Sounds themselves are ethereal, but people, musicians especially, tend to create a lot of very tangible things in the process of honing their craft. Within the city limits alone, more than a century of musical growth left untold amounts of its own evidence, from records to sheet music to photographs to film to miles of tape containing performances and oral histories dating back to the origins of jazz and more. Housed in official archives and private collections, the recordings, documents and personal effects relating to the history of New Orleans music and musicians both corroborate and preserve that story. It also continues to provide invaluable resource materials for scholars who literally make history out of what they can piece together from scraps of paper and lengths of tape.
A mind-boggling wealth of primary documents was lost to Hurricanes Betsy and Camille, and then, of course, came Katrina. Almost two years post-K, most local repositories have triaged their losses and returned to business as usual. Some, like the third-floor Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, were lucky enough to remain intact during Katrina. Knowing what musical riches lie inside the city -- from old 45s to performance halls -- and also knowing, more intimately than we like to admit, how vulnerable we remain, it raises the question: what are we doing with all our history?
Dr. Bruce Raeburn, curator at Tulane University's William Ransom Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz, supervises one of the nation's premiere repositories of documents and recordings relating to early jazz. A division of the Tulane Library's special collections, the archive contains photos, recordings, manuscripts, scrapbooks and memorabilia -- along with an irreplaceable collection of oral histories taken from early jazz artists from the '20s through the '80s. In a paper Raeburn wrote for presentation at the American Library Association conference in June 2006, he outlined the archive's struggle to preserve several local legacies immediately after Katrina.
The most dramatic experience, he says, was the effort to salvage a huge collection of the late Danny and Blue Lu Barker. Almost three months after the storm, the Barkers' collection was still in plastic garbage bags on the floor of the family's house on Sere Street, soaked in sludge. The Historic New Orleans Collection and the Hogan Archive were potential repositories, but first somebody had to locate and rescue the treasure trove.
Former Gambit Weekly editor Michael Tisserand had spoken to the son of Sylvia Barker, who had been handling the potential donation, and he tipped Raeburn off as to its current state. Sylvia Barker sent word that anything they could salvage, they could have. The collection was still a jumble of, among other things, matchbook covers, cocktail napkins, diaries and other documents that are often the essential missing pieces that scholars need to piece together time lines. Raeburn assembled a group and got to work.
"I was due to leave for Paris in less than two weeks but immediately set to work lining up volunteers with storage space for drying and sorting potentially wet and molded materials in order to give Michael [Tisserand] a place to put them," Raeburn wrote.Ê"... The first trip took the team no farther than the front room, where it was discovered that photography albums, portraits and other memorabilia on higher shelves had survived the flooding, but that the better part of the house was essentially a mold farm. Larry [Brunner, Sylvia Barker's son] took what the family wanted for personal reasons and the rest was sent to Jack Stewart's warehouse and then to David Clements' apartment (across the street from the Tisserands' home) for drying.
"A second trip included penetration of the back room and the removal of flooded materials: some 20 boxes were then sent to Belfor for conservation work, including freeze-drying and bombardment with Gamma rays to deactivate the mold. The window of opportunity had been a slim one: Tisserand was taking a job in Chicago and was due to depart the day after Christmas. After I returned from Paris on December 23, we scheduled a second transfer of uncontaminated Barker materials into the archive with the aid of [Gambit Weekly contributor] Jason Berry, at which time Michael confided to me that rescuing the Danny Barker collection was the only thing he had accomplished post-Katrina that made him feel like he was making a difference."
Dr. Jack Stewart, who helped rescue the Barkers' legacy, is a great fan of New Orleans' past. A founding member of the revivalist New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra (which faithfully reproduces hot jazz, ragtime, vaudeville novelty numbers and other musical curiosities), Stewart also is well known as a jazz and architecture historian and preservationist. He's been working to preserve, or at least mark with plaques, New Orleans jazz history landmarks since the 1960s.
