No home for jazz in ‘New’ Orleans

New Orleans jazz historian Jack Stewart stands on the lot where the home of Dixieland Jazz legend Sidney Bechet is seen, after the home was torn down by the city in New Orleans last month.

New Orleans jazz historian Jack Stewart stands on the lot where the home of Dixieland Jazz legend Sidney Bechet is seen, after the home was torn down by the city in New Orleans last month.   | Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert

New Orleans’ heritage as the cradle of jazz helps it draw millions of visitors each year, and the city reminds them of that history with pamphlets, murals and bright neon. Yet numerous homes and music halls that incubated the art form have disappeared, with the city allowing the most recent of them to be razed late last year.

In the push to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina and eliminate ‘eyesores’, officials unwittingly approved the demolition of the childhood home of jazz great Sidney Bechet. While many landmarks still stand, the city lacks markers at many places where pioneers lived and learned how to play. Other cities have razed jazz history, too, but the spate of New Orleans demolitions in recent years has alarmed enthusiasts.

“They took a backhoe and knocked it down, and hauled it away in a trailer,” said Melvin Peterson, a 76-year-old minister who lives across the street from where Bechet’s home was wrecked in October.

“They pulled up and went about tearing it down,” his 42-year-old friend, Charles Spencer, added. “The roof had fallen down, but it could have been fixed.”

And just like that, the simple shotgun-style home where Bechet learned to play music has been added to the growing list of missing pieces to the story of jazz, which was born and bred in working-class New Orleans neighbourhoods like this one, called New Marigny, that few tourists venture into.

Xavier University music professor and clarinetist Michael White said he’s disillusioned by the lack of preservation efforts by the city. “These homes should stand as monuments of creativity and something positive in the neighborhood,” he said.

Jazz lovers worry that the zeal to “renew” New Orleans is threatening what’s left. Since taking office last year, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has said he wants to eliminate 10,000 blighted properties in three years. The Bechet house, which had been occupied until Katrina hit, was one of them.

“This building was in imminent danger of collapse. The roof had caved in,” said Jeff Hebert, the city’s new “blight czar.” He said the city was unaware of the house’s historic significance, but that he had no regret in tearing it down. The home’s owner could not reached for comment. She did not show up for an adjudication hearing before the home was torn down, a city spokesman said.

Jack Stewart, a New Orleans jazz historian, said preservationists weren’t given advance notice that the city planned to tear down the house.

“They’re at a hair trigger of tearing stuff down,” he said during a visit to the location. He contends rudimentary repair work could have saved the house. “All that house needed to have was one corner in one room propped up a little bit,” he said. “A few carpenters could have lifted it up with jacks and had it fixed in no time.”

He spoke from experience. Stewart is a general contractor who specializes in restoring old buildings, including a home Jelly Roll Morton lived in before he was kicked out by his mother. When Bechet lived in the home, between about 1907 and 1914, he played music for the first time with his brother in the backyard. Bechet, loved by French existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre and poet Philip Larkin, died in 1959 in France.

There are still many other jazz landmarks in New Orleans left standing and none more important than four empty and decaying brick buildings near City Hall. They include the Iroquois Theater, where Armstrong won a talent contest as a boy by covering his face in white flour and doing a “white face” routine. Construction of an entertainment district and museum around these buildings was proposed, but the plan has languished.

“The bottom line - it’s still controversial, nothing’s done,” said White, the historian at Xavier. “And the next thing you know it will end up crumbling and being a parking lot.”

This lament is heard elsewhere, too.

“A lot of jazz locations were in poor areas to start with; they just haven’t made it,” said Esley Hamilton, the preservation historian for St. Louis County, Mo. In St. Louis, jazz-era buildings in Gaslight Square, along the Mississippi riverfront and the Mill Creek Valley area were bulldozed.

Dan Morgenstern, the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, said more work needs to be done to identify important buildings before they’re targeted for demolition.

“Most of the time, we don’t even hear about (demolitions),” he said. “They are done without the press knowing about it or the people doing the nasty work of tearing them down knowing what they’re doing.”

On Chicago’s South Side, clubs and the homes of musicians from jazz’s heyday were repeatedly torn down after the 1930s.

“To my knowledge, there is no home of a famous jazz artist from those two first decades enshrined,” said Richard Wang, an emeritus music professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Urban renewal struck Kansas City too. In the 1960s, a Charlie Parker home was torn down, as were many clubs where Count Basie and Parker played along 12th Street. But the number of success stories is growing, jazz enthusiasts said. In 2003, Louis Armstrong’s home in the Queens borough of New York was opened as a museum. A John Coltrane home on Long Island, New York, is undergoing renovations after it was saved in 2004. And two Charlie Parker homes were recently discovered in Kansas City.

Music lovers had been hopeful New Orleans would shore up important jazz structures during rebuilding after Katrina hit in 2005. There was talk of building a world-class museum. Similar efforts were pushed in the 1990s when Congress set up a national park in New Orleans to celebrate jazz. The park exists mostly in name.

Instead, the past five years have been hard for jazz enthusiasts to stomach. Last year, the city tore down the Halfway House, a venue that had been turned into a pesticide business and later damaged by fire. It’s now a parking lot.

Meanwhile, the Gallo and Dixie theaters and the Naval Brigade Hall are gone since Katrina. The homes of several jazz musicians, including Louis Nelson, Willie Guitar, Ed Garland, Danny Barker and Buddy Bolden, have been torn down or fallen into disrepair in that time.

“It always seems like we’re losing something; if it’s not a storm taking it or a parking lot, it’s termites,” lamented Bruce Boyd Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.

Old jazz haunts just don’t mesh with urban renewal. That was the case with Storyville, the famous red-light district where Louis Armstrong worked as a boy before it was closed in 1917. Seen as a slum, the district was flattened in 1939 to make way for a public housing project. Armstrong’s childhood home on Jane Alley was obliterated in the 1960s to make way for the city’s prison.

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 12:27:30 AM |

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