Where Esplanade Avenue meets the Mississippi, a block from Frenchmen Street and directly behind the French Market, is a stately, intimidating building filled with wonders. The structure, which was built as a functioning branch of the U.S. Mint in 1838, now houses the New Orleans Jazz Museum and blooms with live music events.
During the height of its production as a mint, over 400 million coins were produced there. On the main floor, you can still see the tools, the boilers, the original maps of the neighborhood, and some of the coins themselves. The building was added to the National Registry of Historical Places in 1973. Then, in 1981, the mint was converted to a museum, where the Louisiana Historical Center preserves a massive collection of documents and objects on the third floor. Today, by appointment, you can view sheet music, photographs, records, and the world's largest collection of instruments played by beloved jazz musicians.
The museum stands by its mission statement, "to celebrate the history of jazz, in all its forms, through dynamic interactive exhibits, multigenerational educational programming, research facilities, and engaging musical performances." There is a comprehensive Jazz Education Center and five varied, rotating exhibits that include paintings, prints, quotes, videos, and instruments of all sorts, spanning nearly 8,000 square feet of gallery space, plus performances throughout the indoor rooms and on the balconies.
Currently, as you enter, you're met by two rooms filled without raucous, joyous photographs by Cheryl Gerber, showcased in her book Cherchez la Femme, which documents the strength and ingenuity of several generations of New Orleans women. They're dancing, singing, shouting, marching, posing with their instruments, and inviting you into a museum that is alive with art. In the hallway, there are photographs of Little Richard, Fifth Ward Weebie, and Lucien Barbarin, draped in black silk funeral wreaths. It is a somber and respectful nod to a few extraordinary musicians who we've lost this year.
Up the stairs, the "Me Got Fiyo: The Professor Longhair Centennial" exhibit is bursting with his legendary energy. Photos are reproduced larger than life. Music flows out from speakers around the room. Colorful notes inform you of his early career, his fall from grace, and his late-life musical revival. Videos show other piano greats, including Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, speaking about what made Professor Longhair one of the most essential, if least known, inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There's even a player piano with buttons you can press that let you hear his notes and see how his fingers played them.
"The Wildest: Louis Prima Comes Home" exhibit is similarly constructed: with huge, hyper-colored photographic wall prints; biographical notes; fantastic costumes; a black and white picture of him from the 1950s, happy as a clam, meeting Elvis; records; and songs in the air. They all come together to create a picture of the man, as well as the musician. A whole room is dedicated to Disney's 1967 animated film The Jungle Book, in which Louis Prima played "King Louie" with all of his heart and gusto.
Another exhibit, "Drumsville: Evolution of the New Orleans Beat," is a fascinating retrospective on the history of rhythm, which shows examples of drums going back to their African origins and highlights some of our city's great percussionists throughout the years.
In the final exhibit, there is a rare opportunity to see the delicate, haunting paintings of Noel Rockmore, up close and well lit. A tortured and brilliant artist, Rockmore was on an early track to becoming a violinist until a childhood illness impaired his movements and forced him to find expression in other mediums. His inability to play on a professional level only increased his admiration for those who could, inspiring him to spend a large portion of his career in New Orleans and to capture the individual spirit of hundreds of local musicians in his work. The walls of Preservation Hall are lined with his paintings, and they are a thing to behold in person, although the lights are dim in the space and photography is not allowed. The pieces in this gallery form the exhibit titled "New Orleans Music Observed: The Art of Noel Rockmore and Emilie Rhys." They have been hand-selected and are on loan from the Ogden Museum and several private collectors.
In bright contrast, across the hallway, the other half of this nuanced exhibit is filled with the works of his daughter, Emilie Rhys. Also an ardent admirer of the skills and movement of musicians, Rhys captures artists in motion in her portraits, with a palette that is sunny and filled with energy and light.
Throughout the pandemic, the Jazz Museum has been livestreaming concerts on Tuesday evenings from their large balcony that overlooks a grassy square, where people can gather in a socially distant fashion. You can also tune in to facebook.com/nolajazzmuseum/live to watch for free.
This museum is special. From the outside, it's hard to know what to expect. The Greek Revivalist front presents such formality. On the inside, however, each room is curated with care and creativity. Every curved, riveted entryway is a reminder that this building is a vault for keeping precious things.