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Preserving the Cradle of Jazz: The New Orleans Jazz Museum

Preserving the Cradle of Jazz: The New Orleans Jazz Museum
Karl Ackermann By

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Whereas New York has a jazz industry, New Orleans has a jazz culture —Quint Davis
The New Orleans Jazz Club's beginnings, according to a 1950s edition of their bi-monthly newsletter, sprang from a sidewalk meeting of four jazz fans on Mardi Gras in 1948. The impromptu gathering intended to listen to the marching band called King Zulu's. One member of that group inspired the others to begin a club for jazz fans and in February, 1948, twenty-five people gathered in a record store on Baronne St. for the first of more than a half-century of assemblies. After moving the meetings from one civic center to another, a home was found at 1227 Webster Street. The grander ambitions of the club were in the embryonic stage. In the unassuming, residential New Orleans neighborhood, about one-half mile from the Mississippi River, but relatively far removed from the nightlife of the French Quarter, the New Orleans Jazz Club hardly stood out. Not to be confused with a performance club venue, this group was about promoting and preserving jazz, especially the jazz culture of their city. However, as word of the club's existence began to spread (though the club did little to promote itself), jam sessions at their meeting place became more frequent.

As of their 1951 newsletter—The Second Line—the club was charging an annual membership fee of two dollars. The publication focused on promoting jazz and dance hall venues, posting jazz recommendations and artist interviews. The magazine's following pulled in advertising dollars from record stores as far away as Philadelphia, PA. A 1950 issue of the newsletter indicates a formality and sophistication in the intent of the club. The club's then-president was a physician named Edmond Souchon who shared a quote from the organization's Preamble to the Constitution, stating that the purpose for founding the club was "To afford a common meeting ground for lovers of Jazz. To preserve, stimulate, encourage and retain New Orleans jazz, primarily...." Fifty-three years later, the club and the newsletter were still intact and taking on topics such as the direct impact of Hurricane Katrina on the NOLA jazz scene, but in those early years, members offered to share their own collectible memorabilia, and records, books and photographs, giving the club an alternate function as a kind of miniature, members-only museum. That concept appears to have fostered a more formal blueprint for a museum though it was 1961 before that plan was realized.

The Original New Orleans Jazz Museum

The personal possessions of those New Orleans Jazz Club members became the archival foundation of the New Orleans Jazz Museum when it opened on in the French Quartet on Dumaine Street in 1961. The Museum's first director, Henry Clay Watson, wore multiple hats in designing, curating and documenting the burgeoning collections. The bugle and case on which Louis Armstrong learned to play in 1913, and other instruments dating back to the Dixieland era, were among the prized exhibits. There are a number of similarities in the history and circumstances between the New Orleans museum and the first New York Jazz Museum. Watson, like Howard Fisher, the New York director, was not considered a well- seasoned jazz aficionado. In his book Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954-2000 (St. Martin's Press, 2000), journalist Whitney Balliett quotes Red Allen—a New Orleans trumpeter who once played with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong—describing Watson as someone who ..."may not know much about jazz..." By the time the museum had relocated to The Royal Sonesta Hotel in 1969, it had churned through a number of directors. Again, like its New York counterpart, the museum had a difficult time holding down a location and in the early 1970s moved to Conti Street. The same economic recession that had crippled New York was taking its toll on New Orleans and in 1977 the museum's collection was transferred to the Louisiana State Museum and their doors closed.

The New Orleans Jazz Museum, Reborn

The collections that had been retained at the Louisiana State Museum were moved to the Old US Mint on 400 Esplanade St. in 1982 only to be returned to storage after that facility was damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The renovations led to a reopening in 2011, now including a state-of-the-art performance facility. Greg Lambousy is Director of New Orleans Jazz Museum (NOJM) and he provided detailed insights regarding the museum's current state and future goals. Lambousy says of the NOJM, that the organization ..."celebrates the history of jazz, in all its forms, through dynamic interactive exhibits, multigenerational educational programming, research facilities and engaging musical performances. The NOJM enhances New Orleans' ongoing cultural renaissance by providing diverse resources for musicians and music lovers of all languages and nationalities. We fully explore America's quintessential musical art form, in the city where jazz was born."

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