Two months after Hurricane Katrina, when most of the city lacked electricity, the first museum to reopen was Backstreet in Tremé, across from St. Augustine church. Sylvester Francis founded the cultural showcase to Mardi Gras Indians and jazz funerals in a small building that was called Blandin Funeral Home in an earlier incarnation. Francis, who videotaped parades, gathered Indian suits and funeral memorabilia, lost his home in the Lower Nine. He made his way back from exile in Texas and reopened Backstreet, living in the kitchen as he made repairs.
Backstreet now has a neighbor in the grassroots world of cultural expositions: Tremé’s Petit Jazz Museum at 1500 Governor Nicholls St. This is the brainchild of Al Jackson, for many years a subcontractor on general construction for the Army Corps of Engineers. Jackson grew up in the neighborhood, grooving to the music. In the 1990s Jackson and a group of investors, including Palm Court owner Nina Buck, purchased a building at 1480 N. Claiborne that was once the Off-Beat Lounge. “The Musicians’ Union 496 had a hall on the upper floor,” says Jackson. The plan was for a jazz museum.
The project was developing when the building collapsed. He got the call from one of his partners, made a beeline for the site and looked on with a sinking sense of loss. As people gathered, rhythm-and-blues singer Ernie K-Doe sidled up, saying, “I’m so sad, little brother. Can I offer you a beer?” Jackson began gathering boxes and files lathered in the dust, getting them into plastic bags. He drove home. The first thing he pulled out of a bag was a 1954 contract for Louis Armstrong, a job in Biloxi that paid $1,000. “I thought, Oh my God, what else is in here?”
A lot, it turned out: contracts for Little Richard playing at the Dew Drop, Ray Charles for a gig at the San Jacinto (a club later demolished to clear land for present-day Armstrong Park), raw materials of history. “And then the Holy Grail,” says Jackson. “A decent ledger from 1941 through 1952 of every musician who played in New Orleans and signed in with the local union – Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Sister Rosetta Tharp. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
It took Jackson years to realize his dream. Tremé Petit Jazz Museum has paintings, photographs and new materials added as Jackson casts his archival net. He gives a lecture to his visitors.
“Jazz didn’t drop out of the skies,” he says, warming to his topic. “I take people back to Africa and the djimbi drum, how the music moved into the Caribbean, blended with French music in St. Domingue and came here. I tell the story of the evolution of music in the African diaspora and how it shaped the music of New Orleans.”
Tremé’s Petit Jazz Museum features live music on weekend nights and Sunday afternoon. Jackson, meanwhile, is working on a biography of Jordan Noble, a slave boy who played drums at age eleven at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. “Andrew Jackson pulled him out of slavery in 1835; he fought against the Seminoles in Florida. In 1840 Jordan Noble fought in the Mexican-American War. Here’s a guy who deserves a statue.”