Graffiti is scrawled across the side of the Central City shotgun that was once the home of jazz legend Buddy Bolden, and siding that received a fresh coat of paint a few years ago has begun falling off. In front of the house at 2309-11 First Street, near Simon Bolivar Avenue, trash has been piling up around the abandoned remains of past roadwork.
Like many plans, those for the home of the musical innovator have been frozen in time for the past two years as Covid-19 disrupted every aspect of life here and abroad. But now that the coronavirus numbers are declining and people are starting to awaken from their forced slumber, questions have arisen about what exactly is going on in the 2300 block of First Street and when might work may be proceeding with the rehabilitation of Bolden’s former residence at 2309 First St.
The society said that, despite celebrated restoration plans, the building owned by the Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Missionary Baptist Church remains at severe risk. “The building remains vacant, and an adjacent building also owned by the church burned in April. Bolden’s former home continues to languish.”
A cornet player born in 1877, Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden was not merely a jazz musician: many scholars say he single-handedly originated what we know as jazz today.
“He synthesized the syncopation of ragtime with the improvisation of the blues and made it into dance music. He made something so unique that he was recognized as the king of the genre,” said John McCusker, a jazz historian and tour guide. “If New Orleans is known as the cradle of jazz, then the Bolden house is the crib.”
McCusker said that he and local preservationists Annie Avery and Jack Stewart discovered that 2309 First was Bolden’s residence almost 20 years ago when they were researching the former homes of jazz greats for the Preservation Resource Center’s Jazz Houses plaque program.
Many early jazz musicians, like Bolden, never owned a home and still more moved frequently, so establishing credible addresses for them was not easy. But Bolden was shown living at 2309 First Street (one half of a shotgun double) in the 1900 city directory and in the 1900 census, where he is shown to be a plasterer. By 1902, the directory listed his profession as “musician.”
He was living in the First Street home with his mother in 1906, when he was sent to the state mental hospital in Jackson at the age of 29. Stories vary about what finally ended Bolden’s astonishing musical career and led to his institutionalization. One report states he hit his mother over the head because he thought she was trying to poison him when she was trying to administer medicine.
Such delusions and other factors led to his diagnosis of schizophrenia, considered untreatable at the time. Bolden died in the mental institution in 1931.
In 2008, the Greater St. Stephens Full Gospel Missionary Baptist Church bought both the Bolden house and the identical shotgun next door at 2305-07 First Street. Both structures were occupied by tenants at the time, but after they moved out, the houses remained vacant for a decade.
Without a specific plan for their use, the properties deteriorated to the extent that the city began fining the church, led by Bishop Paul Morton and the Rev. Debra Morton. As momentum grew for saving the property and rehabbing it, PJ Morton — the son of the church’s pastors and a New Orleans-born Grammy award winner — became involved.
“PJ wants to preserve the building and has a plan for it and the neighboring house,” said Brandin Campbell, PJ Morton’s spokesperson. “It’s a passion project for him.”
The very first step of the Buddy’s House Foundation, the nonprofit that PJ Morton founded, was to get a small grant to board up, secure and paint the buildings. Lean-to laundry rooms at the back of each building were removed due to structural and safety concerns.
In the May 2019 issue of Preservation in Print, the headline read “PJ Morton to Restore the Former Home of Buddy Bolden, the Father of Jazz.” Susan Langenhennig, the PRC’s marketing director and magazine editor, wrote about Morton’s plan to restore “the humble shotgun home into a small museum dedicated to Bolden’s life and the influence of his music.” The house next door, she wrote, is slated to become “a recording studio and workshop space where young musicians can learn the business side of the industry.”
At the same time, the PRC participated in a block party hosted by PJ Morton and his team outside the houses, at which plans were revealed to the public. There was a great deal of fanfare and momentum about the prospect of saving the Bolden house. And then …. silence.
According to PRC Executive Director Danielle del Sol, the PRC has not had a recent discussion with PJ Morton about progress or plans for the future.
But that does not mean that progress has not been made, according to Campbell. “We were ready to move forward at the end of 2019, but then Covid hit,” he said. “We thought it was unwise to try to host fundraisers that would put people at risk and to ask for money when so many were suffering financially.”
Planning has proceeded behind the scenes, Campbell said, as the team waited out the pandemic. The nonprofit Buddy’s House Foundation was formed and now has a website, buddyshousefoundation.org. The group got a small grant from the Black and Brown Get Down! Community Defense Fund that allowed it to make $500 grants to 20 musicians to help them through the Covid era. The nonprofit is currently in discussions with several banks to secure funding for the project, and architects are about to be vetted.
“The 2309 half of the house will be a ‘reincarnation’ of the home when Bolden lived there with his mother; the other side of the double will be devoted to Bolden’s musical legacy,” Campbell said. “We plan to involve historians to make sure we do it right.”
While Campbell said that there is no hard-and-fast timetable for getting started, he said that the public can expect to hear and see more about the project in early 2022. “We want to get rocking on this ASAP,” he added.
But those who have spent years advocating for the Bolden house are more than a little bit skeptical that there will be significant action taken.
Ryne Hancock is one of them. A Central City resident and member of a multiracial group dedicated to saving the Bolden house, he said he’s “pissed off” that more hasn’t happened to date.
“We complain all the time about gentrification, and here we have this incredibly important house of a major Black culture bearer and it’s being left to rot. It’s inexcusable — Covid or no Covid,” Hancock said. “I’m frustrated because if this had been a Sidney Torres project, it would have been done by now.”
Likewise, when McCusker learned that PJ Morton’s group vowed to get the house renovation going in early 2022, he had a tart reply: “Well, if you believe that you probably also believe that a fat man in a red suit is coming down your chimney Christmas Eve. It’s not going to happen.”
Reporter R. Stephanie Bruno can be reached at email@example.com.
This is the fifth in a series following up on the Uptown sites named on the Louisiana Landmarks Society’s 2020 list of New Orleans’ Nine Most Endangered Sites.