The moonlight on the bayou
A Creole tune that fills the air
I dream about magnolias in bloom
And I’m wishin’ I was there
I imagine there will be a constant hum of Louis Armstrong’s “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” running through my mind if I ever visit the city in Louisiana. What other song could you possibly think of while walking on the streets of the birthplace of jazz? Rooted in blues and ragtime, African rhythms and also a bit of European harmonies, jazz was first developed in the 19th or 20th century by the African-American community. The genre deals with a great level of improvisation instead of precision. While there is always a debate on who was the founder of the genre—some say it was Buddy Bolden, others say it began during the gatherings of African-Americans in Congo Square—there is no doubt that New Orleans is its home. Let’s rewind time and go through the lifetime of jazz in the city through its landmarks:
Frank Douroux’s Little Gem Saloon
Block 400 of South Rampart Street in New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz music. It is also the area that houses Karnofsky Tailor Shop and Eagle Saloon, some of the other historic landmarks of the genre. Frank Douroux’s Little Gem Saloon was inaugurated in 1903 as a place for live music, soon crawling with musicians as a local hangout spot. Legendary artists like Freddie Keppars, Jelly Roll Morton, and Buddy Bolden were known to have performed here. The saloon shut shop in 1909, and was replaced by a pawn shop. That, in turn, then became a bar called Pete’s Blue Heaven. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club Parades began here, while the funerals of the members were also performed here.
Odd Fellows and Masonic Dance Hall/ Eagle Saloon
This hall built in the 1850s was another significant structure in Block 400. It has now relocated to the Central Business Centre. Till 1907, a pawn shop called Jake Itzkovich’s Eagle Loan Office on the first floor of the construction would be the artists' fave go-to for pawning their instruments in between performances. Later, Frank Douroux opened his second saloon in the structure, naming it after the pawn shop—Eagle Saloon. The hall was a historic landmark where many African-American artists were known to gather. Buddy Bolden, Pops Foster, Louis Armstrong, Joe “King” Oliver, and Johnny Dodds have been associated with it.
This landmark in New Orleans played an important role in bringing jazz—originally played in clubs as dance music—to the stagefront. Built in 1911, it was a platform for vaudeville programmes (entertainment including burlesque comedy, dance and music in 1920s USA). At the time, many owners of African-American theatre shared creative reins with the artists. This resulted in jazz being performed in orchestra and concert settings. This is also the place where Louis Armstrong won a talent show while doing white-face. Other performers to have played here include Lonnie Johnson, Clarence Willians, Edna Landry, and James Johnson.
Karnofsky Tailor Shop and Residence
When one thinks of jazz, the mind immediately wanders to the music of Louis Armstrong. The young musician worked for a Jewish family on coal and junk wagons early in his life. In fact, he even resided at their house, which was partly turned into a shop in 1913. The Karnofskys lent Armstrong money for his first cornet. Unfortunately, Armstrong was arrested for firing a gun on New Year’s Eve in 1912 and then shifted to the Colored Waif’s Home, a reform school on the outskirts of New Orleans. Here, he joined a band and began serious mastery of his cornet.
Morris Karnofsky was the son of the family that welcomed Louis Amrstrong in their household. While carrying coal to the brothels, the latter would sit alongside playing a tiny tin horn. After the spotlight hit Louis in the 1920s, Morris started a record store where one could buy or rent photographs and records. This came to be known as the first record store in New Orleans to sell any jazz records.
When Larry Borenstein first set up the Preservation Hall, then an art gallery, he realised that his visits to local jazz concerts had been compromised. To maintain the flavour of the genre in his life, he began opening his doors for artists’ rehearsals. George Lewis, Sweet Emma Barrett, Billie and De De Pierce, Punch Miller, The Humphrey Brothers, and many other well-known names in the industry began playing there. When the era of rock and roll took over, leaving jazz musicians in odd jobs, Preservation Hall opened the doors for these performances. To date, the venue keeps alive traditional music by hosting over 350 performances per year.
To learn more about the musical genre, one can visit New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park that is home to many performances and also the New Orleans Jazz Museum. You can also take a tour of Louis Armstrong Park, an area devoted to the late legendary musician. The park houses the famous Congo Square, where African-American members historically gathered to share music and dance amidst the dark practices of slavery. French Quarter in New Orleans is often simmering with jazz musicians and is a great place to catch a live performance!