All That Jazz
New Orleans Dusts Off Houses with Ties to its Musical History.
By Darv Johnson | Online Only | May 20, 2005
The city where jazz was born can be hard on the buildings where the music began.
Termites, rot, floods, and ever-shifting foundations—not to mention the laissez-faire civic spirit that earned New Orleans its "Big Easy" nickname—have claimed their share of the homes where its musical pioneers once lived.
In the past few years, however, a local nonprofit has stepped up to save some of these homes before they, and the musical heritage they contain, disappear forever.
The jazz-based preservation effort is the first of its kind in New Orleans, says Patricia Duncan, an architectural historian with Louisiana's division of historic preservation. "The early founders of jazz are a worthy subject for preservation," Duncan says. "And jazz is perhaps even more important because of its connection to African American heritage, which hasn't received its due."
The childhood home of Henry "Red" Allen, Jr., was almost lost 20 years ago. Born across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter in a part of the city called Algiers Point, Allen was a contemporary of Louis Armstrong and one of his few peers on the trumpet. The 750-square-foot bungalow where Allen spent the first 12 years of his life was built in the late 19th century from lumber salvaged from abandoned coal barges. When the house fell vacant in the mid-1980s, termites and rot nearly brought it down.
That Red Allen's house still stands is thanks to a three-year-old campaign by a local nonprofit called the Preservation Resource Center (PRC) to save the city's jazz sites. The group started with a basic, but tricky task: to identify the city's most important jazz musicians. To that end, they brought together a panel of jazz historians and experts to suss out the top 50 or so local luminaries.
Next, the group had to figure out where these people once lived, an arduous search of city records and history books made even more difficult by the tendency of poorly paid jazz musicians to flit from home to home, often a few days ahead of the rent coming due. Researchers have found no fewer than six addresses, for example, for trombonist and bandleader Edward "Kid" Ory," though he lived in the city proper for just seven years. So far, the center has catalogued more than 300 sites and is now going house-to-house to determine their condition, or whether they are still standing at all.
"Some are parking lots," says Annie Avery, the group's director of African American preservation. "Some are apartment buildings." Perhaps the biggest loss: The birthplace of Louis Armstrong, the city's biggest star, was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a criminal-justice center.
Slowly but surely, the Preservation Resource Center is creating historical markers—about 50 so far—for each of these houses, hoping to draw attention to them and to create a point of pride for the gritty, poverty-ridden neighborhoods of many of the homes, like those of cornetist Charles "Buddy" Bolden or clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet.
Several times, however, the group has been able to do more than just mark the spot. Red Allen's house was one of the luckiest ones; the center found it before it collapsed and bought it for $6,500 last year. Now the structure is being restored to its circa-1930 look, keeping the original floors, rafters, brick piers, and some of the joists. The restoration will also add an innovative twist: a 300-square-foot new master bedroom and bath in the back, separated from the original structure by a recessed deck. When the work is done this fall, the group will put the house on the market for about $100,000.
Three recent graduates of a local public school who, with the guidance of the nonprofit New Orleans Crafts Guild, are doing much of the work and, along the way, a little bit more about music history. In the summer of 2002, those same students also hand-built a brick wall behind Kid Ory's house, which served as the center's experiment in buying and restoring a site.
Five years ago, the simple Victorian shotgun on Jackson Avenue was badly blighted and scheduled for demolition when Annie Avery came across it. The owner donated it to the center, which converted it from a duplex to a single-family home, then sold it for about $100,000.
Saving the Ory home "made a difference in that neighborhood," Avery says. "It encouraged other people to take some pride in their homes." At the same time, it keeps Ory's music alive, even if it is just in the minds of the couple who now occupy his home. Said Avery, "They feel like when they're sitting there in the quiet of the night that the spirit of Kid Ory is there."
This story was originally published on Preservation Online on Oct. 22, 2004.
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