Creole for Creativity

To truly revel in crawfish, jambalaya, live jazz and blues music—all at the same time—you'd normally have to travel 1,400 miles to New Orleans. But this Saturday, you can find them right here in the Old Pueblo at Hotel Congress' Third Annual Night of New Orleans.

Night of New Orleans—which started as a way to support music programs affected by Hurricane Katrina by bringing Cajun flavors and swampy sounds to the desert—is helping a local cause this year: Opening Minds Through the Arts.

OMA uses the arts to teach math, science, reading, writing and social studies to elementary- and middle-schoolers in Tucson. By getting kids out of their chairs and putting violins, paintbrushes and scripts into the hands that once held only No. 2 pencils, the program expands developing minds and helps students find something they enjoy about school, according to Donn Poll, the executive director of OMA.

"We see so many kids who come into kindergarten and first-grade and just don't like school," says Poll. "Their imagination wasn't captured by it. But when the arts are in school, we see that kids who have a language barrier, or kids who maybe didn't have a good breakfast or have other issues from home, can move right past those issues that used to keep them from having a good school experience, and they get right into school right away."

The student achievement program works with more than 50 artists, including theater-arts performers, visual artists, instrumentalists and opera performers, from local organizations like the Invisible Theatre Company, the Tucson Museum of Art, the University of Arizona School of Music and Arizona Opera. The organization brings artists into classrooms at 41 elementary schools and three middle schools twice a week; the program's curriculum is also incorporated into daily lessons.

"I'm really excited to be working with a program that is so powerful in helping kids like school," Poll says. "We reach about 19,000 kids. We have a big impact."

In this time of budget crises, OMA is looking to the community for continued support.

"With the schools having such budget pressure, we are really working hard to have people support OMA by making contributions to the foundation," says Poll, who has been with OMA for a year and a half.

With the help of Hotel Congress, OMA may make an even bigger impact. David Slutes, the entertainment director at Hotel Congress, says the decision to funnel the funds from the Night of New Orleans into the local arts organization came from Tucson's favorite musical philanthropist, Calexico frontman Joey Burns.

"As we were kicking around the idea," says Slutes, "Joey Burns from Calexico called me and said, 'Have you heard of this program?' and he turned me on to Opening Minds Through the Arts."

Hotel Congress' decision to support OMA adds to the laundry list of community partnerships that have made the program so successful in the first place.

"The great folks at Club Congress recognize the power of the arts, because they deal with the arts, and they like to think that the arts play a big role across the community," Poll says. "When the opportunity came ... we said, 'That's delightful,' because it lets people who go to Club Congress know about OMA, and it also lets us connect with our own people and say, 'Hey, go to Club Congress, and have a good time.' It's another great community partnership."

Of course, in addition to helping out a good cause, the event will offer up a fine night of music and cuisine.

Jazz and blues performances from The Dixie Cats, Crawdaddy-O and Tony and the Torpedoes will bring the New Orleans spirit to the ears of guests (and all lighting and sound will be solar-powered), while a menu of boiled shrimp, jambalaya, Abita beer on tap and more will bring the zesty Cajun flavor at the Cup Café.

Hotel Congress is even having 300 pounds of live crawfish flown in for the boil, which, if last year's event offers any clue, will go fast here in the relatively Cajun- and Creole-cooking-deprived Sonoran desert.

The bottom line, in addition to supporting Opening Minds Through the Arts? "It's cheap, and it's fun," Slutes says.