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Living Spaces: Preserving Jazz Homes

Saving the places where great 20th-century jazz musicians lived presents many challenges

Louis Armstrong in his Corona, Queens home—now the Louis Armstrong House Museum (photo: Yuzo Sato/courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum)

Against all odds, Alice Coltrane’s meditation rugs remain vivid gold, scarlet, and green. Since she sold the home she’d shared with her husband John in Dix Hills, New York, in 1973, the place has been infested with mold, raided for copper wire, and overtaken by wild animals. Even sandblasted and stripped to the studs, though, the ’50s abode still retains some of Alice’s chakra-colored decor. Poking out of drab construction wrapping, the rugs’ vibrancy is impossible to ignore.

True, the house is just a shell right now. But they’re symbolic, these flashes of color against brown and beige. A gaggle of selfless volunteers have tamed the house’s surrounding overgrowth, planted flowers out front, and installed indoor plumbing. The Coltrane Home’s president, Steve Fulgoni, foresees a future where the house is an artist’s retreat and educational center. Really, the potential is incalculable—if the necessary money rolls into their nonprofit.

The Coltrane Home speaks volumes about the houses once inhabited by American jazz and creative music heroes. Neither knocked-down nor functional, the place sits in the middle of the spectrum between neglect and restoration. On the one extreme, Louis Armstrong’s house has been painstakingly maintained in a historically intact state, used as a museum and events center. On the other, Buddy Bolden’s is a moldering mess in need of rescue.

The Armstrong House’s exterior today (photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum)

BUDDY BOLDEN’S HOUSE
At 2309-11 First Street in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood—far from the tourist-filled Bourbon Street—is a house once occupied by Bolden at the turn of the 20th century. Some scholars regard the legendary cornetist as the principal “inventor” of what we now call jazz, but if you’ve never heard his music, there’s a reason for that: Not a single recorded note of it is known to exist. In 1907, Bolden suffered an episode of alcoholic psychosis that landed him at the Louisiana State Insane Asylum in Jackson, Louisiana, where he remained until his death in 1931.

For decades, the 1880 house remained vacant and boarded-up—in short, nothing you’d look at twice. Then, a glimmer of hope appeared in 2019, when Maroon 5 keyboardist PJ Morton went to the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans requesting assistance to turn the house into a mini-museum and the twin-shotgun house next door into a recording studio. To this end, he formed the Buddy’s House Foundation, a nonprofit corporation aiming to refurbish the place.

The house had landed on Morton’s radar thanks to his parents, Bishop Paul S. Morton and Dr. Debra B. Morton, who were both senior pastors at the nearby Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, which the keyboardist attended. Greater St. Stephen bought both structures in 2008; a spokesman told the Oxford American in 2019 that they wanted the buildings for church work. Still, for years the church didn’t refurbish them, leading to citations from the City of New Orleans for a laundry list of violations, involving everything from the doors to the windows to the gutters.

Morton didn’t initially know who Bolden was, despite attending church a stone’s throw away from his digs. “I feel a little embarrassed by it because I’m supposed to know this,” he told the Preservation Resource Center in 2019. “But if I didn’t know about Bolden, then a lot of people don’t know. This history wasn’t widely taught.” When Morton moved back home in 2016, he picked up on discussions surrounding the Bolden house and had an epiphany.

“When I started to educate myself, I got chills,” he said in the same interview. “It was amazing to me that I was so close to greatness for all those years growing up. I immediately asked my parents to let me take on the project of protecting Buddy’s legacy.” Morton cited the fact that the stoop Bolden sat on to play his horn remains. “It gives not only the people of Central City and New Orleans a physical monument to point to as a source of inspiration, but also the whole world,” he continued.

In January 2020, the Buddy’s House Foundation earned nonprofit status. The following month, they developed a social media presence. Still, between Morton’s touring commitments with Maroon 5 and the endless administrative work associated with such an undertaking, the boulder remains on an uphill push.

“That effort was put on hold because the state and the city paused us to fix the place up,” Morton told the Oxford American. “I brought [New Orleans PR company Capture Connect Media owner] Brandin [Campbell] on board specifically to get the marketing together and focus on the fundraising. I was trying to do it alone, and the way that I tour so much, I wasn’t able to do it.”

Due to the enormity of Bolden’s contributions to jazz—and, by extension, an array of other genres—Morton sees the preservation effort as not limited to New Orleans. “Buddy, for me, planted the seed for American music,” he elaborated. “I don’t just look at it as jazz. New Orleans jazz turned into R&B, and that turned into rock & roll. I try to tell people that this isn’t just a New Orleans thing, it’s a world thing.”

Also on the worse-for-wear—but not necessarily doomed—side is John Coltrane’s house in Philadelphia.

JOHN COLTRANE’S PHILADELPHIA HOUSE
In 2021, word spread like wildfire around social media. The house at 1511 North 33rd Street in the Strawberry Mansion section of Philadelphia where saxophonist John Coltrane lived from 1952 until 1958 and composed classics like “Blue Train” and “Giant Steps” was slated for demolition.

However, the rumors on Jazz Instagram turned out to be erroneous: A neighboring property was about to get the hammer, and the adjacent structures were to remain unharmed.

But although the Strawberry Mansion house has been on Philadelphia’s Register of Historic Places since 1985 and the National Register of Historic Places since 1999, it’s not out of the woods. A year prior to the internet panic, the state preservation organization Preservation Pennsylvania deemed the house “at-risk” due to its rough physical state and nearby fires and demolitions.

“It’s embarrassing to the legacy of John Coltrane to be on such a list,” Faye Anderson, an activist and the director of the public history project All That Philly Jazz, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2020.

After Coltrane left Philly for New York City, he passed the home to his cousin Mary Lyerly Alexander—best known to the world as “Cousin Mary” as per his famous Giant Steps tune. In 2004, Alexander sold the place to jazz fan Norman Gadson and moved into a nursing home, where she passed away in 2019. Now the house is owned by Gadson’s daughter Aminta Weldon, who has raised funds through a nonprofit to try and rehabilitate it.

Kevin Thorbourne, a volunteer at the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, maintains that the saxophonist’s earlier Philadelphia residence is still threatened. “A petition for demolition has been submitted, but I think we can possibly stop that,” he tells JazzTimes. “My fear is that through the legal cost and legal battle, it might result in more deterioration, and that would be very, very sad.”