It’s not all that surprising that Donna’s Bar and Grill, the Rampart Street club beloved by New Orleans music followers around the globe, closed its doors this summer. The joint was in disrepair, and Charlie Sims, the primary force behind the club for years, had turned 75 and had grown tired. “The owners wouldn’t repair the building, and we couldn’t see putting even more money into a building we didn’t own,” Sims says in a phone talk from his central Florida home. Indeed, the club had been in wobbly financial straits for years; it had been kept afloat in recent times by the pension Charlie receives for his 30 years as an Amtrak chef.
Donna’s was one of the three or four clubs responsible for the New Orleans music resurgence of the last 20 years. If there’s a New Orleans brass band playing in your city this year, there’s a good chance they played some of their first gigs at Donna’s. The club began in 1993, when Chicagoan Charlie met Donna Poniatowski, a New Orleans native. “The first musicians to play at our club were actually blues buskers,” Donna says. “But by the spring of 1994 we were the brass band headquarters. Treme was first, followed in order by the Soul Rebels, Pinstripe and Algiers. New Birth, Rebirth, Chosen Few, the Nightcrawlers, Hot 8, Mahogany. They all played here. We had brass bands seven nights a week, with double bills on weekends.”
Donna became a brass band impresaria, even taking brass bands on the road for a while. But the brass band-only phase lasted just three years or so. While the music was often fantastic, the couple tired of nights where three or four members out of an eight-piece band—or no one at all—would show up for the gig. Eventually, it was decided that smaller groups were more economically feasible, and the booking policy shifted primarily to smaller jazz combos.
Some memorable long-term gigs came out of the post-brass band period. Kermit Ruffins had the Monday shift for about three years. Leroy Jones probably played more gigs than anyone else at Donna’s over the years and was one of the last musicians to have a steady night. Shannon Powell, who used superb players like vibist Jason Marsalis and pianist Larry Sieberth, had the Sunday night shift for many years.
The wildest standing date was Bob French’s Monday night gig, a five-year stint that began around 1999. It was the most popular gig in town for a while. A typical Monday would feature blazing solos from sidemen like Eric Traub and Leon Brown, and fantastic talents like Davell Crawford or Henry Butler would sit in regularly. There were also some of the least musical singers sitting in you could imagine. It was a vaudevillian escapade that French kept well under control with his gift of gab.
“It’s hard to single out a Donna’s ‘greatest performance,’ as we heard hundreds of great ones,” continues Donna. “Perhaps one Dirty Dozen performance where Gregory Davis was cutting up nonstop, but you can hardly name someone in New Orleans playing straight-ahead or brass band who hasn’t played our club and had a great night. We had celebrities in the audience of course, but I really value the musicians who came in, from New Zealand to South Africa.”
One gets the sense that Donna and Charlie, while relieved to be free of the music business, are well-aware of how important their club was. “We didn’t just support the brass scene here; we planted the seed for bands like Mama Digdown in Madison and the Black Bottom Brass Band in Tokyo. We were at the center of New Orleans music for 17 years, but it was time to stop” Donna concludes. “We’re going to split our time from now on in New Orleans and Central Florida, and we’re writing two books, a New Orleans cookbook and a memoir about Donna’s.”