In a city known for its uniqueness, the combined Old U.S. Mint and New Orleans Jazz Museum are among the most unconventional of pairings. Housed in a nearly 200-year-old building, the idea of one of the world’s largest jazz archives being kept in a decommissioned mint may seem incongruent at first. But the merging of New Orleans history and culture has never taken the likeliest of paths, and neither did the creation of the Jazz Museum or the ending of operations at the Old U.S. Mint.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com. A postcard from 1907 shows the New Orleans’ based U.S. Mint while it was still producing coinage.
How It All Started
Andrew Jackson was not only a skilled strategist as a military general, he was also one of the original institutors of the free market economy for the United States. Having been born into poverty, he considered himself a “man of the people” and wanted to ensure artisans and workers were treated fairly by federal systems. To achieve this, he dissolved the first Federal Reserve Bank and moved the country closer to what’s called a sound or hard money system in hopes of stopping unchecked debt and rampant inflation encouraged by the then national banking system. (Oddly enough, this solid money system also fuels today’s Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. Talk about being ahead of your time!)
One of the ways he encouraged the growth of the free market was by issuing an executive order, called the Specie Circular, which allowed federal lands to be bought exclusively with gold and silver currency. This change did help Jackson pay down the National Debt, but it also created a need for more gold and silver coinage. To solve the problem, three U.S. mints were commissioned in the South in an effort to press and distribute coins to places out of the reach of the main mint located in Philadelphia. These new mints were to be built in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dahlonega, Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana.
The New Orleans Mint began production in 1838. It was housed in a newly constructed red brick building situated on Esplanade Avenue near the Mississippi River. New Orleans, in addition to being the 5th largest U.S. city before the Civil War, was chosen as home to the mint due to its port being part of a bustling international trade route. The gold bullion used inside the mint was shipped in from Mexico and silver was procured from various sources.
From 1838 until the mid-1850s, the New Orleans Mint was the most valuable in the nation due to the amount of coinage it was able to produce and distribute. It continued production for the U.S. until the secession of Louisiana from the Union at which point it made Confederate monies for several months in 1861. After the war ended, the mint began creating currency again in 1879 and continued doing so until 1904. Formally decommissioned in 1911, what had been the New Orleans Mint became the Old U.S. Mint and the building became everything from a prison to a Coast Guard storage facility until it was given new life in the 1980s.
A Home for Jazz in the City Where It Was Born
Taking a similarly turbulent path was the prospective New Orleans Jazz Museum. First conceived of in the 1950s by the New Orleans Jazz Club, the growing archive of ephemera, instruments, interviews, recordings, and sheet music was forced to change locations no less than 3 times in under 12 years. Not being able to find a permanent home for their collection, the New Orleans Jazz Club donated their holdings to the Louisiana State Museum in 1977.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com. The Jazz Musuem holds one of the world’s largest archives on the iconic musical style, including these antique instruments.
This was a generous and unexpectedly fortunate move on the Jazz Club’s part. As it happened, the Old U.S. Mint had been given to the State of Louisiana with the condition that a purpose for the public good be found for the building by the 1980s. There were already exhibits on how the mint had measured, melted, and pressed coins in the basement of the building but now the 2nd floor would be dedicated to rotating exhibits from the Louisiana State’s Jazz Collection. The first of these curated jazz artifact showings was installed and opened in 1981.
Exhibits, Performances, and Archives
When Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of New Orleans in 2005, both the Old U.S. Mint and jazz collections were damaged. It took three years, but in 2008 the building reopened with new displays. In 2015, plans were made to turn the majority of the mint building into the permanent home of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
Since then, a $4 million recording and performance studio has been created on the 3rd floor of the mint where visitors can listen to live jazz performances as they are recorded for the archives. And speaking of the archives, the current collection is one of the largest dedicated to the history of jazz in the world. They are open to researchers by appointment and include the instruments of many jazz legends and the 1917 pressing of the first jazz song ever recorded.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com. This 3rd-floor performance studio welcomes guests to the Jazz Museum’s weekly shows which are recorded for the museum’s archives.
An Afternoon Out
New Orleans has always been a combination of practicality and utter foolishness. While a decommissioned mint and a wandering jazz archive might have made odd bedfellows, they came together in a wonderfully harmonious way. Much like all the different cultures making up our city have learned to live together to make something greater than themselves, the Old U.S. Mint and New Orleans Jazz Museum have managed to combine the past with the ever-evolving future. Experiencing that sounds like a great afternoon out to me.