Big Easy NCA makes jazzy new start
Faced with closure, the New Orleans Seamen’s Church becomes Scandinavian Jazz Church
Leslee Lane Hoyum
After serving seafaring Scandinavians for 110 years, the New Orleans Norwegian Seamen’s Church is now the Scandinavian Jazz Church. Last year it appeared that the Norwegian Seamen’s Church would be shuttered permanently, but for now it has been transferred from Norway to a local board of directors. New Orleanians were adamant that a Scandinavian presence continue.
Over the years, the church has become known as jazzkirken (the jazz church). It became a second home for many of New Orleans’ jazz musicians. Church historians say that Narvin Kimball, the church’s letter carrier by day and jazz banjoist at Preservation Hall by night, was among the first invited to play in the church. By the late 1970s, the church began hosting jazz concerts in the dining room and by the swimming pool and conducting a jazz service the first Sunday of each month. Renowned New Orleans jazz musicians, including musician and singer Uncle Lionel Batiste, trumpeter Gregg Stafford, guitarist-banjoist Seva Venet, banjoist-raconteur Danny Barker, pianist Sadie Goodson, bassists Chester Zardis and Roland Guerin, trumpeter Leon Brown, and clarinetist, bandleader, composer, and jazz historian Dr. Michael White, made the Jazz Church one of New Orleans’ little known but greatest jazz venues.
During the summer of 2016, with church members buzzing about the church’s possible closing, locals approached Rev. Winston Rice, an Episcopalian priest and former offshore worker and maritime lawyer, and offered him the ministerial position at the Jazz Church. He accepted. Soon thereafter, a local board and advisory committee supporting the Jazz Church met with the Norwegian Church Abroad (NCA—Seamen’s Church), which is headquartered in Bergen, and negotiated a deal to transfer the church to the New Orleans group. The official transfer occurred on Feb. 1, 2017, ending one era and hailing a new. According to Rev. Rice, the church not only will serve as a religious center for locals and visiting Scandinavians but also as a Nordic center.
The transition to a local governing group doesn’t come without a price. The Jazz Church has approximately 16 months to raise $700,000 to purchase the building. If funds are not secured, the NCA will take back the building, release the Jazz Church from its commitment, and offer it for sale.
“At this time,” says Rev. Rice, “the facilities manager, cultural manager, and I are working without pay. We have received some donations that will pay for utilities and rent for a while. We also need to pay the lawyers who negotiated the deal with NCA and the upfront costs for a fundraiser we have engaged. We will continue to operate as a not-for-profit under Norwegian Seamen’s Church of Louisiana, Inc. until we own the building and change the charitable name.” Financially, the church is starting from scratch since the NCA laid claim to all money previously raised by the church even though most donations were collected locally.
“We have high hopes for the Jazz Church,” said Rev. Rice. “We have a hardworking board of directors, advisory council, and the Nordic consular corps is on board. We are aiming to become a Nordic cultural center and a ‘home away from home’ for visitors. We expect to celebrate Syttende Mai, hold a large Scandinavian festival in November, perform Santa Lucia in December, and offer numerous cultural events throughout the year. Plus, we plan to join in with local culture by serving a crawfish boil in April and participating in the French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest, and Mardi Gras. We have a significant long-term relationship with the community at large for the efforts we have undertaken. Additionally, we hope to stimulate more Scandinavian travel to our part of the world. It’s a challenge. It’s as if we’re standing on top of a big oil field—just have to figure out how to drill the well.”
A statement by Tommy Fosse, head of the foreign division for the NCA, stated, “[the] Seamen’s Church must always stick to its ground rules and evaluate the areas where they are most needed. This means, as it’s always been said, Seamen’s Churches will permanently operate and manage based on needed changes.” There is speculation that since the Church of Norway is no longer the state church, financial support will be reduced significantly for the NCA, and the New Orleans church fell victim to NCA cutbacks. The Houston Seamen’s Church remains open.
The ports of New Orleans, South Louisiana, and Baton Rouge cover 172 miles on both banks of the Mississippi River. Each year about 6,000 vessels, 140 of them Norwegian, pass through the Port of New Orleans. So is that enough business to warrant a Seamen’s Church in New Orleans? According to NCA, the number of Norwegian seamen transiting the Port of New Orleans has significantly declined even though there is no shortage of Norwegian ships. Most officers are Norwegian, but the seamen are from other nations such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka. Furthermore, NCA says there are just a few hundred Norwegians living in the New Orleans area, a number the Jazz Church would dispute.
The small but vibrant Scandinavian component of the New Orleans’ culture blend is set to be saved and flourish again under new leadership. The church was founded in 1906 as part of the Church of Norway’s ministry to its sailors overseas. In 1968, when the current church building was constructed, King Olav V of Norway laid the cornerstone. Over the years, the New Orleans Seamen’s Church has welcomed thousands of Norwegian sailors and provided them with everything a sailor far from home could want: worship, Norwegian food, lodging, Norwegian-language papers, postal service, and a plush green billiard table. Its ministerial oversight also extended to Biloxi, Miss., and the Panhandle of Florida. And since oil was discovered in Norway in the late 1960s, new ties developed as Norwegian businessmen traveled to New Orleans to acquire new technology and Norwegians began working offshore along the Gulf Coast.
For more information or if you wish to assist, contact Rev. Rice at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.