New Orleans, La. –
Recalling the day, decades past, when the childhood home of Louis Armstrong was demolished still makes Bobby McIntrye wince. Then, there's the much fresher example of the home of early New Orleans jazz great Sidney Bechet, torn down in a post-Katrina anti-blight push.
"These places go, and nobody knows any better because nobody seemingly cares, but if they think about it they really should and we're going to make sure in this case that they do," he says.
McIntrye is co-founder of the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz Restoration Society, and the case he refers to is the 400 block of South Rampart Street. This stretch of the New Orleans Central Business District, now occupied by parking lots and a handful of boarded-up buildings, is deeply important to the heritage of New Orleans jazz. Those buildings, now so neglected, were once the theaters and clubs where pioneers of jazz music played, and where a young Louis Armstrong discovered the music he would help take to the world.
"This, if there is a legitimate cradle of jazz, a birthplace, this would have to lay title to it. This is where this music took wings," says McIntryre. "We want to put this back on the map, make it a vibrant, living thing."
Through a mix of fundraising, grants and private investment, the Jazz Restoration Society's goal is to collect enough money to acquire the properties and redevelop the block as a showcase for the history and living traditions of New Orleans jazz. Steven Hattier, a local investment banker and member of the Jazz Restoration Society, feels the potential here is too great to let it simply deteriorate.
"This is pretty low hanging fruit," Hattier says. "We certainly have the need for a cultural institution as it relates to jazz music. And in an economic development point of view, tourism being as important as it is to New Orleans, this would be an icon internationally for the city."
"It's worthy of a museum, and more so as a cultural venue that promotes jazz music," he says. "And there's a real need for that, we feel. In this city there's nothing that really answers that need at this point."
This proposed jazz center would be more than a tourist attraction. Boosters of the plan foresee a venue to bring school children and young adults, teach them jazz music and then give these up-and-comers a stage where they can play.
"It's going to kill two birds with one stone, teach them our music and let them enjoy playing it and getting paid for it," McIntyre says. "We've got to teach kids how important and how much fun this music is."
McIntyre is a veteran jazz musician himself, and to him these Rampart Street buildings are tangible links to the city's jazz heritage and its power to inspire.
"It's been so much a part of our lives, I just absolutely adore it, I cannot describe it, and that's what fosters my image in preserving that which has meant so much to me, but means so much to this city," he says. "Where's the music? We got it, it's right here."
You can reach the New Orleans Jazz Restoration Society at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 6070 Chestnut St., New Orleans, LA, 70118.