Philanthropic Faces: Don Marshall

Executive Director, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation

by  Sue Strachan

Don Marshall photographed by Cheryl Gerber
Age: 71    Education: M.A. Arts Administration, University of New Orleans

Is there any part in New Orleans’ creative community with which Don Marshall hasn’t shared his talent?

A native of New Orleans, his professional career in the arts started as the first director of the Contemporary Arts Center in 1977, curating more than 30 exhibitions during his tenure.

He was director of Le Petit Theatre and was part of the group who founded the Tennessee Williams Festival in conjunction with those organizing the New Orleans Literary Festival. During that period, he collaborated with local artists and community activists to form the New Orleans Film Festival and the Krewe du Vieux. After Hurricane Katrina, he helped create a nonprofit organization to support local photographers, resulting in the New Orleans Photo Alliance.

As an educator, he has served as the Director of the Cultural Resource Management Program at Southeastern Louisiana University and Director of the Arts Administration Program at the University of New Orleans.

In 2004, Marshall became the executive director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation.

This month, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was supposed to occur but was cancelled. “We were all looking forward to celebrating Jazz Fest in October,” Marshall says. “The cancellation of the festival has been a devastating blow to our musicians, culture bearers, art and food vendors, the hospitality industry and our city.”

The Jazz Fest will take place April 29 to May 8, 2022.

How many years have you been with this organization? 

Seventeen years (and always as Executive Director).

Tell us what your organization does:

The foundation promotes, preserves, perpetuates and encourages the music, culture and heritage of communities in Louisiana through festivals, programs and other cultural, educational, civic and economic activities.

Most people know us as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, one of the greatest music and cultural heritage festivals in the world, and aren’t aware of just how large and complex the organization is:

  • We’re the amazing WWOZ 90.7 Radio with listeners around the world.
  • Our Heritage School of Music provides free, professional music educational instruction to more than 300 students annually.
  • The Jazz & Heritage Archive contains a massive wealth of film, video and audio content focused on Louisiana musicians and culture bearers that capture our unique culture and is utilized in major films, recordings and documentaries.
  • The foundation produces four major free festivals each year: Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival, Congo Square Rhythms Festival, Treme Creole Gumbo Festival and Louisiana Cajun Zydeco Festival.
  • Our major philanthropic effort, the Community Partnership Grants Program, awards more than $1.5 million each year to arts organizations and individuals whose programs and projects reflect the foundation’s mission.
  • Add to that a yearly Jazz & Heritage Concert Series; the Class Got Brass school brass band competition; the Catapult Fund, which provides business training and funding for entrepreneurs in the arts; and our Sync Up Conferences on the business of music and the arts.Our staff never rests.

What has been the organization’s biggest or most important accomplishment?

The Jazz & Heritage Festival right after Hurricane Katrina has to top the list. We all felt that this was so important not only to the musicians, culture bearers, food vendors and artists, but to the spirit of New Orleans.

The challenges faced by the returning staff, many whom had lost their homes were monumental. Jazz Fest always brings joy and happiness to everyone, but this time it was extremely emotional. There were tears of joy everywhere. New Orleans was back.

What’s something people most likely don’t know about your organization?

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic the foundation created the Music Relief Fund. The foundation dedicated $1 million, and we were able to raise another $800,000 from donors from all over the U.S.

To date, we’ve been able to support more than 3,000 musicians, music workers, Black Masking Indians and culture bearers during these very difficult times.

Is there a person who inspired you?

The person who has had the greatest influence on my life has been my mother, Naomi Damonte Marshall.

Growing up in New Orleans with a mom who was a business executive in the 1950s and 1960s, taught me a great deal about how to function in the business world. Her brothers and sisters were all successful in their fields after growing up during the Great Depression.

I was also introduced to the bohemian art world at an early age through her Downtown Gallery, where I became acquainted with to our city’s dynamic visual arts scene attending opening receptions for George Dureau, Millie Wohl and John McCrady. On Sundays, we went to the recently opened Preservation Hall to hear Sweet Emma, Willie and Percy Humphrey and Billie and De De Pierce. This really opened my eyes and ears to this city’s great musical traditions.

Secret ambition?

My not so secret ambition is to be more impactful insuring universal childcare and early childhood education for all. The future of this country depends on it.

More than 65 percent of children entering kindergarten in our public schools fall below the national literacy average. The same is true for third graders in reading.

The struggles these children face in school are often insurmountable. Without a solid education, young people will not be prepared for the jobs of the future. What’s their alternative?

What are you reading now?

I’m reading How The Word Is Passed by New Orleans native Clint SmithIt’s his exploration of how we are now reckoning with the history of slavery at many historic sites and communities.

Unfortunately, we continue to fail in teaching true all-American history. Those of us who grew up in this state were taught Louisiana history in the seventh grade. Our failure to teach the uncomfortable truths about the treatment of indigenous peoples, slaves, African Americans and immigrants prevents us from understanding how so many Americans have been locked out of the American Dream. Without this understanding, we will never be able to fix many of the problems facing our country today.

What’s your idea of New Orleans bliss?

Just being immersed in our unique music, food and cultural traditions. We’re a blending of African, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Caribbean and Indigenous peoples.

Life in New Orleans is a celebration. Going out to hear music at a club or festival, enjoying some of the world’s best cuisine, experiencing the Black Masking Indians, a Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s second line, the explosion of Women’s Marching Groups, Zulu, Rex, Krewe du Vieux and the Krewe of Red Beans – the party never stops. God Bless New Orleans!

Original article: Philanthropic Faces: Don Marshall – My New Orleans