Every moment I've had in New Orleans has been inspiring, which is unique to that place really," says esteemed music producer Bob Ezrin. "That place is flooded with culture, and so much of the culture centers around and is defined by the music."
And so came the inspiration for Music Rising. Ezrin, together with U2's The Edge, Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juskiewicz and numerous partner organizations, created the Music Rising campaign to help raise awareness and preserve the musical culture of the Central Gulf region.
In the summer of 2005, hurricanes Katrina and Rita temporarily robbed New Orleans and its musicians of song and instruments. But by November 2005, initiatives like Music Rising had already begun to make something unforgettable out of the spirit and potential for rebirth that was left in those storms' wake.
Five years later, tens of thousands have benefited from the rigorous fundraising and generous contributions of Music Rising and its partners. Now, with their newest partner, Tulane University, Music Rising plans to institutionalize the many unique facets of Gulf South culture—everything that inevitably inspires and contextualizes the music of the region—with a thoroughly researched, multi-disciplined and widely accessible curriculum.
The journey of this organization to this point over the past five years has been nothing short of awe-inspiring.
With the help of numerous organizations, Music Rising has led the revitalization of the Gulf South's musical culture by replacing regional musicians' lost or damaged instruments in three phases: professional musicians, schools and churches, and community musical and cultural organizations.
Thanks to inaugural partners Gibson Musical Instruments, Guitar Center Music Foundation, MusiCares, Musician's Friend, and others, Music Rising replaced instruments for 2,700 professional musicians from the region, while many of them were still displaced to more than 34 states across the country.
Joining Phase Two were new partners The Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, All Congregations Together and The Bush-Clinton Katrina fund who together replaced the musical instruments of tens of thousands of students and parishioners throughout the region. In Phase Three they covered the expenses of Mardi Gras Indian tribes and social aid & pleasure clubs to ensure that they would continue to march, sing and dance throughout the Carnival season.
In preparation for the launch of Phase Two, Green Day and U2 collaborated on a cover version of the The Skids' tune "The Saints Are Coming" in early September 2006. They unveiled the song—and celebrated Phase Two's commencement—at a performance nothing short of historic in the New Orleans Superdome on September 25, 2006. The New Orleans Saints and their fans had returned home to the Dome for the first time since the storm, and the live performance of the song kicked off an electrifying evening for fans and players alike.
Beyond these three phases, Music Rising was also instrumental in Preservation Hall's official re-opening after Katrina in April 2006, by replacing the instruments this celebrated institution had lost in the storm. For legendary local pianist Fats Domino, it was the Baldwin Piano destroyed in his flooded home for which the organization coordinated a replacement.
But Music Rising could not accomplish this sweeping movement of musical and cultural revitalization on their own. Besides the aforementioned of Music Rising's extremely genrevitalization on their own. Besides the aforementioned of Music Rising's extremely generous supporters, several industry partners have also joined the initiative over the years: Conn-Selmer, VH1 and MTV Networks, Ticketmaster, SpinCo and Kennedy-Marshall, to name a few.
Music Rising and their many partners have launched several different fundraising campaigns to afford the many thousands of instruments they were determined to return to New Orleans musicians.
From the beginning, Gibson Guitar planned to raise one million dollars by selling limited edition Music Rising Gibson Les Paul guitars, and a year later raised another million dollars from limited edition Music Rising Epiphone guitars. The guitars featured exclusive hand-painted designs in classic Mardi Gras colors—no two are alike—and the plastic parts of the instrument, such as back plate, pick guard, etc., were made instead out of wood from hurricane-affected states in the Gulf South. The Music Rising logo, exclusive to these guitars, was etched into the pick guard.
In April 2007, Music Rising's Icons of Music event , a worldwide auction of valuable instruments and music memorabilia, garnered more than $2.4 million, and the second auction in May 2008, which lasted for three sessions over more than 15 hours, raised another $2 million. In February 2009, the media and ecommerce site Tonic (www.tonic.com) auctioned off more than 60 iPods which were autographed by celebrities and also pre-loaded with a playlist of the celebrities' favorite songs.
A cultural campaign this expansive and successful could hardly go unnoticed. Music Rising has been a proud and worthy recipient of the 2005 Gold Halo Award for Cause Marketing, the 2006 Billboard Humanitarian Award, and a Heroes of the Storm Award from the Friends of New Orleans in 2008, which was accepted on their behalf by Allen Toussaint, Leo Nocentelli and Walter "Wolfman" Washington.
But still, Ezrin looked to the future to expand the Music Rising program and to globally strengthen the visibility and appreciation of Gulf South music and culture.
"It became evident to [Bob] that it was fine to [replace lost instruments]," says Carole Haber, Dean of Tulane University's School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "But if the culture didn't continue to be understood and produced and consumed, getting out the instruments was a dead end."
Ezrin set in motion plans for a $1 million grant to "create a definitive course of study in the music of New Orleans and the Central Gulf that included everything one needed to know to fully understand it and also to learn to play it," he says. "So that meant finding an institutional partner."
Tulane University was a perfect, thoroughly credentialed fit. The Hogan Jazz Archive and Maxwell Music Library on campus house extensive resources on regional music, and many faculty members are experts in archiving, preserving and performing music. Access to field and studio recordings from NPR's American Routes radio program will be courtesy of host, producer, folklorist and Tulane anthropology professor Nick Spitzer. Faculty members from several areas of expertise—including history, anthropology, sociology, literature, the arts and so on—will be called upon to help contextualize this music and why it is important through a multi-disciplinary curriculum.
"And when you aim at all of these different disciplines to have the understanding of and practicing of the music of New Orleans and the Central Gulf, you end up with an incredibly robust program," says Ezrin.
"The supposition is that you have to understand the context, the history that produced the music, in order to play it," says Tulane history professor Lawrence Powell. "So it's not just going to be music scores or how-to tablature. It'll be more of a cultural, ethnomusicological history lesson."
According to Haber, the grant will go toward creating, "a college and secondary school curriculum dedicated to the study of the music and cultures of the region and available through the web and print materials." This will include archive digitization, expansion of both Tulane and K-12 curriculums, conferences, community outreach and a website to make all of these resources available worldwide. Any revenue generated will fund the creation of a textbook to be used for Gulf South Culture classes.
Tulane already offers several courses in multiple disciplines that would fit into the vision of this Gulf South curriculum, but more will be added to eventually form a coordinate major for the subject. Then they will expand to secondary education curriculum, and eventually elementary and middle school.
Also already in place, Tulane's Gulf South Center, located in Newcomb Hall, now has even more new and exciting prospects with the financial backing of Music Rising. Powell, the Center's director, says that the Gulf South Center is "part think-tank for scholars and graduate and undergraduate students who are studying various aspects of the history, culture and economics of this part of the world, with New Orleans as the anchor."
Though still in its early stages, Music Rising's grant-funded programs at Tulane will quickly take root at an institution that has completely revamped its mission and pledged its dedication to the rebuilding of New Orleans since Katrina. If the first three phases of Music Rising's successes in New Orleans are any indication, you can be sure that the music, spirit and vitality of this city will be preserved, shared and enjoyed by people around the world.
"If we do nothing more than to give New Orleans itself as a region a premiere resource for understanding itself and for helping it to keep its own traditions alive, then we will have succeeded," says Ezrin. "If we can spread it around the world, then we've done more than that."
For more information on how to give or receive assistance or share your ideas for the organization, email [email protected]