The red house at the corner of Frenchmen and Robertson stands out among its neighbors, the most brightly colored on a block dominated by grays and browns. No plaque marks the home today. The only clue to passersby of its history is a portrait in the bottom of a front window: a headshot of its most famous resident, beaming with an exuberant, toothy grin.
It’s been over a century since Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton called 1443 Frenchmen Street home. As with so many facts in the life of the man who claimed to have “invented” jazz, the dates of his residency are fuzzy, but they include at least the late 1890s. The Jelly Roll House, as it is affectionately known, belongs to contractor and jazz historian Jack Stewart, who also happens to play in the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra. In 1970, Stewart and six acquaintances pooled their money — $500 each — and bought the house. They called themselves Red Hot Peppers Land & Exploration, after Morton’s famous band. Stewart describes the condition of the house at that point as “pretty bad,” and for his partners the honeymoon was brief. “After a while they decided they were sick and tired of it,” he says. The group handed ownership over to Stewart, telling him to take as long as he needed in paying them back their share. Jazz historical home renovation is a lonely business.
Between 1970 and 2005, Stewart witnessed the slow decline of the neighborhood. “When we first bought the house, it was an upwardly mobile, lower middle class neighborhood,” he says. “From the mid ’90s through the hurricane, it started getting really bad.” He tells of tenants boarding up their windows — not for hurricane protection, but to stop people wrapping themselves in blankets and hurling themselves through the glass to rob the house.
Stewart harbors no great affection for his renters from that era. “The tenants I had from 1970 to the storm, they really just tore it to shreds,” he says. “As nice as you made it, they wrecked it. And they never did pay the rent.” It’s easy to see why Stewart’s investment partners got fed up with the whole enterprise; maintaining the house in those years was a labor of love.
The house is built in unassuming mid-19th century Creole style. A second-floor overhang, supported by simple, decorative wrought-iron beams, juts out the front of the building, shading a raised porch. In their Morton biography Jelly’s Blues, Howard Reich and William Gaines describe the house as “enormous among its neighbors.” That it is no longer, though its pointed roof remains the tallest on the block. “Its brick-and-cement foundation,” they continue, “supported a white frame structure stretching so long it obviated the prospect of a backyard.”
Today, much of the house’s small, enclosed rear area is taken up by a fenced-in dog run. A litter of jet-black Patterdale Terrier puppies carouses behind a chain-link fence. “I’ve been into Patterdales forever,” says Peter Loggins. “They’re little hunting dogs. These guys love destroying nutria.” Loggins has owned Tim, the patriarch of the pack, since the ’90s. His snout is flecked with white in old age, but it’s still just possible to picture him reveling in the pursuit of an overgrown swamp rodent.
Loggins is a multi-instrumentalist who can be seen sitting in with a number of traditional jazz outfits on the Frenchmen Street scene. But he’s more apt to talk about his dance. Before arriving in New Orleans he lived in Los Angeles, where as a specialist in swing and early jazz dance he built an unusual resume. Check him out dancing in the opening sequence of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
“’95 was when I started my Jelly Roll phase,” says Loggins. “I’ve always been infatuated will Jelly Roll Morton as a musician. I loved the fact that he was a hustler.” Loggins loves the history of jazz, grit and all, and resents what he calls the “Ken Burns version.” A milk-crate bookshelf in his apartment is stuffed to bursting with biographies and tomes on early jazz and dance. Each year for Morton’s birthday, he holds a backyard get-together, complete with a piano.
Loggins is senior among the current crop of tenants, all of whom have moved in during the years following Katrina. “Katrina really tore the place to shreds,” says Stewart. Sometime after the storm he hit on the idea of offering the place (which is subdivided into three apartments, one above, two below) as a residence for musicians. It seemed like a natural fit, not just because of the Morton connection, but because it’s just a few blocks away from the Frenchmen Street club scene. “It’s right on the street where I earn a living,” says guitarist Jason King (of Smoking Time Jazz Club, among other groups). “I can ride my bike wherever I need.” King occupies the smaller of the ground floor apartments.
