New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, which—according to Experience New Orleans—has a “swinging, stomping, syncopated beat that makes you want to dance!” It also has a clear and definite melodic quality. Brass and wind instruments carry the melody while supporting instruments harmonize. Keeping the pulse are drums and a bass. A guitar, piano or banjo also may support the ensemble.
In an effort to celebrate the culture, history and music of New Orleans jazz, trumpeter, composer and New Orleans native Irvin Mayfield created the non-profit New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) in 2002. Having never had a performance space to call its own, NOJO partnered with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) and a long list of funding organizations to rehabilitate the former Dryades Market along Oretha Castle Haley Blvd. The boulevard runs through New Orleans’ Central City Historic District and, along with the surrounding neighborhoods, produced several of the city’s jazz legends, making it an ideal location for NOJO’s performance hall.
However, transforming a retail building into a performance space is not easy, especially when NOJO had very specific goals. Mayfield insisted on a room where the natural acoustics would be exciting, comfortable and well balanced. “He was interested in having the natural acoustics of the instruments come through, having the balance between different groups of instruments happen naturally by the musicians and not be something where they just play whatever level and expect the sound-mix engineer to make it all come out even,” explains Joseph Myers, president of Chicago-based Kirkegaard Associates, the project’s acoustic and audio-video systems engineering firm.
Mayfield and NOJO also desired a space where people were engaged with the performance, danced, and felt comfortable getting up and socializing in the lobby—essentially they wanted a hall that architecturally feels more like a jazz club. “Our approach was it doesn’t matter how good it looks if it doesn’t sound good,” says Eric Kronberg, principal of Atlanta-based Kronberg Wall Architects LLC. “We need the best sounding hall for jazz in the world, so we asked Joseph Myers to tell us what he needed and we’d find a way to make it work and then we’d make it beautiful.”
Thus began a unique collaboration in which every decision made for the Peoples Health New Orleans Jazz Market was driven by acoustics.
The 14,000-square-foot Dryades Market, which was built circa 1850, received a questionable renovation in the 1960s when the original masonry street façade was removed to create the desired modern box of the time. The space then was utilized as a discount store until it was shuttered in 2010 and left abandoned. Fortunately, before Hurricane Katrina a new roof was installed on the building, protecting the structure through the hurricane and beyond.
The team planned to gut the space, which basically was one big open retail area with very little interior construction. Kronberg and his colleagues completed an exhaustive as-built field assessment to decide what was there and how to fit the necessary programming into the facility.
Not only was Kronberg charged with designing the space specifically for jazz performances in the city of New Orleans—a heavy burden to bear—but there were goals to create a “community living room” within the building. “That was a critical piece of the orchestra’s civic mission,” Kronberg explains. “This is not designed to be a building apart from the community, and we were given a box that didn’t nearly engage as well as it could, so we had to make a lot of modifications, adding a curtainwall and nice entry to really engage the building to the street.”
To lure the community inside, the Bolden Bar—named after jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden—opens in the lobby every Thursday through Saturday at 5 p.m. and offers free live music in an area known as the Jazz Archive. The Jazz Archive features eight video displays and iPad controllers, as well. “Each of the video displays has a high-quality set of headphones, so you can call up music and images from jazz history and explore while you’re there. It’s kind of a miniature museum inside the lobby,” explains Jonathan Darling, principal consultant with Kirkegaard Associates. Darling was charged with the project’s audio-video systems plan. “Weekly events are held solely in the lobby—whether they’re small performances or playing old jazz albums off of a phonograph that has a wireless tie-in to the lobby sound system. NOJO really wants the facility to be a social center for this redevelopment area, in addition to being a fine performance venue.”
The lobby contains an 80-inch flat-panel, high-definition television that displays performances when they’re underway inside the hall, allowing guests to visit while enjoying a cocktail at the Bolden Bar. The display also can be used for meetings and presentations by NOJO staff. “Even though the performance space is ‘more important’, I think what they’ve done in the lobby is significant,” Darling adds.
PHOTOS: Peter Vanderwarker