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New Orleans Jazz Landmarks Languish In Disrepair

29 Dec 2014

New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz, but that general statement needs some refining in terms of location.

Specifically, where in the Crescent City did this music come to fruition? Important locations where jazz took root stretch across all of New Orleans, from Congo Square to the West End, the Jefferson Parish line to the Ninth Ward: they are former clubs where musicians played and developed the melodies and styles that became jazz. They are homes where the musicians lived. They are bars where musicians hung out and music schools where they learned. Historian Jack Stewart, who has been instrumental (pun intended) in his own research and research for the Preservation Resource Center’s project of identifying homes where early jazz musicians lived, says,“If we still had all of our jazz landmarks, there would be 7,000 places” where jazz was played, where it was developed, and where jazz musicians lived. “Even now,” he continues, “we have 3,000 of them.”

Many of these spots are in various states of disrepair and decay. One could spend, as some researchers have, their whole lives identifying and fixing up these spots. A discussion of all of them is far beyond the scope of this article, but below are profiles of several locations that are still here and in need of repair or in the process of being repaired.

Eagle Saloon / Iroquois Theatre

The highest profile landmarks that have languished for years are the Eagle Saloon, the Iroquois Theatre and Karnofsky’s Music Store on South Rampart Street between Perdido and Poydras streets, quite near to the current City Hall. That block contains the sole remaining structures in what was once a vital neighborhood in jazz history. The neighborhood was referred to as “Black Storyville.” It was a red-light district that was less restrictive for African-Americans. Like Storyville, it had prostitution, music clubs, taverns, pawn shops, restaurants and other businesses and homes. Karnofsky’s Music Store at 427 South Rampart Street was owned and operated by the Karnofsky family, who took care of Louis Armstrong when he was a kid and teenager. In his selected writings, Armstrong compliments them for “their fine warmth” and remembers that they advanced him two dollars for a cornet on that very block.

The Iroquois Theatre at 413-415 South Rampart Street had movies and vaudeville shows whose music certainly contributed to the development of jazz. It also had talent shows; Armstrong, posing in white face, actually won one of these talent shows.

On the next corner heading downtown is the Eagle Saloon. According to Stewart, it was first the Eagle Loan Office before it became a bar and restaurant, a hangout for many early jazz musicians. The most famous of the early jazz players to pass time there was the Eagle Band.

This group was formerly Buddy Bolden’s Band before he was committed to the state insane asylum in Jackson, Louisiana in June 1907. The Eagle Band took their name from that tavern.

In terms of these buildings’ significance, John Haase, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, was quoted in a May 2011 Times-Picayune article as saying: “There is probably no other block in America with buildings bearing so much significance to the history of our country’s great art form, jazz. It would be a terrible shame if these structures were allowed to disintegrate. They hold the potential to tell remarkable stories about the culture of New Orleans and the music of America.” Kurt Weigle, the president and CEO of the Downtown Development District, emphasizes that “the history that happened there is mind-boggling, and these buildings still exist in the very place that jazz started. You can be in the buildings and physically feel it and see it. They are important to the cultural and economic future of New Orleans. It is critical to redevelop this area.”

Unfortunately, the value to our city’s culture and our nation’s heritage has rarely stopped historical buildings from being demolished either on purpose or by neglect. Louis Armstrong’s childhood home in Jane Alley was demolished in the mid-1960s to build the city jail. In 2011, the city tore down the boyhood home of soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet after the roof collapsed. The buildings on South Rampart Street have their roofs, but none of them are in good condition, and if any of them collapsed in the next few days, no one would be surprised.

However, according to Weigle, “there is a great deal of complexity in not just redeveloping the real estate, but the buildings are so small that it is a challenge to make use of the tax credits for historic buildings. The bigger issue is thinking through how the redevelopment of the area can create new construction that is respectful of the history [and the properties that still exist], and also fulfills an economic niche.”

Currently, all of the buildings on South Rampart Street are owned by the Meraux Foundation of St. Bernard Parish, which has owned the buildings for decades. According to articles in the Times-Picayune, after the buildings were designated as historic landmarks in 2009, the Historic District Landmarks Commission cited them for “demolition by neglect” in 2010. The Meraux Foundation has claimed that they were going to sell the buildings, but nothing has happened.

A spokesman for the Meraux Foundation, Todd Ragusa, said that “the Foundation is proactively implementing a plan for the historic buildings that pays tribute to their places in history, is authentic, serves the community, and is financially sustainable. For too long these buildings have lain vacant. We have met with several groups to bring them back but none had produced a viable plan to pay tribute to history and restore them. That is why the Foundation has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to reintroduce structural integrity and now are moving forward with a plan that in short order will result in restoration of the precious buildings.” Ragusa would not supply an exact figure for the amount that the Foundation has spent, nor did he say who the “several groups” are and why it has taken so long for this to happen.

