Armstrong Park Redivivus

As New Orleans makes its slow way back from the devastation of hurricane Katrina and the fumbling federal and state crisis response, there are rays of hope on the cultural front. The jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld, who has become a semi-permanent New Orleans resident, writes about it in The Wall Street Journal

Once alight with bulbs that spelled out “Armstrong,” the large steel archway above North Rampart Street, across from the venerable Donna’s Bar & Grill, was dark much of the past decade, largely rusted. Beneath it, the main gate to a park named for trumpeter Louis Armstrong had been padlocked for more than three years, save for the occasional special event. Just inside, Congo Square — where two centuries ago enslaved Africans and free people of color spent Sundays dancing and drumming to the bamboula rhythm, seeding the pulse of New Orleans jazz — had been effectively off limits. The adjacent Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts, home to opera and ballet performances for more than 30 years, sat empty and in need of repair after taking on 14 feet of water in 2005. 

It would be hard to find a more potent symbol of the tenuous state of musical life and cultural history in a city largely defined by both. But earlier this month, shortly after dusk, Mayor C. Ray Nagin flipped a switch — just a prop, it turned out, for dramatic effect — and on went the lights of the arch and the park’s streetlamps. As the Original Pin Stripe Band played “Bourbon Street Parade,” a small mock second-line parade wound its way around a bronze statue of Armstrong and over to a sparkling Mahalia Jackson Theater for a free concert, the first in a series of events spanning 10 days and a broad range of performing arts. 

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To read all of Blumenfeld’s article, go here
What his readers may not know is how trumpeter Clark Terry inspired the movement that got New Orleans its Armstrong statue. It happened forty years ago next summer. I told the story in the Terry chapter of Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of its Makers, originally a 1978 article in Texas Monthly
Terry’s ties to the city have been more spiritual than personal, but his admiration for a New Orleans hero led almost a decade ago to one of the most important gestures of his life. A few blocks from the Super Dome a monument to Louis Armstrong is nearing completion. It might very well not have been built without Terry’s inspiration. 

New Orleans’s Armstrong Park has been a project of the administration of former mayor Moon Landrieu, who deserves full credit for paying tangible tribute to the city’s greatest artist. But impetus for the idea came in 1969 on a bus ride during the second New Orleans Jazzfest. As a musicians’ tour was passing Jane Alley, Armstrong’s birthplace, Terry deplored that fact that while New Olreans seemed to have statues of half the Latin American presidents in history, there were none of the city’s most famous son. Then and there, he started a fund to commission a statue. His first dollar was symbolic. His organizing ability and leadership were much more. Nine years later, that statue is on the verge of becoming the centerpiece of an entire park dedicated to Armstrong’s memory. The park’s completion slowed in the six-month transition period between Landrieu’s administration and that of Mayor Ernest Morial. But assuming that Morial, the city’s first black mayor, gets behind the project, Armstrong Park should be the New Orleans equivalent of Copenhagen’s celebrated Tivoli Gardens and open by 1980.

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Landrieu (then U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), Morial and Armstrong’s wife Lucille dedicated Armstrong Park on April 15, 1980, nine years after Armstrong’s death. It has a long way to go to become the Tivoli Gardens of America, but the developments Blumenfeld describes give hope that it will blossom despite the city’s setbacks.

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