The Once and Future Studio

This Jazz Fest, the Charles J. Colton Middle School’s auditorium was host to something far different than the school plays and third period assemblies it held in the past. Bands including Bonerama, Trombone Shorty, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Big Sam’s Funky Nation and the Soul Rebels rocked the 80-year-old auditorium, which not too long ago was dim and dormant.

The school, which had about 600 students in its halls prior to Hurricane Katrina, had been forced to close its doors in 2007 due to low enrollment. It remained empty and unused until the Creative Alliance of New Orleans (CANO) saw a chance to make something new out of the dusty classrooms and silent hallways.

On November 1, 2008, the Colton Middle School reopened as the Studio at Colton, a place where local artists could create and exhibit their work. Classrooms became studios, stairwells had pianos in them and during Prospect.1, the auditorium became home to a light sculpture titled “Black Fireworks,” by the famed artist Cai Guo-Qiang.

Guo-Qiang was just one of the many artists on display in New Orleans during the city-wide Prospect.1 exhibition that began last November, and the event was one of the catalysts for CANO’s co-founder Jeanne Nathan to open the Studio at Colton. “It became clear that most of the artists were from around the world but not from here,” said Nathan, “we felt that it was important for there to be an opportunity to show off local talent.”

Luckily, Donna Santiago, executive director of the Backbeat Organization, attended Prospect.1 at Colton with Hypersoul president Tony Ciaccio. “As we laid in the massage chairs watching the light display, we both had the same light bulb go off, ‘We can do shows here!’” Santiago says.

While the space seemed promising, a barrage of concerns about the auditorium’s capability as a Jazz Fest venue followed the initial spark. Sound quality, necessary improvements for the space and the ultimate question: Would the people come? It was a legitimate concern. The Studio at Colton resides on St. Claude Avenue in the Bywater, off the beaten path for most Jazz Fest attendees. Santiago was convinced that the space would work

“It took a few days for taxis to know where people were asking to go,” Santiago says. But, by the second weekend, taxis were lining up outside the school to pick up and drop off audience members. In fact, about 4,400 people attended the shows, which were held nightly during Jazz Fest.

With such a successful concert series, many people are wondering if the Studio at Colton will become a replacement for lost venues such as the Saenger Theatre or State Palace. It doesn’t look likely; the Recovery School District recently announced plans to reinstate the space as a middle school.

Fortunately, there is talk of gaining another vacant school for CANO’s vision and that’s a good thing. The Studio at Colton is now home to more than 100 artists of all disciplines, musicians including Charmaine Neville, community education programs, Cajun dance classes and African drum lessons. And if nothing is found, at least the venue had one good Jazz Fest.