“How long can New Orleans survive without live music? ” That’s the headline of a recent Slate article and it makes me wonder how we’re going to work through this in the long run. Cause, we’re gonna have to figure something out! This week’s Gumbo YaYa is dedicated to the venues and their operators around the country who are wondering if they will ever open again.
But first we take a trip to one of the more venerable of the New Orleans 130 plus music venues, Preservation Hall. Listener Sam Cagle shares his story of stumbling onto the place just off Bourbon Street just as it was getting established in the summer of 1961. Sam had just gotten out of training camp, preparing to a be an Air Force officer with six weeks to kill before he started his senior year in college. Taking a tip from a cadet who lived there, he decided to spend his last few free weeks in the August heat of New Orleans. His story is right after the first song and for mood setting, I throw in some Preservation Hall classics with George Lewis, Punch Miller, Sweet Emma, Percy Humphrey and others. By the way, I wrote up a longer piece on Preservation Hall a few years back.
The Slate article makes the point that New Orleans has a unique ecosystem for developing music artists and its large number of small music venues is an essential part of that biology. But the stickiness of COVID-19 is making it likely that many of the venue proprietors, who mostly do not earn much of a profit even when open, may not survive.
The same concerns hold for venues in my neck of the woods and anywhere else where COVID is keeping us mostly at home. I don’t have a solution other than we all should be thinking about how we can keep live music alive. And for inspiration, I play sets of music that were recorded live including songs by Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Mem Shannon, Debbie Davis and Josh Paxton, Rebirth Brass Band, Marla Dixon and the Shotgun Jazz Band, Professor Longhair, Billy Iuso, Kermit Ruffins, Sonny Landreth, the Roamin’ Jasmine and others.
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James DuMont may have one of those mugs that looks familiar but it was his feet, not his face, that first caught my attention.
Antoine Diel and the Misfit Power had started in on a salsa number when DuMont broke off his conversation with the doorman, burst into the night club, grabbed the hand of an unsuspecting but willing woman and started dancing in the narrow open space between the band and the patrons of The Spotted Cat.
Diel and his band were hot that night. But so was DuMont. And that’s when I put my finger on why he looked familiar. For all four seasons of Treme, DuMont played the character of Captain Richard Lafouchette, the honest sheriff department officer who routinely complied with Toni Bernette’s request for public records.
Not a major role but one essential to moving the plot forward, similar to the hundreds of other characters he’s played in movies and television over the last four decades. And yet later as we stood talking outside the Frenchmen Street nightclub, he modestly didn’t believe I had recognized him. “Who told you?”
Off camera DuMont is a helluva lot hipper than his Treme character who he depicts in one scene orgasmically wolfing down a piece of fried chicken at Lil’ Dizzy’s Cafe. I found it hard to imagine him playing the red-baiting corrupt congressman J. Parnell Thomas in Trumbo or the breast-growing empathetic husband of a pregnant woman in the television show House. Later, when I checked out his IMDB profile, the role I thought best fit his personality was his first one, an uncredited appearance in The Blues Brothers as “kid dancing in the street.”
Born and raised in Chicago and New York City, DuMont now lives full time with his family in New Orleans. (this last sentence was changed from my original post when we had to reschedule his interview) He joined me on my radio show on June 2 to talk about New Orleans, its music and just how tasty Lil’ Dizzy’s fried chicken really is. (Listen Full show or just listen to the interview.)
Kenneth Jackson wasn’t quite old enough when it mattered, and I could tell how much he wish he had been. (You can play the show with his interview including music from the Dew Drop era while finishing this short article.)
During the mid-20th Century, the Dew Drop Inn rocked New Orleans, making musical history and forging a special place in the hearts of all the musicians and fans that were lucky enough (and had IDs) to have been there.
“I never was really old enough to enjoy the shows and everything. You know I would kind of sneak in whenever I was down here late and had to bring somebody something but they would run me from out of there,” said Jackson as we toured the fabled nightclub, hotel, and restaurant.