On Loggins’ wall hangs a Times-Picayune clipping from January 2011. Jack Stewart stands in an empty lot, the remains of Sidney Bechet’s childhood home bulldozed that month during a period of anti-blight frenzy on the part of the city government. Preservationists, including Stewart, had tried to save the house, going so far as to court the French government during its post-Katrina relief efforts. But things were complicated by the absenteeism of the owner. “I used to drive by the Bechet house every day,” says Loggins. “Just gone one day. No post ups, no nothing. Just gone.”
It’s not so hard to imagine a parallel universe in which the Morton house has met that same fate, corroded by decades of neglect and then swept aside in the political free-for-all that is blight removal in post-Katrina New Orleans. Preserving the homes of long dead jazz musicians is not a topic that arouses much excitement in the average citizen — understandably, for one can hardly toss a trumpet in this town without hitting some priceless bit of musical history. But Jelly Roll Morton is not your average jazz legend. In the eyes of most jazz fans, he falls into that rarefied tier of musicians whose sheer originality and creative force molded the music indelibly in its formative era. Even today, he’s one of a handful of early jazz greats whose name perks ears worldwide.
“Sometimes tourists from New Zealand will come with their backpacks and their cameras and take pictures of the house,” says Emily Estrella. “I have no idea how they find it.”
Estrella moved into the house over a year ago and now resides on the second floor. It was her first home in New Orleans. The 7th Ward was a bit of an adjustment from her previous residence, nannying for a lawyer friend in the posh suburb of Glastonbury, Connecticut.
“It seemed like the Wild West to me,” she recalls. “Chickens, packs of dogs roaming, gunslinging outlaws, Indians, stuff I never expected to see in the city at all.” Gunslinging outlaws is a pleasant euphemism for the gang violence that erupts occasionally on the streets of the neighborhood. Estrella decided that her adopted neighborhood needed a name. A lover of Spanish, she christened it the “Faux Barrio” (faubourg + barrio). The term found its way into the name of her band, the Faux Barrio Billionaires, which she fronts as a singer.
“It does seem quite sad that people don’t recognize the history around here,” says Estrella. “Coming to New Orleans was kind of like a pilgrimage for me.” As for Morton, she credits him with setting her life on track long before she moved into his childhood home.
“I had been ill for some time, I hated my job, and I couldn’t get out of that feeling of being stuck in the muck,” she remembers. Around that time, the band she was playing with, inspired by Morton’s famous record, added the song “Doctor Jazz” to its repertoire. It began to echo in her head and became a sort of theme song to her life, fueling her on daily bike rides and generally kindling her love of the music that eventually brought her to New Orleans. Jack Stewart shares that enthusiasm, calling Morton’s rendition of “Doctor Jazz” (the tune was originally written by Joe “King” Oliver) one of the “absolutely perfect” jazz records.
As Stewart sees it, the city’s hair-trigger stance on demolition and blight removal has eased somewhat since the early days of the Landrieu administration — perhaps in part thanks to the outcry over incidents like that surrounding the Bechet home. “When Landrieu first came in he was just determined to tear down as much stuff as he possibly could,” says Stewart. “I think he thinks it’s bad PR to go out and do that now.”
Few American cities are as preoccupied with their past as is New Orleans. There’s always a tension between the need to hold on to that past and the fear of becoming a museum; but with a house like Morton’s, that tension is easily resolved. Provided a steward willing to maintain the place through hurricanes and the changing fortunes of the surrounding neighborhood, it can remain a functional residence while respecting, even celebrating its history. Besides, architectural styles in New Orleans are charmingly long-lived.
“I guess it puts you in an elite club of owning a famous musician’s house,” Stewart jokes. He recalls a conversation with clarinetist Dr. Michael White in Audubon Park during which the latter inquired as to the success rate of Stewart and his accomplices in maintaining historical buildings in the face of the city. “I said it’s a little over 50 percent,” remembers Stewart. “And he says, ‘That’s pretty good.’ I had thought it was pretty terrible. That made me feel a little better.”