COMMENTARY FROM NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE’S ERROL LABORDE: Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans and Top 4 Jazz Places
Were it not for Tad Jones, jazz history would be off by 13 months. Jones was the local jazz researcher who made the discovery that Louis Armstrong was wrong about the date he gave for his birth. Armstrong had claimed he was born on July 4, 1900 – certainly a festive date with a nice round number. Jones, however, located Armstrong’s baptismal records at Sacred Heart church on Canal Street and discovered that the infant Satchmo actually made his debut on August 4, 1901. Without the discovery, Satchmo Fest would have been last month rather than this past weekend.
Having a true birth date for jazz’s greatest figure is significant, because so much else about the music’s history is uncertain.
Both the city and the music would profit if an exact place and time where jazz was born could be pinpointed. European tourists would charter a 747 to see such a shrine. Japanese visitors would anxiously bring pictures back home. But there was no "big bang" moment for jazz; it just evolved over years. An attempt in 1995 to declare that year as the jazz centennial and to canonize Buddy Bolden as the music’s founder were premature and inexact. The music form, for which Bolden was part of the evolutionary process, did not even have a name until 1916.
Armstrong, however, provides something solid, something documentable.
Unfortunately, few places from his childhood still stand, but at least the locations are known. The site of the home on Jane Alley where he lived as an infant is now part of the garage complex for the main police station. The Perdido Street home where he grew as an adolescent would have been right across the street from the front entrance of City Hall. Anyone stepping onto Duncan Plaza from the front steps of City Hall would be walking through a memory field of Armstrong’s youth.
Nearby South Rampart Street was part the playground where the young Armstrong rambled, got in trouble, and heard music. Some buildings from his day still stand – though barely.
New Orleans has not done a good job of clinging to its jazz history, but it should not be blamed – sometimes a music form becomes bigger than the place of its creation. An evolving music form often represents a point in time far removed from those who presently live near its cradle. Reggae is more popular internationally than it is in its native Jamaica where locals listen to a music called "dancehall." New Orleanians are just as prone to dance to whatever is on the Top 40 lists as they are to listen to classic jazz.
Yet there are places in town that pay proper homage to the music, an indication that while the city may have been a negligent parent, it still loves the child.
For those who would like to pay respect to the music that Armstrong popularized to the world, here’s our short list of some local jazz spots worth appreciating:
* Hogan Jazz Archive – Tulane University. If you’ re really, really serious about the music this is the spot for research and to perhaps make your own discoveries. The place is an epicenter of jazz scholarship.
* Holiday Inn Downtown-Superdome – 330 Loyola Avenue. A walk through the parking area and the lobby should be required of all New Orleanians. The walls have been painted with murals depicting the early jazz scene that thrived within walking distance along S. Rampart Street. Glance at the neighborhood, stare at the murals and visualize what used to be. The clarinet painted on the side of the building captures the spirit of this place. If the imagination is working right, you can almost see an impish young Armstrong scampering by.
* Palm Court Jazz Café -1204 Decatur St. This is a labor of love for owners George and Nina Buck – the place exists out of passion for classic jazz. Have a drink, get a meal, listen to the music. More than a business this is a shrine that helps provide for the music and the musicians.
* Preservation Hall – 726 St. Peter St. Don’t abandon this to the tourists. Hear the music like it sounded before the big band era – and go ahead, pay the extra five bucks to have them play "The Saints."
Rather than declining, New Orleans’ jazz presence will likely expand in the future. The Jazz Fest, television documentaries and the music itself are stimulating new interest. May the future bring many more songs to be played and many more anniversaries to be celebrated.
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