Often referred to as the “Queen of Gospel,” Mahalia Jackson was one of the most influential figures for contemporary gospel and blues singers. Born in 1911, Jackson grew up in a shotgun home in New Orleans. She quickly found her greatest refuge at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church where she sang at least six times a week. It was at Mt. Moriah that her talents were first recognized. At the age of sixteen, Jackson moved to Chicago with her aunt in order to seek better employment opportunities. In Chicago, Jackson joined the Greater Salem Baptist Church.
Jackson's career would not take off until the late 1940s, after a failed record deal and many years of touring. With her success, she frequented radio stations and performed as the headliner at Carnegie Hall. In the 1950s, Jackson regularly appeared on television shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Dinah Shore, and Steve Allen, and departed on her first European tour.
Jackson was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, she lent her voice to rallies, marches, and demonstrations throughout the country. In 1963, during the historic March on Washington, Jackson performed "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned" before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. Jackson later sang at John F. Kennedy’s presidential inauguration, as well as his funeral, and the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King.
After collapsing in 1971 on tour in Munich, Jackson died early the next year of heart complications in her home in Chicago.
Designed by architect William Bergman, the theater was first opened in 1973 as The New Orleans Theater for the Performing Arts. Its 2,100 seats were filled up with those citizens of New Orleans who sought to be entertained by some of the finest performers in the city. Jazz and gospel singers, brass bands, ballet companies, and other performers of the fine arts regularly performed here. The first performance to play at the theater was The New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and they entertained a full house with Giuseppe Verdi's Manzoni Requiem.
In 1995, the New Orleans City Council and Mayor Marc Morial, with grants from New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, renamed the New Orleans Theater for the Performing Arts after the New Orleans-born Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
The Mahalia Jackson Theater suffered significant water and wind damage during Hurricane Katrina. The theater was renovated and reopened in 2009.