Working with current owners of significant properties, he admits, often presents an uphill battle. Since Katrina, he says, things have gotten worse. As we drive toward the Faubourg Marigny, the neighborhood of Jelly Roll Morton's boyhood home -- which Stewart owns and is restoring -- he points out buildings in obvious disrepair. Stewart takes a hard line against people who don't care to restore historic architecture; he uses the word "ruined" liberally.
"Jelly Roll Morton's house was modernized, and ruined," he says. "And I'm trying to undo that right now. People want to be in the suburbs, so they're attempting to make their house in a neighborhood they don't want to be in look like the suburbs. But the next step is to move out, which means they will then leave their old house looking like a piece of pseudo-suburban architecture."
South Rampart Street was a hopping entertainment district at the beginning of the 20th century. It was known colloquially as Black Storyville. Today, two old buildings stand out awkwardly among parking garages and offices: the former Eagle Saloon and Oddfellows Hall, where the legendary cipher of jazz, Buddy Bolden, played; and the site of Morris Karnofsky's music store, where Louis Armstrong did odd jobs as a boy. Farther Uptown, you can make out the outline of what used to be a ticket window on the former Dixie Theater, now a church, beneath layers of lumpy, flat-white paint.
"This had the roof just blown off during the hurricane," Stewart notes. "The roof's now gone, so I guess it'll be only a matter of time before the whole rest of the building falls apart."
Attempts to restore landmarks in low-income neighborhoods, like the part of South Rampart where the old Dixie stands and parts of the Marigny near North Claiborne Avenue, face a great deal of opposition from property owners who aren't interested in bringing blighted houses and churches up to the standards of jazz and architecture preservationists.
"Some people are absolutely determined to tear them down, and if they can't get permission to tear them down, then they'll let them fall down -- demolition by neglect. The storm just helped everything along," says Stewart. Landmark buildings, for example, can only be torn down if they're completely blighted. Owners, Stewart says, often feel they can get more money from some buyers for a blank slate, although he argues that in time, well-maintained historic districts will improve property values.
"Any time you make a historic district, it's just a matter of time before it becomes economically on the rise, because it guarantees to the people that live in them, to some degree, that an atrocity isn't going to go on next door. So you're buying into maybe a derelict neighborhood, but it has a legal framework for stability built in. So the property values start going up immediately."
Stewart can't recall how many houses and districts he's helped push through to landmark status. Sometimes, private donors and public bodies such as the Downtown Development District set up revolving funds to buy up groups of historic buildings and restore them. Other times, restoration and daily life in the neighborhoods find it hard to live side by side.
"That's [1920s Dixieland trombonist's] Louis Nelson's house, the pink one," Stewart points out as we continue our tour. "Some are only slightly mutilated and ruined. See this one, this one hasn't been ruined. Some people are fixing them up pretty much like they are. I don't know what it is -- probably the most ambitious people are the ones that do the most ruination."
Marigny is thick with historical houses. We pass Louis Barbarin's boyhood home at 1832 North Robertson, a bungalow with a plaque outside. We see the former Perseverance Society Hall -- a wilting church that Stewart and the Jazz Restoration Society are helping to repair.
Stewart points out several more benevolent society halls, then gestures towards Sidney Bechet's house as we drive down St. Bernard Avenue. Houses that look occupied often sport cheaper, modern details such as shorter doors, smaller windows and aluminum siding. Abandoned properties, ironically, just as often have their shutters and cornices intact -- but they usually are falling down and foreboding in their disrepair.
"That's a drug wholesale house, a drug warehouse, is what I hear," Stewart says as we pass some buildings on Frenchmen, pulling up to Jelly Roll Morton's house near North Claiborne. Stewart has done a great deal of work on the house since Katrina, aided partly by a cultural economy grant from Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's office, but he's unsure of what to do with the house ultimately, besides simply rent ing it out. He considered turning an apartment in the building into a small museum, but New Orleans no longer has the same call for jazz history walking tours as it had pre-K. There's plenty of need, however, for low-income housing. Stewart hopes the Jazz Restoration Society will adopt the area as a target neighborhood for preservation efforts.
