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New Orleans strikes wrong chord

Renewal razes jazz landmarks

By Cain Burdeau
Associated Press / January 30, 2011

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NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans’s heritage as the cradle of jazz helps it draw millions of visitors each year. 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 saxophone 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,’’ added his friend, Charles Spencer, 42. “The roof had fallen down, but it could have been fixed.’’

And just like that, the simple shotgun-style house 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 that few tourists venture into.

Xavier University music professor and clarinetist Michael White said he is 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.

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