New Orleans does not have a comprehensive museum that tells the city’s story as the birthplace of jazz. In a way, the whole city is a museum. However, Louis Armstrong Park offers a few opportunities to touch the history of New Orleans jazz. This week’s show took a bit of tour through the park.
The park emerged from a botched urban renewal project where sadly many families were displaced and historic buildings destroyed. The park contains the currently unusable municipal auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and a few buildings owned by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. The common space includes a water feature and several cool sculptures.
Louis Armstrong grew up not too far from where his statue stands in the park. In fact, his statue stares in the direction of Storyville – a legal red light district that provided brothels, saloons and steady flow of clientele who enjoyed the music that evolved into jazz. it was this neighborhood that Armstrong grew up and began playing the horn. Once he left New Orleans for Chicago, he rarely returned but his impact on the city looms large like the statue over his park.
If any one person could be considered the father of Jazz, Charles “Buddy” Bolden would likely have the strongest claim, and yet there is not a lot we know about his life except that for about seven years, he was the hottest musician in New Orleans. Bolden played his coronet by ear blending the many sounds he heard including rag time, gospel and blues to create an improvisational style of music that inspired other jazz pioneers. His career was cut short in 1907 when he was committed to an asylum possibly suffering from schizophrenia.
The grounds of the park are sacred because its where African Americans, slaves and free blacks, gathered on Sundays to trade, talk, play music and dance. Congo Square is widely recognized as the cauldron from which the rhythms of jazz emerged. Part of this area has been renovated and a sculpture depicting the Sunday jazz session quickly captures the visitor’s eye.
The Black Indians of Mardi Gras do not perform jazz but rather perform their own unique percussion based music that includes call and response vocals. The park also includes a statue honoring the Chief of Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, Allison “Tootie” Montana, Big Chief of the Yellow Pocahontas. Tootie Montana is known for elevating the practice of masking as Native Americans to a high art form. Originally a tradition that involved revenge and violence, Mardi Gras Indians today are revered for their detailed use of beads and feathers in constructing elaborate costumes. The goal is not be the toughest, but the prettiest.