This past April, the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, a graduate-level music education program, announced it was moving to Loyola University New Orleans after eight years at the University of Southern California and four years at the New England Conservatory. The move was part of the institute's Commitment to New Orleans initiative, whose components include ongoing school- and community-based jazz education programs, providing employment for New Orleans musicians, attracting musicians who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina back to Louisiana, and uniting the city's jazz, arts, and cultural communities. Suzan Jenkins is the institute's senior vice president and New Orleans initiative director; starting in January 2008, she will also serve as a visiting assistant professor of music business studies at Loyola.
Philanthropy News Digest: How much did the rebuilding of New Orleans and the need to support the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina affect the Monk Institute's decision to relocate from USC to Louisiana?
Suzan Jenkins: Terence Blanchard has served as the artistic director of the Monk Institute graduate performance program for the past eight years. If you know anything about Terence Blanchard or have seen any of his responses to the hurricane — whether it was Spike Lee's movie When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, or in the recordings Terence has released since 2005, especially his recent recording A Tale of God's Will — you've seen that New Orleans is part of the very essence of who Terence Blanchard is. He is a native son of New Orleans, and his family there goes back many generations. So when we were coming to the end of a six-year term at USC and evaluating whether we would continue working there, Terence said it was a perfect time for us to take the program to New Orleans. It also helps the rebuilding process; I'm sure they were interlocked. He was our artistic director for a long time before the hurricane happened. And we're very proud to be able to respond in this way.
PND: With much of New Orleans still involved in the long-term rebuilding process, has the transition been difficult?
SJ: No. The transition has been fantastic. There has not been a day since I arrived in March that someone hasn't gone out of their way to thank us for coming down here and helping with the rebuilding effort. When you have people who are so willing, open, and excited about you coming in and who recognize that we're all here to lend a hand, it hasn't been a difficult transition at all. If anything, it's been a very humbling transition. You realize that people really do want to work with you and really do want to see this city return to its glory. We're very excited to be a part of that.
PND: How important are music and the arts, specifically jazz, to the rebuilding of New Orleans and the spirit of the city?
SJ: It's the very heart of what New Orleans is. Music and art is inextricable from the heart of New Orleans. It's not a separate part of New Orleans, it's not the "artistic" or "arty people" — it is the city. Just like music wouldn't be what it is without New Orleans, New Orleans wouldn't be what it is without art and culture and the artists that make it.
PND: What is the role of the Monk Institute in preserving jazz music and its history?
SJ: The Monk Institute is unique in the types of work that we do to re-create community and to make certain that we carry on the music in the way it was formed. In our graduate performance program we embrace peer-to-peer education. We approach creating a community around the music in a multidimensional fashion — in the same way that, when the music was being created, artists would go to other artists' homes and into their communities and work with each other. We form ensembles with the graduate students, and they learn from the masters — who in turn are learning from the young musicians they mentor and teach. I think that will go a long way to creating the kind of community for the music that we've seen in the past. We're also creating a "scene" as a way to develop an appreciation for the music among some of the people whose lives we touch. We're developing musicians, developing an audience, and developing appreciation for the music, which is in the tradition of the way the music grew.
PND: Much has been written about the plight of musicians, specifically jazz artists, in New Orleans since Katrina. What steps has the institute taken to help musicians return to the city, and what actions, if any, have been taken to support the jazz artists that are still struggling in New Orleans?
SJ: Musicians from in and around New Orleans will help us as we develop our in-school programs. We'll use their expertise to teach our graduate students about the incredibly rich heritage of the New Orleans traditions. We'll employ musicians when we are able, and incorporate their work and their style as we move through our program and develop programs within the schools and the city. Jonathan Bloom, Sr., a wonderful educator who has worked in the New Orleans public schools for more than twenty years and who is in fact, the nephew of the late, great Alvin Batiste, is going to serve as our education coordinator. True to the tradition of New Orleans music, our students will meet and learn from working musicians who will interact with them, learn from them, and really impact the way the students learn about the music.
-- Mark Allwood