Funeral Home to Incubate Jazz Education

As the crowds cheer performers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year, the foundation behind the massive annual celebration is gearing up to make a long-term enhancement to the education of local children who may one day assume the mantle of the city’s musical legacy.

The nonprofit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation is now working on a plan to build a new music education center and performance area within the former Gaskin-Southall Mortuary, a funeral home on North Rampart Street that the foundation purchased in March. The funeral home is located just down the block from the foundation’s headquarters on the edge of the Tremé neighborhood and close to the French Quarter. 

“We’re looking at it as an anchor for the education programs we offer now,” says Scott Aiges, communications director for the foundation.

The project is still in its planning phase but the foundation foresees a major renovation and remodeling of the historic Tremé building to replace its parlors with classrooms, rehearsal space and studios for both music and dance, multimedia workshops and performance spaces.

The foundation currently offers community music education through its Don Jamison Heritage School of Music. The free, after-school outreach program brings instruction and performance from accomplished local musicians to public schools.

After a year’s hiatus following Hurricane Katrina, the foundation restarted the program at Lusher High School in 2006 and by the 2008 spring semester it had expanded to Dillard University and three local elementary schools. Students in the program are often invited to perform for music fans from around the world at Jazz Fest, and this year some students also performed at the French Quarter Festival.

The music education center the foundation envisions for the Gaskin-Southall property would serve as a hub for this and other programming, Aiges says, while outreach to bring instruction to the schools would continue. He says the foundation wants to expand its programming to include gospel, brass band music and neighborhood folk traditions such as Mardi Gras Indian masking. The foundation is also considering an expansion to the building that could provide a permanent home and studio for the nonprofit community radio station WWOZ.

“To convert it to an education center like the one we envision will require significant work,” Aiges says.

The foundation will be launching a capital campaign to raise funds for the building’s redevelopment.

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