April 27, 2021

A Dynamic Performance: Three Historic Homes Tell the Story of Blues and Jazz in America

Jazz is shaped by its improvisation, and when musicians fall into the style and let the performance move them, the music becomes ever more dynamic—a living experience that moves the listener too. Through the hands of musical geniuses such as John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and blues musician Muddy Waters—whose work helped to influence what was to come—music became transformative.

Through support from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, three historic sites show the breadth of that legacy and continue to inspire today.

Muddy Waters House, Chicago, Illinois

We cannot talk about jazz without mentioning its roots in the blues, a sound born out of the Deep South that made its way North with the Great Migration into the Chicago music scene.

McKinley Morganfield, better known as blues icon Muddy Waters, purchased his 1889 two-flat in the South Side of Chicago in 1954. Waters and his family called it home, living in the first-floor apartment until his move to the Chicago suburbs in 1974. The second floor was used as temporary quarters for visiting musicians and performers in need. He turned the basement into a recording and rehearsal studio with rear living quarters for band members after late-night sessions and overflow space to accommodate visitors.

A woman standing in the foreground of the interior of a building that is in the process of rehabilitation.

photo by: Edward Torrez/Bauer Latoza Studio

Chandra Cooper, Muddy Waters' great-granddaughter and president of the Muddy Waters Mojo Museum, stands inside the museum.

Today, the home is a part of the Chicago-based and all Black women-led Black House Museum Coalition, and the plan is to open the house as the Muddy Waters Mojo Museum, a cultural space for the community and visitors to gather and learn more about Waters’ legacy.

A 2020 Action Fund awardee—funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—the Muddy Waters Home needed critical repairs due to deterioration from water damage. With the help of the City of Chicago and Landmarks Illinois, the house has a new roof and plans to stabilize the house itself. The cupola and brickwork around the roof have also been repaired. Preservation architect Edward Torrez completed architectural plans and drawings, setting up the museum to proceed with the interior restoration.

“There is valuable history in the walls of that house that has to be told and a rare gem honoring this music space,” says Chandra Cooper, president of the Muddy Waters Mojo Museum and Waters’ great-granddaughter. “It tells of the Black migration and how they found their success, their legacy and piece of American history.”

The John and Alice Coltrane Home, Dix Hills, New York

The John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills (Long Island), New York, is an unassuming brick ranch-style house in a residential neighborhood. The Coltranes lived there with their four children from 1964-1973, including the last three years of John Coltrane’s life before his death in 1967. It was there that he created his masterwork A Love Supreme. His wife Alice, a talented musician within her own right, recorded her first album A Monastic Trio and other works in the home’s basement studio.

The living room interior, which inspired John Coltrane's composition "Living Space," included on his 1965 album, "Crescent."

photo by: Joshua Scott

The living room at the John and Alice Coltrane Home.

Named a National Trust National Treasure in 2018, HOPE Crew conducted restoration work on the house in 2019. Today the house is owned by the Friends of the John and Alice Coltrane Home with the land maintained by the Town of Huntington, who also works with the National Trust and the Coltrane Family.

The vision for the house is as a cultural center open to the public where the basement would act as an interactive and experimental space for creatives. It will also have other areas for workshops and educational gatherings. An architectural assessment is underway and its business plan, funded by the Action Fund and the The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, is complete. Landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz is currently working on plans to design its grounds, a 3-acre park inspired by A Love Supreme’s music composition and notation.

Nina Simone Childhood Home, Tryon, North Carolina

Eunice Waymon was born in this modest, clapboard three-bedroom house in Tryon, North Carolina, in 1933. It was also in this house that her parents John and Mary Waymon nurtured the talent and awareness—from the age of three— that defined the woman who would become jazz legend and civil rights activist Nina Simone.

Nina Simone's Childhood Home, a white clapboard house with black trim.

photo by: Nancy Pierce

The Nina Simone Childhood Home after a 2019 HOPE Crew project painted the exterior.

By age six, Simone accompanied her mother’s church choir and started taking formal piano lessons from Muriel Mazzanovich, who taught her at the house for the next four years. At her debut recital, 11-year old Simone refused to play until her parents were restored to their front row seats after being made to move for white attendees.

Mazzanovich helped to spark her love of classical music and established the Eunice Waymon Fund so that she could continue her musical training upon leaving for boarding school and later the Juilliard School in New York City. Denied entry to Philadelphia’s Curtis School of Music due to her race, she started playing gigs at an Atlantic City bar, and Nina Simone the performer was created.

In 2017, when the house was in danger of demolition, four Black American artists—Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher, and Julie Mehretu—stepped in to buy it (under the auspices of an LLC). In the five years since, the National Trust (using funding from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), World Monuments Fund, the Nina Simone Project, and the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission worked with the artists to develop a preservation plan.

The work on the house includes rehabilitation and stewardship plans, community engagement work, and, in Spring 2021, restoration of the house’s exterior. Through vision and collaboration, the humble beginnings of what would become a huge legacy will be preserved and protected for future generations to be inspired.

A defining element of jazz is its perceived unpredictability, but even that means paying attention to other musicians, how the piece sounds at that moment, and being able to be flexible with the next musical choices, the sound of the next note. This measure of improvisation also exists within the work of preservation. As a field, we must collaborate and work with each other, the parts all coming together in often changing and unexpected ways to achieve a singular project and goal—the preservation of sites such as these for years to come.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Lawana Holland-Moore is the director of fellowships and interpretive strategies for the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More