If love could rebuild the Dew Drop Inn, Jackson would have enough to build it twice over. His affection for the shuttered double-storefront on LaSalle Street is almost as obvious as his love for the man who started it all, his grandfather, Frank Painia.
As detailed in my previous post, Painia built a key piece of music industry infrastructure during the New Orleans R&B golden age. But when Painia died in 1972, the music at the Dew Drop Inn stopped as well. The family retained and operated the business, primarily as a hotel, until Hurricane Katrina.
The flood mess has been cleaned out. Artifacts have been saved. Some framing and some new wiring has been done. Also, the building has a temporary facade that highlights the history contained with in. But its not yet ready to be open to the public.
Jackson envisions a day when folks can come back to the Dew Drop and get a meal, catch a show, even spend the night or host a party. He thinks the time is right. Nearby streets like Freret and O.C. Haley are undergoing a renaissance of new business and renovation.
Across the street from the Dew Drop, the infamous “Magnolia,” a crime-ridden housing project that also was home to hip hop artists Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Jay Electronica and Magnolia Shorty, is gone. In its place is a lower density, stylish new development called Harmony Oaks that provides a mix of market rate rentals and public housing.
One of the groups to spearhead the community’s revitalization, Harmony Neighborhood Development, is working with Jackson and his family to secure the funding necessary to get renovations started. But all the pieces have yet to come together.
Tulane University’s School of Architecture has weighed in with plans and archival assistance. And there’s a wealth of love and affection for restoring the business by New Orleans musicians, young and old.
There may be a day soon when Kenneth Jackson will be able to enjoy a club performance at the Dew Drop Inn. After all, while its possible to be too young to party at the Dew Drop Inn, you’re never too old.
Perhaps its a stretch to compare the Dew Drop Inn to Congo Square. But I see similarities between the two. (You can listen to the show while reading this post)
Just as Congo Square served as a gathering place for African American commerce and cultural exchange up through the mid-19th Century, the Dew Drop Inn in New Orleans provided a safe and comfortable place for New Orleans musicians of the mid-20th Century to gather, support each other and play music.
One served as the genesis for Jazz and the other was an incubator for New Orleans R&B and early rock and roll. The Dew Drop Inn was not just a nightclub and bar, it was a vital regional center for African Americans, particularly musicians, at a time when the South and New Orleans enforced apartheid.
I’m not sure if those thoughts initially entered Frank Painia’s head when he decided to expand his barbershop on LaSalle Street to include a restaurant and bar. Most likely, he just saw a business opportunity across the street from where one of the largest housing projects in New Orleans was being built (the Magnolia Projects). By expanding his business, he provided employment for his brothers and eventually other relatives. He christened it the Dew Drop Inn in 1939.
With America mobilizing for the war effort, Painia added a hotel next door so African Americans on the move would have a place to stay when visiting or passing through New Orleans. The combination of barbershop, restaurant, lounge and hotel made the Dew Drop Inn a convenient stop for travelers.
But it was Painia’s venture into booking performers that would put the Dew Drop solidly into music history. He started by producing shows at a nearby boxing arena and high school auditorium. Since he had the Dew Drop, he could house and feed the touring musicians, who in turn would jam in the lounge after the official performance. It wasn’t long though before he started booking local acts to perform at the Dew Drop.
Then in 1945, just in time to entertain returning soldiers and their dates, Painia built the “Groove Room.” Located behind the Dew Drop, this two-story music and dance hall with a balcony and elevated band stage established an upscale ambiance with top-flight performers of the day, including Billie Holiday, Big Joe Turner, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and Amos Milburn. Later Ray Charles, James Brown, Solomon Burke, and Bobby “Blue” Bland would grace the stage. Many homegrown performers including Earl King, Huey “Piano” Smith, and Allen Toussaint launched their careers from the Dew Drop.
The Dew Drop was home for many musicians, whether passing through or getting their act together. It was a 24-hour operation where musicians could eat, meet, clean up with a haircut, shoeshine and shower, and plan their next step. They would play for white audiences downtown then head back to the Dew Drop and jam with the house band or whoever was performing until daylight.
