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Group Races to Save the Cradles of Jazz

Buildings represent history of music, and black communities

March 15, 2004|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

ALGIERS, La. — In a wooden cottage across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, Annie Avery peered outside -- which wasn't hard to do, since the front door was missing -- and scowled at the sky.

"Looks like rain," she said.

This was not idle conversation, but practical observation. Because if it rained out there, it was going to rain in here, right through the holes in the roof. The thin walls were made of planks patched with cardboard and etched with rambling tunnels left by termites. The yard was littered with trash: a muddy doll, a blackened kettle, a faded fedora pocked with almost as many holes as the roof.

In this hovel, Avery, the director of an African American heritage program, hears a beautiful song. The sound is big and brassy, syncopated and swinging, and it made New Orleans the cradle of jazz. Avery believes the sound is the soul of New Orleans, her beloved hometown. And she is out to save it, one dilapidated building at a time.

In a campaign long on ambition and short on funding, music aficionados and historians have targeted for preservation nearly 2,000 New Orleans-area buildings connected to the birth of jazz -- from the childhood homes of its pioneers to the mammoth halls where they performed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Jazz musicians -- An article in Monday's Section A on efforts to preserve nearly 2,000 New Orleans-area buildings connected to the birth of jazz incorrectly stated that trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen was born almost 90 years ago. He was born on Jan. 7, 1908, almost 100 years ago.

By poring over old phone books and dusty property records, through word of mouth and even the stubs of timeworn rent checks, researchers and historians have identified more than 600 homes and 1,300 performance halls linked to the early days of jazz, said Jack Stewart, a New Orleans resident who owns a home restoration company and is a jazz historian leading the project. Many more buildings are expected to be identified in coming months.

"We haven't even scratched the surface," he said.

There is the old men's gymnasium on the campus of Tulane University, now used by an ROTC program, where Joe "King" Oliver thrilled the first generation of jazz fans before triumphantly marching on to Chicago.

There is the shotgun-style house off Jackson Avenue where cab driver Johnny Dodds lived as a boy, taught himself clarinet and created an emotional, bluesy style later adapted by Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.

And there is this house in Algiers -- long abandoned, 15 feet wide and 35 feet long, tucked into a forgotten corner of the New Orleans area. Almost 90 years ago, Henry "Red" Allen, a trumpet prodigy who torched a dizzying and innovative path through the jazz world for five decades before dying in 1967, was born here.

On this afternoon, a stray, pregnant dog strolled down the middle of the narrow street. Three men stood on the corner, sipping silently from tall beer cans sleeved in brown paper bags. On an abandoned lot next door, several cars rested on weed-covered blocks, their tires removed, mostly likely for good.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" said Avery of the nonprofit Preservation Resource Center, which promotes the protection of New Orleans-area neighborhoods and architecture.

She stepped onto the porch gingerly, partly because of a bad knee, but also because sections of the floor bowed under the slightest weight.

Contractors buzzed around, some on ladders assessing the home's tired crossbeams, some on their knees working on its gnarled floor.

"Give me a few months," she said. "You won't recognize the place."

The Allen house is the second project undertaken by the preservation center, following an effort that resulted in the purchase and refurbishment of the boyhood home of trombonist Edward "Kid" Ory, a member of one of the first African American jazz bands to record professionally.

The group recently bought the Allen home for $6,000 from a government agency that had slated it for demolition, Avery said. Like most of the properties targeted for preservation, the Allen home will not be taken off the real estate rolls after it's fixed up. It will be sold on the open market, probably for between $90,000 and $100,000, Avery said.

Working with the New Orleans Jazz Commission, an advisory arm of the National Park Service, the Preservation Resource Center plans to mark the Allen home with a plaque explaining the musician's influence on jazz. Organizers hope for dozens of similar plaques, which would be used to lead visitors on a tour of jazz history.

The group's board also is trying to devise a contract that will require buyers of the refurbished properties to meet certain standards of upkeep, maintain plaques for visitors and consult with the preservationists before reselling.

The resource center hopes to cobble together money for its program through a combination of government grants, bank loans and donations. Any profit earned from the Allen house would go toward buying future properties the organization wants to preserve.

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