Theresa LeFevre, an executive assistant at the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) and Williams Research Center, confirms that Katrina did no harm to the Collection's 35,000 library items, two miles of documents and manuscripts, and more than 350,000 photographs, prints and drawings. In fact, HNOC reopened its French Quarter headquarters in October 2005 soon after the storm. Its online searchable archive turns up 735 results for "jazz" -- one of its gems being the collection of Bill Russell, a cofounder of the Hogan Jazz archive. Among Russell's collections were oral histories from musicians in the middle of the 20th century.
"At the time, it was widely held that jazz was going out of style -- it was a waning art form," LeFevre explains. "So he very systematically took it upon himself to document older musicians and their work, and he always paid them so that there was no question of ownership or access for scholars."
LeFevre says efforts had been made in certain fields -- carnival history, for one -- to undertake a citywide inventory of collections, making it possible to know what's in the city's various archives. However, because HNOC, and possibly others, is in a constant state of acquisition, such an inventory (or a database with digital scans) would almost always be out of date. Besides, she says, there's no substitute for the original, physical objects.
"The actual artifact provides information plus a physical context, which gives it a museum quality," she explains. "You can preserve and display it for a hundred years. Everybody feels so good about digitizing, but you're depending on someone in the future to migrate your technology. It's very human-dependent. A lot of libraries are getting rid of newspapers, [and digitizing the content] but to me that's precarious, it's a risk."
Digitized backups are an alternative, however, for organizations with the space for originals as well as digital copies. WWOZ-FM nearly lost more than 25,000 records and CDs when a huge section of roof tile blew off its second-story studio in Armstrong Park. The station's archives also include rare old records and live DAT and reel-to-reel recordings, all of which are difficult to move in the face of an oncoming storm. That's why one of the station's current goals is raising a half-million dollars to digitize WWOZ's entire collection. That way, station manager David Freedman says, station employees could just "grab a handful of hard drives and head out of town."
Another big challenge -- and one a citywide inventory or registry of collections might mitigate -- is the large number of private collections. New Orleans is nothing if not a city of fans and collectors. But that also means that individual collectors can lose one-of-a-kind artifacts in a major storm.
Jazz historian Dr. Michael White is a case in point. White lost an entire collection of rare instruments, sheet music, photographs and recordings to flood waters. When musicians Fats Domino and Al "Carnival Time" Johnson lost their Lower Ninth Ward homes to Katrina, decades of personal musical history were lost.
Tulane's Raeburn says he was interested in the idea of a local registry of collections as a way of creating a compendium of all that the city held -- and to help individual collectors get valuable items to safety. Private, Internet-based "optional registries" offer some assistance, but the most popular ones cater to collectors of comic books or DVDs -- to help them trade, buy and sell with each other. Even so, comprehensive indexes can help concerned groups and individuals, like the volunteers who saved the Danny and Blu Lu Barker collection, to locate and bring valuable items in tenuous places to safe harbor when disaster warnings start rolling in.
Jack Stewart's warehouse space, where the Barker collection was hung to dry after the storm, also houses the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra's extensive archive of musical arrangements and Stewart's personal collection. Each collection fills the better part of a thousand square feet. The building saw no flooding, but several windows blew in and the roof sustained some damage. Besides recordings and sheet music, Stewart's personal collection includes more than five thousand books, more than half of which cover jazz and theater history, plus a large collection of photos and primary documents Stewart is using in his current research for a book on bandleader Jack Lain, who died in the mid-1960s.