The nightclub show included an emcee, comedians, magicians, dancers and, of course, the bands. It was not uncommon for the emcee or some of the dancers to be female impersonators (to use the term of that day). Bobby Marchan, who would sing with Huey Smith and the Clowns, got his start in New Orleans as part of a drag show called the Powder Box Revue.
Most New Orleans musicians of that period have stories about the Dew Drop. Grandpa Elliot Small of Playing for Change remembers watching his uncle play the harmonica there. Deacon John tells of how he broke into the recording business when he was approached by Allen Toussaint while playing guitar at the Dew Drop. “My head just popped open at the opportunity . . .the very next day we were in Cosimo’s studio recording with the great Ernie K-Doe. “
But my favorite story is how Richard Penniman got his mojo at the Dew Drop Inn. Things weren’t popping in J&M studio that September day in 1955. Producer Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, a native of Seattle, called for a break and took his young protege for a drink. It was a slow day at the Dew Drop until Richard discovered the upright piano in the corner and banged out a tune so bawdy that Blackwell had to hire a writer to clean up the lyrics. Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti was a crossover hit that propelled him to national fame.
While the Dew Drop Inn was established, owned and frequented by African Americans, white patrons were allowed in. But this meant that Painia was arrested at times when police raided his business and charged him with “racial mixing.” Eventually, he successfully sued the city, establishing the right for businesses to serve any customer they wanted.
By the end of the 60’s, changing musical trends, desegregation and Painia’s declining health brought an end to Dew Drop Inn’s musical performances. The business carried on mostly as a hotel until Hurricane Katrina caused so much damage, it could not reopen.
I’ll have that story in next week’s post (available now). Here’s the podcast of the show featuring musicians who played at the Dew Drop Inn and we’ll hear in Mr. Jackson’s own words about the Dew Drop’s glory days.
New Orleans may be the place where you can “Do Whatcha Wanna” but thankfully that no longer includes sticking a lit end of a cigarette in my face while dancing to Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf Bar.
In my last visit, just two weeks before the ban went into effect (April 22), the smoke had cleared from just about every venue. One notable exception was a Bywater neighborhood bar, BJs–a quintessential New Orleans neighborhood dive bar that would never have gone smoke free if the law hadn’t required it. Still, it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t have to throw my clothes away after a night of listening to King James and the Special Men.
It may be too soon to tell the lasting impact of the ban. Early reports are that business hasn’t been hurt too badly by the ban. Drinkers will drink and smokers will smoke. So the biggest concern now is the noise factor.
Bars and nightclubs can be fined by the city if they create a “nuisance.” Since New Orleans is a collection of neighborhoods with bars and businesses in close proximity, when patrons go outside for a puff (the ban includes vaping), noise levels rise. With some bars operating 24/7 or until the very wee hours of the night, a group of “pissed” smokers outside a bar run the risk of pissing off the neighbors.
Well, I’ve got music that will take you back to the smoke-filled dive bars of New Orleans yore on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa. And you won’t need to wash your clothes and hair afterwards.
It’s not hard catching live music in New Orleans. Musicians in NOLA are like Olympia baristas, they’re just about everywhere and they’re really good at what they do.
One memorable experience during my visit last month was watching Kelcy Mae perform in an incredibly artful, yet defunct, cafe located in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans. The cool thing is that you too could catch a performance of a talented young artist there.
The event is described as “modern-day speakeasy” and when I first arrived at the renovated building on Oretha Castle Boulevard (about a mile walk from Canal Street), my first sense was that I had gotten the wrong address.
The building is owned and was painstakingly redone by Elizabeth and Gary Eckman who incorporated original artwork and craftsmanship into their renovation of the century-old building, creating a modern space while retaining the grandeur of the past.
