For New Orleans music devotees, Tipitina’s has long served as an icon of the city’s music history and the local music scene’s communal spirit. But that’s not what compelled Roland Von Kurnatowski to buy the historic club in 1996. For the wealthy, New Orleans–born real estate developer, purchasing Tip’s was a pragmatic solution to a dollars and cents problem. He and his wife, Mary, were converting the old Fontainebleau Hotel on Tulane Avenue into a storage facility and had decided to rent out some of the units as rehearsal space for musicians. Von Kurnatowski figured a relationship with a local club would be a boon to the Fontainebleau’s rehearsal space rental business.
“The next thing I know, I own it,” says Von Kurnatowski, who freely admits he didn’t comprehend the club’s significance when he made the purchase. It wasn’t until he saw a Tipitina’s reference in a Walt Handelsman cartoon that he began to understand what Tip’s represented on a greater scale.
Pegged to controversy around plans to build a permanent casino on Canal Street, the comic showed two men, one gazing skyward as the other peered at a newspaper. “The guy looking up says, ‘I wonder if a casino in New Orleans will change our culture,’” Von Kurnatowski recalls. “And the guy reading the paper says ‘Hmm, looks like Wayne Newton is playing at Tipitina’s tonight.’”
“The inference is that Wayne Newton at Tipitina’s was a sellout and yes it will change the culture,” he continues. “But all I got out of it was that Tipitina’s is a benchmark for the health of the culture of New Orleans.”
Two decades later, Roland and Mary Von Kurnatowski—who will receive OffBeat’s 2015 Best of the Beat award for Lifetime Achievement in Music Business this month—are leaders in supporting and sustaining that culture. Once a touch-and-go financial venture, the Tipitina’s Uptown outpost now supports foundation work that has placed $3.15 million worth of instruments in 101 schools across the state, taught hundreds of students fundamental information about survival in the music industry, provided more than 1,000 musicians with access to computer software and office amenities and paired hundreds of young players with master musicians in a workshop setting.
The club, meanwhile, retains much of the spirit with which it was founded in 1977, by a group of music lovers who wanted to give an aging Professor Longhair a place to play on a regular basis.
“I believe it became significant because for the people who started it, it was personal,” says Roland. He’s seated in a plush chair in a quiet, second-floor section of the Roosevelt Hotel, which has become his impromptu office as he’s worked to renovate and reopen the nearby Orpheum Theater.
“The club was their baby and their hangout and it wasn’t all about making money. They were more interested in bonding with the musicians and the musicians weren’t used to that and they loved that. That’s what gave Tip’s its character.”
Once they understood what the club meant to the music community, Roland and Mary both say they became determined “not to screw it up,” especially in light of the fact that their lack of music industry credentials created some suspicion around their motives.
“If I had to live off it I would have sold it the second day,” Roland says, matter-of-factly.
Instead, they tried to move slowly and cautiously, giving careful attention to details that were key to the history of the venue while updating other elements of the space that needed to change in order for the club to function properly.
“We spent a long time cleaning it,” says Mary, thinking back to their initial work on the space. “We did wiring and electrical work, put in a new sound system—but we tried to keep the whole Tipitina’s vibe that people love in place.”
Joking that the extent of her music background added up to eight years of piano lessons, she credits the fact that she and Roland had already carved out careers in real estate when they got involved with Tipitina’s, so they didn’t rely it financially.
“Roland and I were older and we already were kind of on our path,” she explains. “The fact of the matter is the club had gone through a lot of difficult years for a variety of reasons. It needed somebody to come along who was going to look at it like a business and make sure the lights were paid and the musicians were paid and the equipment you were paying to rent was working or replaced.”
That approach worked. But as time went on, Roland began to look ahead and wonder what would ensure that Tipitina’s would stay relevant.
“You can’t just say, ‘We’re gonna be nice to musicians because that’s what the founders did back then and that’s gonna make everything grand,’” he says. “But we did feel like if we could help young people who were getting into the field to have some steps up, maybe in a little different way than the New Orleans veterans did because they really had to slug it out, then that would make us relevant. That’s what the Tipitina’s Foundation is supposed to be about.”
Once the foundation launched in 2003, its primary focus was a fundraiser held on the Monday between Jazz Fest weekends. WWOZ had recently moved Piano Night to a new location after years of presenting the annual show at Tip’s. Knowing there was an audience in town that had become used to attending a charity event on that night at the club, the Von Kurnatowskis and their staff saw an opportunity and staged the foundation’s first major event—a fundraiser for Mardi Gras Indians called Injuns a Comin’.
The next year, the organization shifted its efforts to placing instruments in schools, a mission Roland credits Tipitina’s former talent buyer Adam Shipley with suggesting.
Soon, the team went one step further, adding an internship program directed by Donald Harrison that offers high school students after-school lessons in music performance, recording and what the foundation website describes as “career professionalism.” Today, the program also maintains ties to the Berklee School of Music, which has awarded full scholarships to a dozen of the 200-plus intern alums.
“You’d worry about high school kids losing enthusiasm,” Roland says. “But the thing is, it’s Tipitina’s. It’s not corny or anything, it’s hip, so we have a really good follow-through. Kids don’t drift off, they stay with it.”
Over time, the foundation has continued to expand its programming, adding the popular Sunday Youth Music Workshop and music office co-ops in New Orleans and across the state, as well as a legal assistance arm.
“So many of our young people don’t have someone in their court,” Mary points out. “They may intellectually want to do it but they may not have the tools.” That’s where she hopes the foundation can step in and provide some support.
Bethany Paulsen, who’s served as the foundation’s executive director for the past three years, sees the organization’s continued growth as an offshoot of the Von Kurnatowskis’ shared vision and “hands-on” approach.
As far as the division of labor, Paulsen maintains the couple makes most tasks a team effort. “It’s hard to say what their defined roles are because they’re both willing to jump in and help wherever they’re needed,” she says.
“[Roland] has a really good way of keeping his eye on the ball way down at the other end of the field,” Mary says of how she and her husband share the workload, “and I’m the one making sure the grass is getting mowed and all the lines get painted on the field.”
Lately, there are a lot of “lines” in need of being painted. In addition to managing the Fontainebleau and a number of apartment complexes, the club and the foundation, the Von Kurnatowskis are still renovating the Orpheum, which Roland bought in 2014 for $1.5 million. While the theater has already opened, providing a home base for the Louisiana Philharmonic, construction continues on the basement level of the building, which is slated to become a multi-use space, complete with banquet rooms and a basement kitchen.
With both Tip’s Uptown and the Orpheum, Mary says, the goal has been to preserve a piece of New Orleans history. “You have this sense that you’re really just here as a caretaker,” she muses, adding that she tries to remember that with both projects, she and her husband are dealing with something “that had meaning before you were here and will have meaning after you’re gone.”
Meanwhile, plans are in the works for the swath of lakefront property in New Orleans East where Tipitina’s hosted the inaugural Landing Festival, a collaborative effort with Galactic, in September. The space will likely include an amphitheater, recording studio and retail space, Roland said, although little had been finalized at press time.
Despite all of this, Roland becomes visibly antsy when asked to reflect on the impact the Von Kurnatowskis have had on the city’s music scene over the years.
“The only really credible thing I can claim in full with Tipitina’s,” he says, “is I didn’t sell it out.”