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The Scandalous Destruction of Jazz Landmarks in New Orleans
The latest news about Buddy Bolden's historic home is just one more example of the city's shameful neglect of its rich musical heritage
I love New Orleans. I even hatched plans to move there some years ago.
It would have actually happened, but I could never convince my wife Tara. Our conversations went something like this:
TED: We really should move to New Orleans.
TARA: Who do we know in New Orleans?
TED: Nobody. [Pause] But we could meet people.
TARA: Do any of our family members live anywhere near New Orleans?
TED: Well, no. [Longer pause] But we have ourselves and our kids. So that’s a family unit right there, no?
TARA: Is there some job waiting for you in New Orleans?
TED: That sorta depends. Maybe I could be a kind of jazz historian in residence. I’d give talks and walking tours for jazz fans.
TARA: That’s a job?
She had more questions than I had answers. So we never made the move.
And it turned out that Tara was right.
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That’s because you can’t give jazz tours of New Orleans unless there are landmarks to show the visitors. And New Orleans civic leaders have presided over the collapse or deliberate destruction of almost every one of them.
Pretty much the only jazz landmark left is the cemetery. And I have a hard time seeing that as a tourist destination.
Just last year, Louis Armstrong’s so-called ‘second home’ was destroyed by the winds from Hurricane Ida. This residence and workplace of the Karnofsky family, who had befriended the future jazz star, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Grand plans had been announced for restoration and preservation, but—in true New Orleans tradition—they just never got around to it.
And then a few months later, Perseverance Hall in the Seventh Ward collapsed. It was one of the few surviving venues from the early days of jazz. “I would put [this building] at the very top of the list of places where the great earliest jazz musicians were performing for dances on a weekly basis—and they were all there, you name them,” commented historian S. Frederick Starr. “It’s a kind of who’s who of early jazz.”
Just a few months earlier, Starr had implored city leaders to take steps to preserve this landmark. If the city “mobilizes fast, they can still save it,” he wrote in an article. “In its modest way it is comparable to Carnegie Hall as a venue for musical greats.”
But, once again, nothing happened—which makes no sense in a city that touts its jazz heritage in expensive tourism marketing campaigns. How can you tell people to come to New Orleans to experience the birthplace of jazz, but do nothing to preserve the actual places where it happened?
This is the same city that destroyed Louis Armstrong’s childhood home on Jane Alley to put up a court and police complex. They turned Congo Square—arguably the birthplace of African-American music in the New World—into a park named for a Confederate general. They allowed the demolition of Funky Butt Hall, beloved and celebrated by jazz fans all over the world. Basin Street is even more famous because of the well known jazz song “Basin Street Blues,” but even before the first recording was made the city had changed its name to “North Saratoga”—and it stayed that way until the city was eventually shamed into bringing back the original name (just as they eventually put Armstrong’s name on the Congo Square site).
But sometimes even public shaming doesn’t work.
“When I made my first visit to New Orleans, many years ago, the first thing I did was rent a car and drive to Buddy Bolden’s home. That’s how much I revere this building and what it represents.”
That’s the case with the latest example of neglect, the historic home of Buddy Bolden, widely acknowledged as the first jazz musician. This building has been in bad shape for decades, but it recently got into such a state of neglect that the city imposed fines on the owner (more on that below)—and now plans to seize ownership. But, alas, they have no interest in repairing or restoring it.
“This is a blighted building which has been fined for violations of the Minimum Property Maintenance Code,” City Hall spokesperson Gregory A. Joseph told a journalist. “Those fines have gone unpaid; and so it is being sold to the public.”
This might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but that depends entirely on who takes ownership.
Frankly, I’m not optimistic.
When I made my first visit to New Orleans, many years ago, the first thing I did was rent a car and drive to Buddy Bolden’s home. That’s how much I revere this building and what it represents. This was nothing short of a jazz pilgrimage and the Bolden residence on First Street was my destination.
I learned back when I was a teenager that Buddy Bolden was honored as the first jazz musician. But no recordings have survived (or perhaps were even made), so how much faith could I put in these legends? But the more I studied the early history of the music, the more convinced I was of Bolden’s central role in the music’s origins.
He was the pioneer who put all the ingredients together. He was the visionary who grasped the potential for combining (1) the syncopated rhythms of ragtime, (2) the bent notes of the blues (almost unknown in other major US cities back then), (3) the impassioned inflections of African-American church music, and (4) the instruments of brass bands and other traditional New Orleans ensembles. Even today, jazz continues to rely heavily on all four of those things, and Bolden was the mastermind who showed how they could fit together in a world-changing sound.
You may be surprised to learn that Bolden’s home is in such poor shape—after all, preservation efforts started as far back as 1978! Welcome to the world of New Orleans historical preservation, where almost every significant structure in the city’s history either burned down, collapsed, or got demolished on purpose. I doubt that will change until the unlikely day when historians and preservationists hire lobbyists or become deep-pocketed campaign donors.
I wasn’t always this cynical.
A few years ago, I publicly praised pop star PJ Morton, who announced plans to renovate and preserve the Buddy Bolden home. As a member of megahit band Maroon 5, he certainly had the money and connections to do it. Even more to the point, his family already owned the building.
And they weren’t just any family. His father Paul Morton is pastor of a huge church with TV and radio outreach programs. The church also boasts large property holdings (they once bought an entire military base!), including the Bolden house—which, I suspect, was purchased without any knowledge of its revered status in the jazz community.
For years, pressure was put on the church and city to take care of this historic building, but to no avail. Then son PJ Morton stepped in, with (in true New Orleans fashion) grand promises.
I was so pleased.
But I was also so naive. Wiser people who understand New Orleans better than I do, warned me that nothing positive would result from this. I ignored their advice and engaged in a happy public dialogue with PJ Morton.
And what eventually happened?
As far as I could tell, Morton did nothing except use the Bolden campaign as a way of generating favorable publicity for himself. After some time had elapsed, I pressed him (via Twitter) for specifics on his preservation plans. He responded by blocking me.
And now, several years later, the Bolden home still sits there, unloved and in disrepair. It could easily collapse in the next big storm. The city really ought to take charge and turn it into a museum—or a community arts center or put it to some other respectful use. But instead they will sell it to the highest bidder.
You can get more details by clicking on this Twitter thread.
Heaven knows what the next owner will do, and perhaps I should be optimistic. Hey, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation could step in. After all, if you run a jazz heritage foundation in New Orleans what better use could you find for your funds?
But I would be amazed if that happened.
I now have a very different perspective on New Orleans than I did back when I dreamed of moving there. I won’t be fooled again by empty promises. They don’t call this city the Big Easy for nothing—and, as I’ve come to learn, results don’t come easy. They take hard work. And in New Orleans, only the talk is cheap.
I now understand why so many of the city’s greatest talents left New Orleans at an early age. I now know why people looking for the Louis Armstrong home museum find it in Queens, New York, not in his home town. I now know why all those other jazz landmarks toppled, with nobody willing to undertake the minimum work to keep them intact.
That’s what I expect will happen to the Buddy Bolden home. Some day, it will just fall to pieces. Probably some day soon.
But if New Orleans really cared about jazz as much as the tourism literature indicates, the city would step in immediately to save the Bolden home—and also the Eagle Saloon. (I hope to write about that building, too, at some later date.) Those are absolutely the top two priorities—and for a very simple reason: namely there’s not much else left to save anymore from the early days of jazz.
But I have no illusions. If you care about the history of this beautiful music called jazz, I suggest you see those pilgrimage destinations now, while they are still standing. Because after they go, our New Orleans jazz tour itinerary will start and end in the cemetery.