New Orleans has seen its share of cranes in the sky of late, and buildings are going up at a pace not seen in decades. Indeed, even historic structures outside of the city’s typical tourist neighborhoods are being renovated and put back into commerce. Now there’s news of a deal to redevelop the 400 block of South Rampart street. Just another development deal, right? Not even close.
It was on this block that jazz first took hold at the turn of the 20th century. Despite the years that have passed, three hugely significant buildings from that era remain.
These include the Eagle Saloon at the corner of Perdido, where Buddy Bolden’s clarion call marked the emergence of a new music. Notably, the Eagle is apparently not part of this enterprise.
Up the street past a parking lot stands the Iroquois Theatre, where composer Jelly Roll Morton and a teenage Louis Armstrong both performed.
A few doors down is the Karnofsky Tailor Shop. It was owned by immigrants from Lithuania with a number of businesses; Armstrong worked as their errand boy. He shared meals with them and said singing with them after dinner was how he learned to sing from his heart.
In one block, jazz history can be traced from its alpha, with Buddy Bolden, to its apex with Louis Armstrong. So no, this is not just any city block.
This news comes weeks after Greater St. Stephen Church, the owner of Buddy Bolden’s house at 2309 First Street, was fined by the city for neglect. PJ Morton, the son of the church’s pastors, has emerged to say he will fix the house. He has formed a nonprofit and partnered with the Preservation Resource Center to rehab the structure.
Has New Orleans, the town that famously bulldozed Armstrong’s birthplace as well as his childhood home, turned a corner in recognizing the importance of jazz landmarks?
Twenty years ago, not a single jazz-related structure boasted a historic marker. Annie Avery and Michelle Kimball at the PRC stepped up and the ongoing program has marked 60 structures with plaques. In 2002, the PRC saved the home of trombonist Kid Ory from demolition and renovated it and then repeated this unparalleled feat with the home of trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen. These renovations were the first-time buildings had been saved because of their association with jazz. The developments at the Bolden house and the 400 block of South Rampart offer glimmers of hope that at last jazz, landmarks will finally be embraced as a thing of value that draws visitors from around the world. Maybe soon, we can host those visitors without having to apologize for our custodianship of the birthplace of jazz.