Recalling the day, decades past, when the childhood home of Louis Armstrong was demolished still makes Bobby McIntyre wince. Then, there’s the much fresher example of the home of early New Orleans jazz great Sidney Bechet, torn down in a post-Hurricane 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 that they do,” he says.
McIntyre is co-founder of the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz Restoration Society, a group now targeting the 400 block of South Rampart Street for restoration. This stretch of the Central Business District, occupied by parking lots and just a handful of buildings, is deeply important to jazz heritage. 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.
“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. It would be a jazz center of sorts with educational programs, exhibits and, of course, performance spaces. To start, the group has its sights set on the historic building that once housed the Little Gem Saloon, a tavern at the corner of Poydras and South Rampart streets where early jazz pioneers played.
The Jazz Restoration Society’s plans call not for a tourist attraction, but rather a venue to bring schoolchildren 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.”