A Jazz Museum for NOLA

I was interested to read Jan Ramsey’s OffBeat discussion of the relative failure of NOLA to honour it’s most famous (and of course America’s most famous art form, Jazz) not to mention the rather patchy public space recognition accorded to its most famous musical sons and daughters. Plaques such as located at the site of Cosimo Matassa‘s J&M Recording Studio and Coco Robicheaux‘s bust of Professor Longhair at Tipitina’s and other assorted statues mentioned by Jan, are in toto, a rather poor showing. A focal point such as a museum is really needed. Jan writes:

This is an idea that’s been in the works for over a decade, but as per usual, nothing moves fast in New Orleans. While this is a great start towards a music museum in New Orleans, we need something grander to celebrate New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz. Impresario and musician Irvin Mayfield was involved in proposing a national jazz center on the corner of Loyola and Perdido, but that project has been on hold for years.

I don’t think that the problem of getting such projects of the ground is unique to NOLA (especially in a downturned economy) – people forget that Boston has a pretty murky local political culture as well. Having been privy to some of the deep background and civic machinations behind the proposed (and stalled) Boston Museum and other big projects elsewhere (Vancouver) I have a few thoughts on the matter.

First, while Jazz would understandably be the predominant theme, this being NOLA, a wonderful emergent and dynamic social and musical soufflé (or Gumbo if you want to invoke a well-worn cliché), it shouldn’t be exclusively a Jazz theme. A history should give Jazz context (social and musical) and that includes Gospel, the Blues, marching bands, Cajun, early R &R, even C & W and much more besides – right bang up to date with the likes of Wynton Marsalis‘ work with Simon Rattle and Eric Clapton as well as the power funk of Trombone “Shorty” and hip-hop.

Second, people get too detracted by capital projects at the expense of substance. At best these structures tend to become vanity projects for funders, civic leaders and others often neglecting the content and the day-to-day overhead entailed once the structure is in place. While it’s nice to have wonderful new structures such as the Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa (money no object), this very impressionistic rendering just doesn’t cut it (to me it reeks of a conference centre/mall aesthetic). One can get a bigger bang for the buck by having a much simpler building hopefully, as Jan says, with a decent location.

Thirdly, loose alliances should be forged say with Preservation Hall, the “Pops” museum in Corona, NY and others who are doing such a fabulous job at not merely being “museumy” but are strong programmatically, putting on concerts and in the case of the latter, offering a valuable research resource. A Jazz museum should be ALIVE and offer up-close rehearsal and performance facilities, and not least, outreach programmes to get the kids in, whatever their musical tastes.

A NOLA Jazz museum could be both a regional attraction drawing in interest from Nashville, Memphis and Austin but also a world “Mecca” for all things Jazz. The upshot is that an imaginative, vibrant and historically informed curating vision should come first. Only then can a suitable (and cost-effective) building be tailored to meet these needs. Of course, compromises are inevitable . . .