The building doesn’t look like your typical New Orleans music venue. Yet on Tuesdays, the space transforms into the Milo Music Parlor — the brainchild of Kim Vu-Dinh, a self-described music nerd who also runs Milo Records. Because of Kim’s good sense to keep KAOS on her distribution list, I’ve featured the excellent new music promoted by Milo Records on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.
Each week, Milo’s Music Parlor hosts a different musician or band who performs in this intimate space that feels like a large living room. The additional twist is that about halfway through the performance, the musicians take a break and Kim interviews them for a podcast featured on It’s New Orleans— “web radio for locals, exiles, and lovers of New Orleans everywhere.”
Originally from California with a significant detour through Alaska, Ms. Vu-Dinh is an attorney who has clearly found her passion and home in the New Orleans music scene. In introducing Gal Holiday, she insightfully touches on the melting pot music milieu of New Orleans.
“To some it may seem unlikely that this classic honky tonk band called New Orleans home. To others, who’ve heard them, it may come as no surprise that they flourish in a town where tradition in every genre is paid respect with high caliber musicianship.”
As I’ve tried to demonstrate on my show, New Orleans music does not fit tidily into one or two music genres. It’s not just jazz, or Dixieland, or Iko Iko. Each generation, each neighborhood, seems to contribute a new energy and style that somehow absorbs nicely into the city’s traditions, rhythms and dialect.
In a city that is attracting more than its share of Millennials, uber-talented young musicians continue to make their mark on New Orleans. And you can witness it happening at Milo Music Parlor. The programs are open to the public for an affordable cover charge and the show ends with plenty of time to catch music elsewhere. Check the schedule here.
Next week, the Music Parlor will host Aurora Nealand who will perform her avant garde solo project Monocle and later in the month David Doucet and Al Tharp of Beausoleil will be at the Parlor.
Consider subscribing to my blog (see upper right corner of page) and catching my shows of New Orleans music on KAOS or the edited versions on Mixcloud
Catching as much music as possible in New Orleans ain’t hard. But some stamina comes in handy at times.
We arrived on Friday night and hustled down to see late night show of the Soul Rebels at d.b.a. I’ve yet to catch them at their home bar, Les Bon Temp Roule but its always fun to hear and feel this talented brass band.
Saturday, we took the “Freret Jet” (#15 bus) to the annual Freret Street Festival, getting there in time to catch the swinging last half of the Mississippi Rail Company set. This New Orleans R&B group is on my list to pick up when I get to the Louisiana Music Factory.
One of the advantages of visiting New Orleans is to learn about musicians that don’t get airplay outside of the area. Billy Iuso and the Restless Natives is one of those blues groups that sneaks up on you, starting off without much fanfare but blowing you away by the final beat.
The headliner for the festival was Bonerama — three trombones backed up by guitar, bass and drums. This group, which has played the Winthrop Blues Festival, was in excellent form.
We finished the day back at Frenchmen Street with The Maison’s evening closer Austin soul group The NightOwls. They put on an energetic show that was almost overshadowed by some of the Spring Break-like antics of the crowd.
On Sunday evening, we braved Northwest-style rains and winds to sit in Bacchanal’s open courtyard to see The Roamin’ Jasmine. Now, I’ve aired the Jasmine many times on the show but as usual its a delight to see the band in action, particularly with Taylor Smith, bassist and bandleader, singing.
Yesterday, we rented bikes and pedaled uptown to Carrollton, up Jeff Davis Parkway to City Park and back down Esplanade, stopping at Three Muses where Bart Ramsey, who fronts a Gypsy Jazz band called Zazou City, played a solo piano and sang for the early evening audience. I will definitely be playing some of his music when I get back on the show in two Monday’s from now.
I can’t close without mentioning my evening at BJ’s Lounge where King James and The Special Men held court for their regular Monday session. This was bluesy, boogie woogie rock n’ roll fronted by Jimmy Horn, who lived briefly in Seattle before stumbling into New Orleans in the 90’s. A disciple of Ernie and Antoinette K-Doe, Horn seems to possess some of that same confident but endearing swagger. There is no stage at BJ’s. No barrier between audience and musician and the give and take was, to be understated, uniquely entertaining. As his piano player banged out Fats Domino-like triplets on Blue Monday, I marveled at how I was probably no more than two miles from the Ninth Ward neighborhood bar that Antoine “Fats’ Domino was first discovered by Imperial Records while banging out the beat that became part of rock n’ roll history. A special treat was Jason Mingledorff sitting in with his saxophone.
