- Associated Press - Friday, January 7, 2011

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans’ heritage as the cradle of jazz helps it draw millions of visitors each year, and the city reminds them of that history with pamphlets, murals and bright neon. Yet numerous homes and music halls that incubated the art form have disappeared, with the city allowing the most recent of them to be razed late last year.

In the push to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina and eliminate eyesores, officials unwittingly approved the demolition of the childhood home of jazz great Sidney Bechet. While many landmarks still stand, the city lacks markers at many places where pioneers lived and learned how to play. Other cities have razed jazz history, too, but the spate of New Orleans demolitions in recent years has alarmed enthusiasts.

“They took a backhoe and knocked it down, and hauled it away in a trailer,” said Melvin Peterson, a 76-year-old minister who lives across the street from where Bechet’s home was wrecked in October.

“They pulled up and went about tearing it down,” his 42-year-old friend, Charles Spencer, added. “The roof had fallen down, but it could have been fixed.”

And just like that, the simple shotgun-style home where Bechet learned to play music has been added to the growing list of missing pieces to the story of jazz, which was born and bred in working-class New Orleans neighborhoods like this one, called New Marigny, that few tourists venture into.

Xavier University music professor and clarinetist Michael White said he’s disillusioned by the lack of preservation efforts by the city.

“These homes should stand as monuments of creativity and something positive in the neighborhood,” he said.

This lament is heard elsewhere, too.

“A lot of jazz locations were in poor areas to start with; they just haven’t made it,” said Esley Hamilton, the preservation historian for St. Louis County, Mo. In St. Louis, jazz-era buildings in Gaslight Square, along the Mississippi riverfront and the Mill Creek Valley area were bulldozed.

Dan Morgenstern, the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, said more work needs to be done to identify important buildings before they’re targeted for demolition.

“Most of the time, we don’t even hear about (demolitions),” he said. “They are done without the press knowing about it or the people doing the nasty work of tearing them down knowing what they’re doing.”

On Chicago’s South Side, clubs and the homes of musicians from jazz’s heyday were repeatedly torn down after the 1930s.

“To my knowledge, there is no home of a famous jazz artist from those two first decades enshrined,” said Richard Wang, an emeritus music professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Urban renewal struck Kansas City too. In the 1960s, a Charlie Parker home was torn down, as were many clubs where Count Basie and Parker played along 12th Street.

But the number of success stories is growing, jazz enthusiasts said. In 2003, Louis Armstrong’s home in the Queens borough of New York was opened as a museum. A John Coltrane home on Long Island, N.Y., is undergoing renovations after it was saved in 2004. And two Charlie Parker homes were recently discovered in Kansas City.

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