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PJ Morton to restore the former home of Buddy Bolden, the father of jazz

Driving down First Street in Central City, it’s easy to miss the modest double shotgun, just four rooms long with two sagging stoops out front, shaded by a large Chinese tallow tree. The circa 1880 house, where jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden once lived, is sandwiched between a parking lot and a twin double shotgun next door. Both houses have been boarded up and vacant for years.

In its current condition, 2309 First St. hardly looks like a major music landmark, a spot that draws fans from around the world to pay homage to Bolden, who, as a young cornetist at the dawn of the 20th century drew inspiration from the music all around him, then blew out a new sound that was wholly his own.

If New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, this humble house is its crib. Now, more than a century after Bolden lived there, another famous New Orleans musician has made it his mission to honor Jazz’s founding father by restoring Bolden’s home.

PJ Morton, the Grammy-winning solo artist and keyboardist for Maroon 5, has turned to the Preservation Resource Center for help in restoring this humble shotgun home into a small museum dedicated to Bolden’s life and the influence of his music. Next door, the twin shotgun house will be renovated into a recording studio and workshop space where young musicians can learn the business side of the industry.

Buddy Bolden lived with his mother and sister in the double shotgun house on the left. Photo by Patrick Melon

Morton has formed a nonprofit corporation, Buddy’s House Foundation, that will take over the operation of the houses. “One side will be looking back (at Bolden’s life), and the other side will be looking forward to the future,” Morton said recently as he walked through the houses with PRC Executive Director Danielle Del Sol and engineer Sundiata Marcelin of Marcelin Engineering.

Morton has connections that run deep in this Central City neighborhood. He grew up in New Orleans East but attended the nearby location of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, where his parents, Bishop Paul S. Morton and Dr. Debra B. Morton, are senior pastors. (The church’s Central City location was gutted by fire in 2008 and closed. Greater St. Stephen now plans to turn it into a community center.)

For years, Morton said, he had no idea about the history that was just steps away from his old bible study classes and preschool. He’d never heard of Bolden.

“I feel a little embarrassed about it, because I’m supposed to know this,” he said. “But if I didn’t know about Bolden, then a lot of people don’t know. This history wasn’t widely taught. I was genuinely excited to find out about him, and I feel honored that this has fallen in my lap.”

Greater St. Stephen bought the Bolden house and its twin next door in 2008 for $80,000, according to the New Orleans Assessor’s Office. Over the years since then, little work has been done on the buildings, and the church has been cited multiple times for letting the houses deteriorate.

The most recent citations came at a blight hearing on March 23, when the City of New Orleans cited Greater St. Stephen with demolition by neglect, listing violations involving the windows, doors, weatherboards, soffit/facia, gutters, sills, piers and roof shingles.

The church was facing steep fines if work on the properties did not begin within 30 days of the hearing. In light of the citations, Morton has accelerated his plans for the renovation. Work began in early April to stabilize the buildings and stop further deterioration.

PRC is now advising Morton on preservation best practices and possible financing mechanisms available for the historic renovations. “There is more than one way to advocate for a building,” Del Sol said. “PRC helps owners to find solutions to save important places, and we’re honored to help with the renovation of the Buddy Bolden house.”

Moving forward

Morton said he first learned about the house’s history a few years ago, just as his own career was pulling him in many directions.

“I found out when I moved home (to New Orleans) in 2016 because of discussions about the house,” Morton said. “When I started to educate myself (about Bolden’s life), I got chills. 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.

“We needed to come up with a vision for the buildings, and after we did that, that was right in the middle of the two busiest years of my life,” Morton added. “I would go on the road, and everything would pause.”

Now Morton is assembling a team that is moving the project forward. His vision is to carry Bolden’s legacy into the future by helping the next generation of New Orleans musicians learn how to become savvy businesspeople. To learn those skills, Morton himself had to leave the city. After graduating from St. Augustine High School, he moved to Atlanta to study marketing at Morehouse College. It was in Atlanta that he started to learn how to navigate the recording industry.

Photo by Patrick Melon

“There’s never been a shortage of musical education in New Orleans, usually focused on performance,” Morton said. “But there’s always been a lack of music business education and infrastructure. Like many others before me, including Harry Connick Jr. and Louis Armstrong, I had to leave to find success in the music business. This became my passion, when moving home, because I saw the same things that caused me to leave had not changed much. But, there’s a big shift happening now.”

Morton has been tapped by Greater New Orleans Inc. to work on its new New Orleans Music Economy initiative. The initiative’s goal is for “New Orleans to have both the brand of America’s premier music city and a thriving music economy that provides jobs and wealth to support musicians, IP (intellectual property) managers, publishers, marketers, legal representatives and all other aspects of the business of music,” according to GNO Inc.’s website.

When the renovation is complete on the Bolden house and the house next door, Morton envisions they will become “somewhat of a musical YMCA for the kids in Central City,” he said. “It’ll be two parts: a small museum to Buddy’s lineage and an event center with a recording studio where classes and seminars will be held. Kids will be able to sign up as members and take advantage of anything offered in the space.

“On a deep level,” Morton said, “the fact that someone from this neighborhood, Central City, could plant a seed that changes the whole course of music history, that’s so heavy… Once I realized the importance of Buddy’s legacy, I wanted to create something that was a beacon.

“I believe that physically seeing the stoop that Buddy sat on to play his horn that birthed American music is beyond inspiring,” he said. “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.”

1: Engineer Sundiata Marcelin and his team from Marcelin Engineering began repairs in April to stabilize the houses.

2: Michelle Stanard Duhon, owner of Southkick Historic Preservation, pictured center, examines the condition of the Buddy Bolden house with, from left, musician PJ Morton; PRC Advocacy Coordinator Nathan Lott; PRC Executive Director Danielle Del Sol; and Rebuilding Together New Orleans Director William Stoudt.

“On a deep level,” Morton said, “the fact that someone from this neighborhood, Central City, could plant a seed that changes the whole course of music history, that’s so heavy… Once I realized the importance of Buddy’s legacy, I wanted to create something that was a beacon.

“I believe that physically seeing the stoop that Buddy sat on to play his horn that birthed American music is beyond inspiring,” he said. “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.”

Save Buddy Bolden’s House Block Party
May 2, 4-7 PM  •  2309 First Street
Celebrate the upcoming renovation of the Buddy Bolden House at a block party hosted by PJ Morton and special guests. The event is free to the public.
Buddy’s House Foundation
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Location
2309 First St
New Orleans, La 70113
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Mailing address
Buddy’s House Foundation
PO Box 8283
New Orleans, LA 70182
EMAIL
info@buddyshousefoundation.org
25% funded
Collected
$2,522.00
Goal
$10,000.00
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