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Music's new home in New Orleans

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 15, 2007



NEW ORLEANS

Peter "Chuck" Badie Jr. couldn't rescue much from his Ninth Ward home besides his beloved bass and a statue of St. Jude – "the patron saint of impossible causes."

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Like so much else that he gazed upon after hurricane Katrina, "I knew that house was gone," says the octogenarian jazz musician who has played with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis.

But now Mr. Badie and St. Jude have a new home, painted the same – white with green trim – as the old one. It's one of 70 new houses in what's called Musicians' Village. It's in the devastated Upper Ninth Ward, and it's one of the most unusual, quixotic, and totally appropriate ideas to rise from the city where jazz was born: A neighborhood by musicians, for musicians.

Laid out in tight rows, the homes – a mix of bungalow and shotgun styles – shimmer in Caribbean colors: sun-soaked yellows, sunset pinks, deep-sea turquoise. In a city where thousands of homes are rotting on their pilings, Musicians' Village is an island of hope in a tragic sea.

Indeed, the village, dreamed up by music philanthropists Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis and made possible by Habitat for Humanity, is both a joyful vision and an ironic critique: So far, a nonprofit project aimed at bringing musicians – and thereby music – back to the city has become the largest redevelopment project to date, with another 150 homes planned in the surrounding neighborhood.

Edward Blakely, the city's recently hired recovery director, calls it a symbol of New Orleans' roots, but also of the fractured politics and stalled redevelopment funds that have left one of the South's largest cities unable to muster the political will and financial capital to rebuild.

Bassist Badie, who is known in the jazz world for his "romping" style, was one of the first to be approved. He put in the 350 required hours of sweat equity, pouring concrete and banging nails. The houses cost $70,000 and are built a foot above the Katrina crest. The monthly mortgage is about $550. Other musical residents include singer-harmonica player J.D. Hill, Latin bandleader Fredy Omar, and singer Margaret Perez.

But controversy and tragedy have also dogged the project. One of the musicians working to get a house in Musicians' Village was Dinneral Shavers, whose murder in late December helped spark a citywide crackdown on crime. Like most of his bandmates, he had been turned down for a house in the village.

Indeed, getting approved for a mortgage has been hard for many trombonists and drummers, even as, for nondiscrimination reasons, Habitat For Humanity has opened the project up to nonmusicians, as well. About 50 percent of the original applicants were denied outright because of bad credit or bankruptcies.

Out of a total of 48 approved applicants, 30 are musicians, with another 117 still working their way through the process. To help musicians account for their freelance income, activists have used everything from gig notes to newspaper advertisements to prove employment.

"I'm praying for all these fellows to get in, because they're trying," says Badie.

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