New Orleans' venerable jazz joints at risk

New Orleans' venerable jazz joints at risk
By Rick Jervis

NEW ORLEANS — The Halfway House once rocked with ragtime jazz bands and crowds. Today, the narrow wooden building is a decaying, fire-scarred structure with half a roof and a pressing date with the wrecking ball.

Last week, the 1920s-era dance hall won a six-month reprieve after the City Council here voted to further study its potential historic significance.

The Halfway House is one of several hundred halls, homes, bars and other structures across New Orleans that historians say helped usher in jazz and are today at risk of disappearing.

As the city steps up efforts to demolish homes destroyed and abandoned during Hurricane Katrina, more jazz structures are at risk, said Bobby McIntyre, a preservationist and longtime jazz drummer who has fought Halfway House's demise.

"There's never really been a concerted effort to preserve these buildings," said McIntyre, 78. "We're quickly losing our culture."

The effort to save the Halfway House underscores a struggle that has ramped up here since Katrina: revitalizing neighborhoods by demolishing blighted homes while saving those with historical links.

One particular street, the 400 block of South Rampart, has caught national attention. The ground floor of one of the buildings once housed the Eagle Saloon, where jazz greats Buddy Bolden, "Jelly Roll" Morton and a young Louis Armstrong all drank and played, according to jazz historians. Today, it's shuttered and undeveloped.

"In all the world, there is no block with more structures significant to the history of jazz than that one," said John Edwards Hasse, curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

'It comes down to funding'

The New Orleans-based Preservation Resource Center raises money to renovate the homes of former jazz musicians and sell them to private owners, said Patty Gay, the center's executive director. But after Katrina, that program, which relies on city funding, dropped down on the list of city priorities, as the city focused on rebuilding neighborhoods and returning residents to their homes, she said.

The resource center has saved three homes since Katrina — including the boyhood home of Edward "Kid" Ory, an early pioneer of the New Orleans jazz sound — but money for the program has since dried up.

"The storm has made it more difficult, for sure," Gay said. "It's really a matter of priorities."

City officials have tried to safeguard against demolishing historical homes in the rush to clean up post-Katrina blight, councilwoman Shelley Midura said. Two years ago, the city created the Neighborhood Conservation District Committee to review all demolition permits throughout the city, she said.

The city doesn't have the resources to save every house, especially when the home's owners can't be found, she said. "Ultimately, it comes down to funding," Midura said.

Even before Katrina, city leaders didn't have a good track record of saving turn-of-the-century homes of jazz musicians and the saloons and dance halls where they played, said Jack Stewart, a local historian and member of the New Orleans Jazz Commission, an advisory board assigned to the U.S. National Park Service.

A study by the commission 20 years ago identified 3,000 historic jazz-related buildings throughout the city, Stewart said. Only about 700 remain, he said. Such downtown bars as the Red Onion, the Pelican and Funky Butt Hall, where Bolden and Armstrong played, have been knocked down to make way for parking lots and City Hall, he said.

No one knows for sure how many were destroyed during Katrina, Stewart said. One building, the Grunewald School of Music, where legendary drummer Earl Palmer and others learned to play, was knocked down by Chicago firefighters in the chaotic weeks following Katrina, he said.

Politics vs. nostalgia

Many times, structures were torn down to make way for city projects, such as the city municipal campus downtown, Stewart said. "When push comes to shove, the political decisions always let the jazz landmarks get demolished," he said.

One well-known example is Armstrong's boyhood home on Jane Alley in the Mid-City neighborhood, which was razed in the 1960s to make way for the Orleans Parish Prison complex.

McIntyre said he was with the preservationists when they raised $9,000 to try to buy and relocate the home. But it was discreetly demolished overnight, he said.

That incident led him deeper into preserving iconic jazz homes, he said. McIntyre, a retired insurance broker, heard about the Halfway House's pending demolition in 2001 and mobilized to save it, including raising renovation funds. The hall, named for its location midway between downtown and the lakefront, once hosted rousing parties led by famed cornet player Albert "Abbie" Brunies and his Halfway House Orchestra, he said.

McIntyre would like to see it converted into a living museum and restaurant with live traditional jazz music. The Orleans Parish Communication District, which administers the city's 911 emergency call system, leases the land and had planned to demolish the structure. The city is studying the building's historic significance.

"We are tearing down more than we are building up," McIntyre said. "We almost lost the French Quarter (in the 1960s). Thank God we had people then who were smart enough to stand in the doorway and say, 'It's not going to happen.' "
Comments: 0