"I've gotten to the point where I'm always worried about [the collection] now," Stewart says. "What I took with me when we had to leave -- I had to decide what I wanted to take on that Wednesday after the storm when we left. I decided that what I really needed was these two boxes and this ice chest filled with all my stuff on Jack Lain, which was all done from primary research and a lot of talking with relatives who are now dead. If anything was going to be totally lost and very hard to replace, it would be this."
Since its formation as a living archive of traditional jazz in the early '60s, Preservation Hall has acquired, by will as well as by accident, a treasure trove of memorabilia -- from business cards to musicians' union application forms. Now, after years of storing those items out of public view, artistic director Ben Jaffe and his coworkers have set their archive free, releasing even their personal collections to the public in the form of 504 unique box sets of music and memorabilia. They cost $150 each for the individually numbered sets (504 of them, to match the local area code), but to those with the money, it's well worth it.
Going to the back offices at the Hall, as it's known by employees, musicians and habitus, is like entering the cozy attic of an eccentric, arty old relative who could never bear to throw anything away. Offhandedly stacked books teeter on shelves that climb to the ceiling; a broken, partially strung upright bass lies haplessly on its side on the floor; and posters cover the walls at various angles.
Leaning up against one overstuffed bookshelf is an aged bulletin board, the cork long given up its spring; all over it are dozens of musicians' business cards, yellowed and so stuck to the board by years of humidity that the ancient thumbtacks are hardly needed. The cards, among other artifacts, are just part of the Hall's recent release. The 504 box sets, no two quite alike, contain scraps of ephemera from the Hall's half-century of history.
For example, each one contains a CD-DVD set of recordings from the Preservation Hall Band. Yet, each one is like a grab bag; you never know what unique treat lies inside. Opening one will distract any jazz fan for hours. One box contained an invitation to a 1971 release party for a 45 that was never released, plus a copy of that single and some blurry Polaroids of various locations around town, snapped as if the camera's holder had carelessly hit the button. In truth, the photos were shot recently by Jaffe on a vintage '70s Polaroid. The same box held business cards for obscure bands and a K&B photo department envelope -- itself another grab bag. Its contents included a set of prints of local musicians, each of whom looked as if he'd been photographed by someone he knew well.
Curious about how the sets have been received, I searched on-line for reviews. I found a posting from Ben Windham of the Tuscaloosa News, who gleefully listed the contents of his $150 purchase:
"Here's what was in the box," he writes. "A wrinkled photo print sack from K&B Drug Store containing four pictures of The Preservation Hall Jazz Band on tour, with handwritten identifications on the back; a business card for jazz trumpeter George 'Kid Sheik' Colar; a receipt for a sack of oysters; a piece of Sweet Emma's stationery; a 45-rpm recording of The Olympia Brass Band; a formal invitation to a 1974 recording session by the same band; a photo of drummer Abbey 'Chinee' Foster; an all-access pass for a Preservation Hall Jazz Band concert; a Polaroid picture of the Criminal District Court of New Orleans; a photo proof of Larry Borenstein, the art dealer who first presented jazz at what was to become Preservation Hall; a business card for longtime New Orleans bandleader Herb Leary; a beautiful photo of an unidentified trumpet player at home; a copy of the sheet music for James Scott's 'Climax Rag' in the background; a 1961 contract between Allan Jaffe and the John Casimir Band; two different pictures of Billie and Dee Dee Pierce, the wife-and-husband piano-and-cornet team that helped open Preservation Hall; a photo of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in formal attire; and a business card from one of my favorite old-time New Orleans musicians, banjo player 'Creole George' Guesnon.
"All of that, and a CD-DVD set that I have yet to see and hear."
Fabricated or genuine, the Preservation Hall box sets give even laypersons a version of the kind of immediate experience that only touching a physical document, listening to a song on the medium for which it was recorded or standing on an original site can produce: the feeling of an anchored place in the trajectory of history.
It's that way for the jazz rescuers as well, only more so: what they are fighting for is so worth saving -- and, as Tisserand put it, they have the added satisfaction of knowing they are making a difference.