Taking its name from Jessie Hill’s 1960 hit, the Ooh Poo Pah Doo is a new bar with an old soul. Opened in 2013 by the late R&B icon’s daughter, singer Judy Hill, the homey little Treme music venue is laid back and welcoming, full of home cooking, friends and family members, and great live music. Posters from her father’s days performing with Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Fats Domino and the others at the Dew Drop Inn hang alongside pictures of Hill’s nephews, Trombone Shorty, James Andrews and Trumpet Black. As of recently, the bar has also become home to Big Chief Kevin Goodman’s Flaming Arrow Mardi Gras Indians and the Ole & Nu Style Social Aid and Pleasure Club. These organizations are instrumental in planning various second line parades, parties, memorials and other community events around the Treme neighborhood, such as the hundreds-strong Purple Rain Prince tribute second line that took place in April.
The Ooh Poo Pah Doo bar’s growing reputation—both via local word of mouth and various travel sites—makes it an interesting meeting point for a wide variety of people. Music lovers from around the world on pilgrimage to the cradle of jazz come to the bar and find venerated players from some of the city’s oldest musical lineages jamming with each other like it’s a backyard party. There are regulars who come by every day from around the corner, and there are regulars who come by every year from places as far flung as England, Italy and Japan. The venue gained much worldwide notoriety when the late Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill launched his popular “Blue Monday” gig (which continues today led by James Andrews).
Judy Hill had been thinking about opening a bar for years before it finally came to fruition. “I had the family history in mind,” she said. “I said, ‘Yeah, we gonna do like we used to do in my mom’s living room…’ We didn’t have a band in our living room; a box. Take the laundry out, and that’s the bass drum. The snare drum was a bottle. That’s how we made music.”
With its casual atmosphere and musicians rotating on and off stage, the Ooh Poo Pah Doo has that living room feeling for sure. It’s turned into a slightly different scene than Hill originally expected, though.
“You know, when I first opened, I didn’t expect white people here,” she laughed. “I really didn’t. After awhile, some nights I’m like, ‘Holy shit, there’s more white than black…’”
Gentrification, rising tourism and cultural appropriation are major issues of discussion for the historically black Treme. Running a family-based music venue there in 2016—one that enjoys the full benefits of the markets available without a feeling of “selling out”—might seem like a Herculean task. But Hill seems to navigate the balance between being a business owner and a heart-and-soul community pillar with an easy grace.
“I love it. I’ll take it any kind of way… We welcome everybody, you know?” she said. “When I opened this bar, I didn’t have money on my mind. I really didn’t. I hate that I need the money. I opened this bar for all of us. For you, for me, for the tourists. Everybody. Everybody that has a soul. That likes some good music and likes to sit down on a—sit down on a quiet day like this and exchange stories… I don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know me, but I’m gonna make you feel like this all night. We’re gonna have fun!”
Her secret is simple: Be welcoming, be compassionate with each other. And her superpower is a seemingly unlimited supply of social energy. (Also a really badass highkick—see her performance of “Stagger Lee.”)
“Me, my thing is, it’s like my house,” Hill continued. “If I invite you to my house, I open the door and say, ‘You’re welcome to come in whenever you’re in New Orleans. I’m gonna treat you like you at my house.”
“I love it,” Hill said. “I live for it. It’s just the person I am. You have to be into it. Other than that, you would go outside and scream. People always wanna meet you. I think the difference about me, and I’m not tootin’ my own horn—well, a lady reminded me, she said, ‘Ms. Judy, you know, you never go to a bar where the owner actually entertains her crowd. You dance, you sing, you do everything.’”
That’s the other thing. In addition to everything that goes along with operating a neighborhood institution, she’s also somehow finding the time to take her own music career up a notch. You can find her performing most nights at the bar as “Just Judy” or sitting in with Big Chief Alfred Doucette, James Andrews, Guitar Slim, Jr. and Box Fontenot, or whoever else happens to be playing that night. She sings at other festivals and events around town as well. Hill doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t up on stage, singing and entertaining people.
“I always did, from a baby. From a young girl. I always had a nice voice, so my family set at it and they would always get me to sing when company come over. ‘Come on, Judy, get the microphone!’ The microphone was a broom,” she laughed.
“And Jessie would have you singin’ all night,” she continued. “Really, he was very passionate. And very serious. He would cuss yo’ ass out! Like, ‘Goddammit girl… go back to that number there!’ … I used to sing with him at Tipitina’s. Every other month. I was young. The last time I was there I had to be about 18 years old.”
If she learned about music from her dad, though, she learned about being a hostess from her mom. Anyone who hangs around the Ooh Poo Pah Doo knows Ms. Dorothy Hill, an energetic, warmhearted lady who lives around the corner, providing a home base for travelling musicians and serving up piles of food.
“My mom, she’s the strongest,” Judy said. “And everything she say to me, I eat it with a spoon. Take it all in. I always did, from a kid. Every time when my mom would talk I’d be right under. Listening to everything they tellin’… My mom and her momma.”
Music, food, family history, Mardi Gras Indians… The Ooh Poo Pah Doo has a lot going for it on paper, but it’s the deeper sense of welcome and community that has given the bar a special place in so many people’s hearts.