Exterior Louis Armstrong Center

photo by: Nic Lehoux

Preservation Magazine, Fall 2023

Five Places to Experience and Explore the Art of Jazz

Late one night in 1943, a road-weary Louis Armstrong, returning from tour, hailed a taxi. Settling in, he read off an unfamiliar address his wife, Lucille, had relayed to him: 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens. When the car rolled up to the three-story house, the great trumpeter later recalled, “One look at that big fine house, and right away I said to the driver, ‘Aw man quit kidding and take me to the address that I’m looking for.’ It was in the wee hours in the morning, and I was real beat.”

Louis and Lucille were working performers who had been making the best of hotel lodgings. Lucille had been squirreling away some of her earnings, and, while her husband was away, had found them a place to finally nest. At $8,000, the brick-covered frame house would be a new chapter.

After Armstrong died in 1971, Lucille remained in the home until her death in 1983, willing the house and its contents to the city of New York. The Armstrong home was placed in the care of Queens College, CUNY, as was the Armstrongs’ voluminous archive—instruments, papers, tape recordings, and personal effects—with the intention to open it to the public as a museum. “He was an artist with a capital A,” says Louis Armstrong House Museum Executive Director Regina Bain. “Whether it was music or his visual art, he had multiple ways of expressing himself.”

While the archives opened in the 1990s at Queens College, the house, featuring Lucille’s bold design choices—aquas, peach tones, reflective gold and silver surfaces—opened for tours in 2003, placing the museum on the map. (It received a grant in 2022 from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.) It would take another two decades to fulfill the dream of creating a state-of-the-art headquarters that would honor Armstrong’s legacy.

Twenty-five years in the making, the brand-new Louis Armstrong Center (shown at top and designed by Caples Jefferson Architects) celebrated its ribbon-cutting in June of 2023. The sleek, 14,000-square-foot structure, built on land donated by the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, sits across the street from the museum. The new center includes exhibition space, a 75-seat performance venue, and the Armstrongs’ relocated personal archive.

Now on display, Here to Stay, curated by jazz pianist Jason Moran, draws deeply from Armstrong’s eclectic collections. Bain says they were interested in getting to the man behind the smile: “We wanted to tell stories from every aspect of his life.”

Preservation Hall New Orleans

photo by: Andriy Blokhin/Alamy

The line outside Preservation Hall in New Orleans.

New Orleans is full of nesting histories, stories on every corner. That’s what Allan and Sandra Jaffe learned on their honeymoon side trip in 1960. Little did they know when they stepped over the threshold of “Mr. Larry’s” art gallery to hear some music that those syncopated sounds would become a life-changing turn in their road.

Mr. Larry was Larry Borenstein, a gallerist and fan of traditional jazz whose hours were at odds with showtimes at clubs. He began curating what he called “rehearsal sessions” at the gallery. The sets featured artists who were among (or had played alongside) the architects of early New Orleans sounds, such as Sweet Emma Barrett, George Lewis, and Punch Miller.

Pulled by the stories, charmed by the music, Allan and Sandra rerouted their lives to New Orleans. By this time, the venue had stepped up performances to nightly, with donations taken at the door under the auspices of the nonprofit New Orleans Society for the Preservation of Traditional Jazz. In late 1961, Borenstein offered the Jaffes an opportunity to rent and manage the modest space. The couple eventually bought the property, Preservation Hall.

The venue, with its faded, ombré patina and rough wooden floors, welcomes roughly 180,000 visitors a year. A line ropes before the venue for its four to six shows a day, seven days a week. There’s a delicate past-and-present balance to strike with a venue like this, says artistic director Ron Rona. “The music we present is, of course, traditional and New Orleans music. Sometimes that term, whether it’s ‘tradition’ or ‘preservation,’ can be a little misleading because there’s an assumption that we’re just playing old-timey music. Certainly that’s what the music is based on, but like any good tradition, those traditions evolve. When Preservation Hall opened in ’61, it was during what people call the jazz revival, but even then, artists weren’t replicating what they heard in the 1930s. They were introducing all kinds of things to it—a fusion of brands and street music with that repertoire. Keeping it fresh.”

The same is true for the evocative structure, which was originally a private residence owned by Agathe Fanchon, a free woman of color. “Most of it was built in 1750,” Rona explains. “… And the front part of the building, where Preservation Hall is, burned and was rebuilt in 1817.”

Everything takes care and thought, says Rona: “I think about Ben Jaffe [Allan and Sandra’s son, now Preservation Hall’s co-owner and creative director], who grew up there. I think about the musicians. So when we make any kind of change, it takes us longer than most places because you have to talk it through, and get that feeling, a consensus. Because every square foot, every inch, has meaning.”

Village Vanguard Historic

photo by: Tom Marcello/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Village Vanguard in 1976.

Generations of listeners have made pilgrimages to New York’s storied Village Vanguard—even if it is just by way of imagination. The curious have pulled up a ringside seat, taking in moody album-cover photos. Aficionados have ridden the familiar grooves of old LP recordings that bring back classic performances as if at a seance—Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Chico Hamilton, Elvin Jones, Gerry Mulligan. The Greenwich Village venue, brought into the listener’s mind sonically, communicates the power of live jazz and the import of spaces that nurture and celebrate the singular magic of performance.