Kim and I are chilling today but we’ll be catching a lot more beats in the days to come. Keep up with my posts by subscribing (upper right hand side of page.)
If Mardi Gras marks the start of the Lent season, you could argue that the Freret Street Festival marks the end of it. But Easter tends to wander about on the calendar so some years that just doesn’t work.
What’s more clear is that the annual Freret Street event heralds the beginning of the New Orleans festival season. Later in the month, New Orleans will kick into festival high gear with the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival–two events that together attract over a 1 million attendees. You won’t see that mass of humanity on Freret Street this Saturday (April 4), but this is not your usual neighborhood party. According to organizers, eight blocks of the street will be blocked to car traffic, from Napoleon to Jefferson. Three music stages will feature Mississippi Rail Company, Tank and the Bangas,New Breed Brass Band and Bonerama (to name a few).
I’m making it a point to be at this year’s event, even though the festival is 2,600 miles from my house. The corner of Napoleon and Freret is where I went to kindergarten and elementary school when the school there was called Our Lady of Lourdes. Yep, I wore the Catholic student khaki uniform. (I’m also in town for the French Quarter festival. More on that soon.)
In those days (we’re talking 60’s) my home was a lot closer. I could buy a soft-serve ice cream cone across the street from the school (now a parking lot and site of a monthly art, food and flea market) and then, having spent my bus fare on that treat, walk past an odd assortment of businesses and store fronts to my house on Nashville Avenue. After Katrina, the district was revitalized. New clubs moved in like the acoustically excellent Gasa Gasa and the Freret Street Publiq House. Restaurants like High Hat Cafe, Freret Street PoBoys and Sarita’s Grill headed up a vanguard of excellent eating.
If the technology works for me this weekend, I’ll have a report from Freret Street that will air on my show this Monday. Ruby Ru, KAOS station manager and NOLA music lover, will host the show.
Perhaps no single entity has helped keep New Orleans jazz alive into the 21st Century more than Preservation Hall and the band its spawned.
Like many great ideas, Preservation Hall started out as a simple solution to an understandable need. In 1952, Larry Borenstein opened an art gallery in an 18-century building that to this day seems to have not changed over the years. It’s location, just off Bourbon Street (726 St. Peter) and its nightclubs, meant staying open late preventing Borenstein from pursuing his other passion: listening to jazz. So he took matters into his own hands.
Borenstein hauled an old piano into his gallery, bought some beer and invited musicians to play for him and his guests and gallery customers. To avoid conflict with the musician union, the sessions were called rehearsals.
In an article, written by Borenstein in the 60’s, he related how the session grew organically.
“The concerts took place regularly. Punch Miller, back from his long years on the road, brought a band to the Gallery Tuesday nights. Kid Thomas had a “rehearsal” every Thursday night. Sundays Noon Johnson often stopped by with his trio.
“Piano “professors” Stormy Weatherly (sic – Kid Stormy Weather), John Smith (I’m guessing this John Smith) and Isadore (sic – Isidore “Tuts”) Washington often dropped in as did busking guitarists, banjoists and harmonica virtuosos. Often impromptu sessions got underway just because Lemon Nash dropped in to say “hello” and just happened to have his ukelele with him.”
The informal venue allowed whites and African Americans to mingle at a time when the South still practiced, and enforced, apartheid. Police occasionally raided the jam sessions and hauled the musicians to jail.
“The bands frequently included white and Negro musicians and it was simpler to charge them with ‘disturbing the peace’ than with breaking down segregation barriers.”
The music experience continued to grow though. Eventually, Borenstein moved his gallery next door and in 1961 the venue was officially christened Preservation Hall–an appropriate name for a jazz lover sanctuary.