Jerome “PopAgee” Johnson, best known for his fried-chicken restaurant, bought the Eagle Saloon from the Meraux Foundation in 2007, but recently the Meraux Foundation re-acquired them. Johnson, who had no previous experience in real estate, had plans to turn it into the “New Orleans Music Hall of Fame” and had grant money from the city and state. Some structural work was done on the Eagle Saloon, but then state funding was cut in 2011. Reportedly, the operators for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville were to be involved in the operation of an entertainment complex that would include and embrace the historic jazz properties, but so far there’s been no developer that’s stepped forward to even start the project. However, Weigle has said that the Meraux Foundation would still have to confirm that.

Most of the information above was gleaned from various articles written in the last seven years. New Orleans can be a strange city in which to do business, but it is tragic when a situation such as this seems to be in sort of alternative bizarro world when these invaluable historic buildings across from City Hall stand blighted and vacant.

Author and historian John McCusker, who has been researching early jazz for decades, opines that the status of these buildings is at a critical juncture. “They could fall down or a philanthropist could come and save it. I mean, why are we even talking about this? Cultural tourism is big. It is what New Orleans is selling. This is a unique opportunity to renovate it and sell it. It’s not that difficult. More difficult things are done in this city all day long.”

Pythian Temple

Down the street and around the corner from the 400 block of South Rampart Street is another jazz landmark whose distinctive architecture is being rebuilt: the Pythian Temple at 234 Loyola Avenue. The temple was built in 1909 for the Colored Order of the Knights of Pythia, an African-American fraternal order, benevolent society and social organization. When it was constructed, it was the largest financial venture into a structure ever attempted by an African-American organization in the United States.

The building contained many types of businesses including a theater and a roof garden. The theater in 1909 featured a show called “The Smart Set” that had a routine featuring Zulus. From that, the Zulu Social Aide and Pleasure Club got their name. The roof garden had the name of the “Parisian Roof Garden.” It became renowned for its music and dances. Manuel Perez, one of the early jazz musicians, led the Pythian Orchestra, which played at everything from Saturday matinee dances to parties sponsored by all sorts of organizations such as the Harmony Club. Other musicians who were featured there include Louis Cottrell and Papa Celestin playing such hits of the day as “Milneburg Joys” and “Moon of Waikiki.”

It temporarily closed in at the end of 1926 and reopened as Piron’s Garden of Joy with bandleader A.J. Piron as a part owner and bandleader. Newspapers reporting about it mentioned its soft lighting and trellised roses. Danny Barker played there as a part of Piron’s Orchestra No. 2. At that point, the jail was across the street, and Jack Stewart recalls Barker telling him that he could see friends of his in the jail yard listening to the music from the roof garden. By the 1930s, Piron’s Garden of Joy closed, and the Knights of Pythia lost the building by 1941. In the mid-1940s, Higgins Industries moved into the building and headquartered their business of manufacturing its famous boats which were a major factor in the U.S. victory in World War II. Since then, it has had many occupants and businesses, including the Bank of Louisiana.

Currently, the property is owned jointly by Green Coast Enterprises and Crescent City Community Land Trust. They have been working on the building for two years, and just recently have taken off the exterior facade to reveal the three arches on the second floor that the building was famous for. According to Regina LaMacchia, development analyst for Green Coast Enterprises, the building will have public spaces on the first and second floor consisting of office spaces and a community health space. Over the phone, la Macchia explained that the third floor theatre was no more, but that they would turn that into an open commercial space. Floors four through nine will be mixed-income residential units. However, LaMacchia says, “We have plans for the roof deck. We want to bring back Piron’s Garden of Joy.”

Buddy Bolden’s Home

For the next landmark, maybe the most prominent decaying jazz landmark in the city, we go uptown to First Street between South Liberty and LaSalle. Here are two shotgun houses on a triangular strip of land before LaSalle curves to intersect with Jackson Avenue. Right now, the houses are a dirty yellow. There is plywood over the front doors and windows. On any given day, it has almost all of its siding. Overall, these houses are run down and blighted. For most early jazz fans and researchers, to see this almost physically hurts, as these are the homes of cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden.

