"I happened to be driving past the place one day and saw it and it kind of beckoned to me," says local businessman Al Jackson. "It was like, 'Where are you going? Don't you remember me?' So I circled the block and said, that building used to be the negro musician's union hall."
Jackson and Paul Sylvester (owner of Sweet Lorraine's nightclub) purchased the property in 1998 from the estate of the late Judge Israel Augustine, who owned the building since the merger and once practiced law in an office next door. They established a nonprofit organization, the Treme Jazz & Blues Museum/Gallery Inc., to support what they now officially call the Negro Musician's Union Hall. Jackson and Sylvester intend to restore the building -- and preserve its place in New Orleans' musical history -- by making it into a museum and gallery.
Clean-up has already begun, and historic memorabilia like union records and membership cards were found among the mountains of trash. Some of the interior woodwork, windows and window sashes remain intact. Fortunately, cypress wood was used in the original construction, so the building is structurally sound. By the end of this month, a new roof will grace the building.
"It's like a dream come true for me," says Deacon John, the current Union 174-496 vice president. "I've seen that building just sitting there rotting and going to waste. At last, somebody's come along to restore this building to its original elegance."
Like so many other local musicians, Deacon John holds great memories of the union hall and surrounding neighborhood. He tells of a steady stream of musicians and promoters coming in to take care of business. Artists like guitarist Earl King and vocalist Joe Jones constantly rehearsed upstairs, honing future classics along the lines of "Trick Bag" and "You Talk Too Much."
"The rehearsal hall was used just about every night of the week," says Deacon John, who also practiced there. "That's where I met Al Reed, who took me upstairs and showed me how to sing my first record, 'When I'm With You.' Dave Bartholomew used the hall, and there was always Louis Cottrell and all the traditional jazz musicians, and Fats Domino's band. It was like one big Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge hall."
Another tenant of the building, the Off Beat Lounge, was a natural draw for artists, along with nearby clubs like the Pink Palace. Music-related businesses surrounded the hall, including the law offices of Augustine and Freddy Warren, who both specialized in entertainment law. Across the street was Houston's music store, and above Houston's was a studio where saxophonist Harold Battiste auditioned talent for the Specialty Records label.
"It was a cultural mecca right around that corner," says Deacon John.
Jackson sees the building offering further lessons beyond New Orleans' music history. "This is a clear example of a group of people who refused to roll over and play dead," says Jackson. "These gentlemen who conceived the idea in 1902 of forming a union of musicians of color didn't allow the conditions of the day to turn them around. They came together and bought a piece of real estate [in 1949], which made them a part of the landed gentry. They looked out for themselves."
Sylvester and Jackson's mission and nonprofit entity is attracting interest from other organizations with similar interests. The Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure Club shares board members (including Jackson) with the Treme Jazz & Blues Museum/Gallery, Inc. and is an active partner. The New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park has already issued "Save the Hall, Y'all" bumper stickers to kick off an awareness campaign. Organizers have also been in close contact with Preservation Resource Center and African American Historic Preservation.
This weekend's benefit for the Hall at Sweet Lorraine's is the second of a planned series of fundraisers. With support, the goal is to open the museum and gallery during the first week of August, to coincide with Louis Armstrong's 100th birthday.
And Jackson hopes that a former landmark will welcome visitors to the Treme Jazz & Blues Museum/Gallery. He's located the owner of the original sign of Local 496 (who thoughtfully placed the memento in safekeeping) and is appealing for the sign's return.
"We can then restore it to its position of prominence on the building," says Jackson.
Negro Musician's Union Hall benefit, featuring Deacon John and his Orchestra, Davell Crawford, Treme Brass Band
Sweet Lorraine's, 1931 St. Claude Ave., 523-1625
8 p.m. Saturday (March 17)