A couple years later, the Hall’s managers, Allen and Sandra Jaffe, organized a road tour for Preservation Hall regulars. The success of the the band’s concerts provided additional income for the musicians and helped maintain fan support outside of New Orleans. The band, in various iterations over the last 50 years, has continued to tour, perform and record, building a worldwide audience.
The Jaffe’s son, Ben took over leadership of the venue and band. A tuba player like his dad, Ben Jaffe has widened the band’s horizons through collaborations with other artists such as Blind Boys of Alabama, the Del McCoury Band, Keb’ Mo’, Dr. John and Tao Seeger. The band’s latest album, “That’s It,” features all original compositions.
Over 50 years after its forming, Preservation Hall entertains locals and tourists alike from it St. Peters Street location with three 45-minute shows every night. The band is drawn from a collective of musicians, many of whom are descendants of early New Orleans jazz musicians.
You can purchase tickets in advance that ensure a front or second row seat or you can pay $15 for general admission. The performances are acoustic and the venue is small. You might need to stand in line for a while but it will be worth the wait.
Occasionally, when someone learns about my New Orleans music show, they’ll ask me: “Have you seen. . .
And I know where they are going.
Yes! I have watched all 36 episodes of HBO’s Treme — some of them more than once including the commentary and music notes. The program is that good at portraying New Orleans.
The show ran from 2010 to 2013 and chronicled the lives of New Orleans residents upon their return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. And the show’s creators, producers and writers nailed it. The show is well regarded in New Orleans as having captured the unique and diverse culture and character of the city–both the good and the not so good.
Unfortunately, the show wasn’t sufficiently well regarded beyond the city (at least at the time) so no new episodes are being made. But if you’re reading this blog, you probably already understand the disconnect between being good and being popular. A theme that Treme also explores.
There’s lots of reasons to love this show, the main one for me is the music. There’s lot of New Orleans music in it. Literally hundreds of New Orleans-based musicians participated in its filming. Some of them even acted.
Yesterday, I pulled up the full cast listing of the show on IMDB and did a search for “self” and “selves” as in people and bands portraying themselves. I found over 250 listings. While some of the people playing themselves were politicians, chefs, writers, community activists and Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, most of them were musicians.
Some are well known like Dr. John, Fats Domino, Trombone Shorty and Irma Thomas. Others are not but should be such as Aurora Nealand, John Boutte, Tom McDermott, and Kermit Ruffins.
Several of the fictional characters are musicians attempting to make a living. One is a journeyman trombonists, played by Wendell Pierce, struggling to find gigs so he can pay rent and child support. Two others busk on the street and are learning the New Orleans style of music.
Throughout the series, the viewer is treated to music venues such as Tipitina’s, House of Blues, Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, and Snug Harbor and the music you hear on the show is recorded in situ. What you see is truly what you hear
In many cases, the musicians simply perform, either in the background or as a part of the plot. In other cases though, they deliver lines from a script or, in the case of Dr. John, ad lib. It’s a wonderful blend of reality and fiction.
Cornell Williams, a bass player who in real life performs with Jon Cleary, portrays a member of a band formed by Wendell Pierce’s character and helps another character recover from drug addiction.
A more bizarre blending of real life and fiction is the character Davis McAlary, who often supplies the show’s comic relief and social commentary. McAlary is a musician and an on again, off again deejay at WWOZ, which is a real community radio station in New Orleans. His character was inspired by Davis Rogan who has released several albums of original songs and was a deejay for WWOZ. To really twist your brain, you will see in various Treme scenes the real Davis performing on piano backing up the fictional Davis. (Another character is patterned after Donald Harrison Jr. who is also seen regularly in the show.)
If you have a propensity to love New Orleans, its food, culture and music, watching Treme will deepen that love. If you know little about New Orleans but are interested, the show is a great place to start your education. Well, subscribing to this blog (upper right hand corner) and listening to my show won’t hurt either.