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Connick Jr. to Help Build 'Village' for Katrina Musicians

Singer Harry Connick Jr. and saxophone player Branford Marsalis are working with Habitat for Humanity to create a "village" for New Orleans musicians who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.

More than $2 million has been raised for the project dreamed up by Connick and Marsalis — a neighborhood built around a music center where musicians can teach and perform, said Jim Pate, executive director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.

In a telephone interview Monday, ahead of the planned announcement Tuesday, Connick said he and Marsalis — both honorary chairs for the national Habitat's hurricane rebuilding program — returned to their hometown several weeks after the storm and were trying to think of ways to help.

"I had been kind of coming up blank. The problem is so massive, it's hard to know where to begin," Connick said. "As we talked, we both realized we should really stick to what we know, which is music."

Connick said four or five of the 16 musicians in his own band lost their homes. "There's a ton of musicians who have no place to go," he said.

Pate said the organization hasn't decided on a location and doesn't yet have money for the whole project, which would include a music center named for Ellis Marsalis, the jazz pianist and educator who is father of the musical family that includes Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason. Habitat is looking at several locations in New Orleans, he said.

Habitat cannot reserve houses for a specific group, and non-musicians would also live in the musicians' village, Pate said. However, musicians who lost their houses and have no or too little insurance — and will provide labor for a Habitat house — will be asked if they'd like to live there.

"We'd hope some of our musician partner families could do some of their sweat equity by doing performances or concerts for some of our volunteers who are coming from all over the world," Pate said.

It's a fantastic idea, said Banu Gibson, who sings '20s and '30s jazz.

"So many musicians have moved out of town, and a lot of the good ones, too, which is really depressing," she said.

Gibson is back in her own house, but two of the seven musicians in her band lost homes they had bought in the last couple of years. "All the money they raised to put down as a house payment, $25,000 to $35,000, is gone," she said.

Bassist Peter "Chuck" Badie, 80, would love to see the dream become reality, and to live in a Habitat home.

"I'd be tickled to death," said Badie, who's staying at a jazz enthusiast's home after floods destroyed his house in the Lower Ninth Ward. "A village for musicians would be the finest thing. But build it where?"

The New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity covers Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, and is in the "embryonic" stages of adding Plaquemines Parish. Pate said it hopes to build 250 to 500 houses in the four parishes, and possibly as many as 200 in the musicians' village.

"We desperately need them back, because they are the soul of our community, or much of the soul of our community," he said.