Bolden (1877-1931) is, to quote Don Marquis’ excellent biography In Search of Buddy Bolden: First Man of Jazz, “an elusive, mysterious figure in early jazz history in New Orleans.” Scholar and musician Dr. Michael White calls Bolden “one of the most important figures in American music and culture because of the fact that he was among the first to really kind of figure out and put into action jazz and all its cultural and social and musical implications. His music is very important.” Bolden became famous in New Orleans and later the rest of the world as the first man to synthesize the distinctive elements of early jazz into what could be recognized as jazz. Despite Marquis’ biography, he is still a mythical and archetypal person for jazz in New Orleans (a fictionalized movie is currently being filmed on Bolden, featuring local musicians Delfeayo Marsalis and Calvin Johnson).

Bolden started playing in string bands before forming his own band at the turn of the 20th century. Bolden and his band became famous for being the best and loudest band; they played all over New Orleans, from Lincoln and Johnson Parks at Carrollton and Claiborne Avenues, clubs in Black Storyville and in downtown dance halls. In 1906, Bolden became ill, his behavior became erratic and he started becoming violent in intermittent spurts.

By 1907, he had stopped playing and working, and his family had no choice but have him arrested, declared insane, and committed to the state insane asylum in Jackson, Louisiana, where he spent the remainder of his life, dying in 1931. That is a very short version of his life. According to Marquis, Bolden lived at 2309 First Street from 1887 until the beginning of 1905 in the house that is described above. As one can see, the importance of this building to the development of early New Orleans jazz and jazz in general is immeasurable.

The Central City house had been occupied until the property was purchased by the Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church in 2008. In April of this year, the New Orleans Advocate published a story about the current state of the house. In it, a spokeswoman for the church stated that the church has plans to bring the house back “in a way that will honor Bolden “more than just a plaque.” According to the Advocate story, the church has been cited by the city twice, in 2011 and 2014, for letting the house deteriorate, but the church then fixed the house as the city requested. The church had a fire right after it purchased Bolden’s house and now they are raising money to rebuild the main church and its properties, including Bolden’s house. However, as Jack Stewart pointed out in the article, the longer the house sits dormant, the more vulnerable it becomes to natural elements and man-made calamities. The article also states that the church was supposed to have met with Wynton Marsalis, a champion of Bolden and New Orleans jazz, to discuss the house. Again, we enter the alternative bizarro world of New Orleans to think that one of the most respected and resourceful African-American churches in the South has not done more to save two simple, shotgun houses where one of the most influential and important African-American artists in the history of the country lived and created, but that is the current state of affairs on the 2300 block of First Street.

Several calls to church spokeswoman Angela Young were not returned.

Although the landmarks discussed above are all upriver of Canal Street, the downriver half of New Orleans has more than its share of places where jazz germinated and lived. The Preservation Resource Center has put plaques on such houses as Alphonse Picou’s house at Ursulines and North Robertson streets, and further downtown on both Paul and Louis Barbarin’s houses in the 1700 and 1800 blocks of North Robertson Street. There are also halls that featured music in various states that include the Etoile Polaire at North Rampart and Kerlerec streets and Perseverance Masonic Lodge #4 that currently stands in Armstrong Park.

One building that currently is in need of repair is the Perseverance Society Hall at 1644 N. Villere Street off of St. Bernard Avenue. According to Ann Woodruff’s article in The Jazz Archivist in 2007, the building dates back to the 1880s, with additions added in the 1920s, and has had little, if any, modernizations. Woodruff’s research turned up many references to musicians who played there, such as Sam Morgan, King Oliver, Buddy Petit and many others. In a Hogan Jazz Archive oral history that Woodruff cites, Paul Barbarin, who lived around the corner, heard Buddy Bolden play there for the Monday banquets that lasted from one to six in the afternoon.

After passing through several owners, the Holy Aid and Comfort Spiritual Church acquired the property in 1947. Its current pastor, the Rev. Harold A. Lewis, is proud of the building with its 12-foot ceilings. “Jack Stewart and Ann Woodruff helped me save the church part,” Lewis says. “They found me some grant money from the historical society, and I put in some of my own. I had been trying to get some kind of financing, but the last pastor wasn’t business-minded. He didn’t see the big picture for the church.”

From the front, the Perseverance Society Hall building looks like it is in decent shape, but around the back, the last section has fallen in. “The living quarters in the back collapsed,” Rev. Lewis says. “I’ve been to City Hall to try to find some money for it. I want to add a kitchen and place for after-school and elder activities. I’ve applied for grants. It’s a challenge, especially in a poor neighborhood.”

For Lewis, there is still something there in the building itself from what came before him. “I still feel the presence of the past in there,” he says.