Founded by Max Gordon and later run by both Gordon and his wife, Lorraine, the Village Vanguard has been a touchstone, incubator, and mecca for creative expression. First opening in 1934, Gordon moved the club to its current location on 7th Avenue South in 1935. The building’s triangular structure featured a cozy basement room that had formerly been a speakeasy. “It’s a very intimate space. And being downstairs in the basement emphasizes that intimacy,” says Deborah Gordon, Max and Lorraine’s daughter, who now runs the club. “I think you feel like you leave the outside world a little bit, especially in a place like New York.”

All these decades later, the Vanguard, the oldest operating jazz club in New York, is open seven nights a week. As always the focus is music, as the website makes plain: “No. We don’t serve any food at all—not even a peanut.”

Of all the marquee names who have come through, Deborah resists pointing to one—a single event, experience, evening—because so much history has crossed that bandstand. The place still sits at the apex of so many top-tier musicians’ wishlists. “It’s not always wonderful,” she admits. “Sometimes I feel like it’s like a baby that needs its diaper changed five times a day. But then again, I get to go at night, and hear the most incredible music in the world.”

Situated in Detroit’s Old Westside neighborhood on Tireman Street, the storied but long-shuttered Blue Bird Inn had in recent years fallen into deep disrepair. For those who knew the history, it was heartbreaking to drive by and glimpse the faded facade—especially the long-timers with deep, generational roots, who remembered a far different story.

You wouldn’t have known from the crumbling facade what sort of joy and vibrancy bounced around that room, says Michelle Jahra McKinney, the director and head archivist of Detroit Sound Conservancy (DSC), the nonprofit leading the effort to bring the Blue Bird back. While it was also a popular community gathering place, says McKinney, it was a nightlife hub hailed as the city’s hottest jazz room, featuring world-acclaimed names—among them Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Elvin Jones, Yusef Lateef, and Miles Davis.

Exterior Blue Bird Inn

photo by: Detroit Sound Conservancy

Community members outside the Blue Bird Inn in 2019.

The one-story, brick-faced structure dates to the 1920s, but it wasn’t until Alabama native William DuBois purchased the building in 1937 that it evolved into a bar and cafe. By the late 1940s, run by DuBois’ son Buddy, it would feature live music all weekend to a packed, buoyant room. While the city would later become known for the Motown Sound, the Blue Bird offered its own specific jazz experience decades earlier. “The sound in that room was incredible,” says McKinney. “I don’t know what it was, the tin ceiling or what, but you hear it all the time from patrons and musicians. It was a magical space.”

Beyond getting the building up and running, McKinney has been focused on archival work, telling the story of the club and the community that fanned out around it. Since its launch in 2012, DSC has made great strides. It has established an online oral history project, assembled a vast archive, and replaced the roof, among other items. In 2020, the Blue Bird was designated a local historic district, and in 2022, it received a grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to help shore up rehab efforts.

The hope, says Jonah Raduns-Silverstein, DSC’s director of operations, “is to be open within the next 12 to 18 months for some programming.” The plan is to go slowly and take the community’s pulse, find out what it desires from the space. “We know that it will be a music venue, a music archive slash cultural-education center,” says McKinney. “But primarily this is going to be a community spot where people can once again connect with neighbors. … It was more than a bar. It was family. It was a neighborhood hearth.”

In the 1980s, the electricity of the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles had shifted gears. It was not gone, but more diffuse—scattered across the vast Southland, says poet and arts activist Kamau Daáood. “I was used to these storefront spaces where people would go to convene, exchange ideas, and create, you know, that energy.” Daáood, who had been part of the Watts Writers Workshop in the ’60s, knew how important it is to have access to a circle of support that both challenges and inspires. Part of his own circle was the master jazz drummer Billy Higgins, who supplied the rhythmic foundation for a roster of jazz greats—Dexter Gordon, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman.

World Stage, Los Angeles, 1996

photo by: Courtesy Steven Isoardi

The World Stage in Los Angeles, 1996. Photo coordinated by Torrénce BRANNON-Reese.

Higgins was also seeking a workshop “situation,” a place he could go to practice whenever the muse called, but that would also be open to whoever wanted to jam. “Billy asked me to keep an eye out on a space,” recalls Daáood. One day in 1989, Daáood noted that the Brockman Gallery, run by the artist brothers Dale and Alonzo Davis in an area known as Leimert Park Village, had a space for rent. He and Higgins signed a lease. Another local musician, Carl Burnett, had moved out of his nearby space, leaving the basics they needed to get started: chairs and a stage. They even had a baby grand piano, donated by visual artist Kisasi Ramsess.

Word spread quickly about the venue, known as the World Stage. Its mandate was clear: to present, protect, and nurture Black arts, music (especially jazz), and history. It also supported the community, offering affordable workshops in writing and music alongside concerts with renowned performers.

Higgins died in 2001. Daáood stepped down as director in 2015, but he’s still present in body and spirit, and sometimes pops in to perform. While the Stage has changed locations—moving across the street in 2016—the venue’s offerings are still robust under its current executive director, singer Dwight Trible. It’s about the environment, accessibility, and modeling, says Daáood. “That energy is swirling around you. It’s a place where the young can go and listen to the elders. You can walk into a room and some cats are playing; you’re just transported to someplace not even earthly,” he says. “I remember walking through the village one afternoon and I heard this sound. I looked into the Stage, and there was this young trumpet player onstage, playing, and I paused. There was someone in the front row listening. And that person in the front row was Nina Simone. Just sitting listening to this young man practice. She’d just walked in. Took a seat. Yeah. It’s those kinds of stories. That kind of place.”

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Lynell George is a Los Angeles–based writer and reporter with family roots in New Orleans. Her most recent book is the Hugo Award-nominated A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler (Angel City Press, 2020).

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