Who’s Skilling The Artists Of New Orleans?
Each year, quietly, without fanfare (well, with the amount of quietness and lack of fanfare that anyone can expect from geniuses in teenage bodies), almost nine hundred students make their way across New Orleans to the halls of one of the most famous learning centers of our universe.
These are kids (young adults) that have chosen and been chosen to pursue futures in literature, the arts, music and theater. These are the actors, poets, visual artists, novelists, media artists, opera singers, dancers, creative writers, jazz and classical musicians that are our equivalent of the movie ‘Fame’. They come from all backgrounds, walks of life, neighborhoods and circumstances. They are the future standard bearers and young lions of the talent gene pool that make our city a cultural Mecca. These are not students that are flown in, bussed in or relocated to New Orleans. By in large, these are local young talents that have made a conscious decision to accept the challenge of dedication and hard work toward the goal of becoming, not just good, but, great artists in their chosen fields.
NOCCA, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, has been with us for almost thirty-five years. NOCCA has itself graduated from humble experimental beginnings in a dilapidated grammar school in 1973 to a thirty million dollar, 136,000 sq. foot state of the art Magnet school facility of performance theaters, classrooms, and rehearsal studios with up to date technology and resources in 1990. Ninety five to ninety eight percent of graduates of NOCCA continue their studies, pursuing careers after colleges and universities various arts programs have been completed.
How do you get to NOCCA? Practice, practice, practice. Since becoming a state agency in 1990 tuition has been free to Louisiana residents. The only thing you need to do after being recommended by your High School teachers and writing an essay explicating your worthiness is to succeed in impressing faculty at an audition. It’s that simple. Yeah, right.
The honor roll of graduates in the various fields is enough to make the most jaded talent agent choke on his Cheerios. Harry Connick jr., musician and actor; Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, musicians; Wanda Boudreaux, visual artist; Jeanne-Michele Charbbonnet, opera singer; Nicole Cooley, novelist and poet; Donald Harrison jr., jazz musician; Darren Bagert, Broadway producer; Wendel Pierce, actor and Rosalynd Sanders, dancer. Or try these: Nicholas Payton, Trombone Shorty Andrews, Terrence Blanchard, and Irvin Mayfield. Tough role models and large footsteps to follow.
Here’s the way it is: Christian Scott is twelve years old and is given a trumpet by his mother and grandmother. Christian Scott possesses, at twelve years old, the four main qualities that NOCCA Riverfront requires of students; talent, self-direction, discipline and commitment. Sounds pretty simple, huh? Well, no, it’s not.
For a NOCCA student life is anything but easy. You are not let off the hook from your academic studies or curriculum at your High School. Most likely you have struck a deal whereby you attend both schools. Going to class at your High School during the morning, eating lunch on the way across town and attending classes at NOCCA in the afternoon is a common scenario. The teachers at NOCCA are more dedicated than the students, they have successful professional and teaching experience and continue in their professional arts involvement when not teaching. It is a requirement. If indeed it is the students responsibility to surpass the Master; it is also the Masters responsibility to stay ahead of the student.
For example, Ellis Marsalis; New Orleans premier jazz pianist is mentor and professor of many of the students and graduates. He caught the fever well before his teenage years, being enrolled in formal studies at the Xavier University school of music at age eleven. Mr. Marsalis literally took a road less traveled and maintained his musical drive even while raising six sons on a teaching salary in the 1960s. Next time that you see him, ask him about moonlighting on Bourbon St. to keep ends meeting at a joint called Crazy Shirley’s. Never stopping, but continuing that drive, Ellis Marsalis maintains a fuller schedule at seventy two than musicians and teachers half his age, setting an example of what a true master is all about.
What it amounts to is passion, what it amounts to is drive, what it amounts to is the love of your art and craft from an early age. As someone put it: “it ain’t about easy”.
Irvin Mayfied calls NOCCA a natural fit for New Orleans. He says: “in North Carolina you have kids with basketballs…in New Orleans you have kids with trumpets.” Another Director puts it: “the strength of the Center stems from its students and faculty.”
NOCCA sustained damage from wind and rain but no flooding from hurricane Katrina unlike eighty percent of the rest of the city. Students moving back to attend school at NOCCA returned to a battered and broken city and many had to find places to live, family and friends helped out. January ’06 after the storm saw enrollment at seventy percent. As of this writing, enrollment is at one hundred percent.
There literally is no other place like it and other states have sent study groups to see what makes it tick so that they can reproduce it at home. For me it’s like gumbo, you cannot reproduce New Orleans gumbo anywhere else. It’s the water we drink, it’s the air we breathe, it’s in the blood of our fathers. The heart pulse of New Orleans could not have but produced NOCCA. Louis Armstrong credited his stint at the Boys Home with his first trumpet and his success in life. Where else but in New Orleans does a waif get a musical instrument and a chance at greatness?
It is the stated vision of NOCCA to “manifest the highest standards in arts training, enriching the cultural environment of Louisiana and increasing recognition of Louisiana artists throughout the world.” Sounds good to me.
P.S. Christian Scott is not yet twenty years old and is now at Berkeley with the Jazz ensemble there. He is already a celebrity in his own right. The way it works at NOCCA is that the students rise to great heights because----they can.