with him.”
Congo Square takes its name from a section of a New Orleans park, known in the 18th and early 19th centuries as the one place in America where slaves could gather on Sunday afternoons to make music. The songs they created still echo through American music and are widely credited as the basis of jazz, an art form born in New Orleans. Initially, Marsalis and Addy collaborated to explore the question of what kind of music slaves actually heard in Congo Square. There are no scores providing information on how performers combined African and European instruments. No one choreographed the dancers’ steps. There are no recordings of the African drumming that left some white locals so unsettled that they shut down the concerts in the 1800s.
After Hurricane Katrina hit, Marsalis and Addy briefly considered abandoning the project. Instead, they adapted their composition to reflect this new suffering inflicted on the city’s residents—and reaffirm the city’s heritage and spirit. “It was our gift to the Crescent City,” writes Addy in the liner notes of the CD.
The donors had their own connections to New Orleans. For Kansler, backing Congo Square was a chance to publicly support Entergy’s hometown. After Katrina, the Riggios developed Project Home Again to provide housing for displaced residents; Riggio hopes to start construction this fall. He says he has always been interested in the unequal administration of justice in America and “the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.”
Allegations of racism in Katrina’s immediate aftermath have been widespread, including those made by survivors who testified before a special House of Representatives committee on Katrina. Riggio, however, stops short of making a direct connection between unequal justice for blacks in New Orleans and the government’s ineptitude after Katrina. “I don’t even want to pile onto Katrina,” he says. “We can lament about the government or we can do something on our own.”
Riggio felt passionate enough about the project to attend the Congo Square premiere on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in April 2006. Before the concert, he and his wife marched in the second-line parade, a New Orleans tradition of both grieving and celebration that has roots in Africa. Riggio has been a fan of jazz greats such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie for decades, but found this new melding of African music and swing jazz transcendent. “Most people would tend to look at giving in terms of bricks and mortar—something that has a name or something that will last forever,” he says. “It’s kind of refreshing to give to something that basically created a moment, and you savor the moment in your own spirit. And the pleasure of that can’t be described.”
Five-thousand people attended the free premiere in Congo Square. Jazz at Lincoln Center also held a weeklong educational residency, hosting 1,200 students at a performance at the Convention Center. Since then, the piece has toured about a dozen cities; its premiere in New York was recorded for the CD. All profits from the CD will go to Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Acclaimed by music critics for its powerful combination of African and American musical traditions, Congo Square is beautiful and dissonant, romantic and bellicose. It honors both Katrina’s dead and enslaved Africans in the African-style prayer “Libation.” The opening song calls out for peace and blessings for New Orleans, while heaping shame on FEMA, the Red Cross and “all the greedy people all over this land.”
On stage for the New York premiere, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra performers were decked out by their official clothier, Brooks Brothers, mingling with Addy and members of Odadaa! resplendent in traditional African clothing. Kansler recalls seeing the two groups in such different outfits, with a mix of jazz horns and African drums, and wondering at first, “Wow, what is this?”
Once they started playing, he found his taste in music expanding beyond the classic rock he usually favors. During the intermission, one of Entergy’s executives told officials from Jazz at Lincoln Center that if they needed more funding, Kansler, through Entergy, was willing to step up. Soon the company was adding to the initial $40,000 gift with another $50,000 to turn the recording of that concert into a CD. Entergy’s name will be featured prominently on the cover.
Marsalis says the recording would not have happened without support from Entergy and the Riggios. “It’s something that you had to really be interested in the art of a thing to want to do.”