George and Nina Buck reign over what could be described as the “house that jazz built.” Upstairs in what was once an old French Market warehouse at 1204 Decatur Street, radio impresario, record producer, broadcaster, publisher and keeper of the traditional jazz flame, George Buck inconspicuously administers the multi-faceted elements of his GHB Jazz Foundation. Downstairs, his more socially gregarious wife Nina can often be found dancing in front of the band, greeting guests and overseeing the daily functions of her Palm Court Jazz Café. While George’s focus has long been on the recording side of the music industry with a dedication to preservation, Nina’s contributions gravitate to the here and now in presenting live music. What the couple, who were married in New Orleans in 1986, definitely shares is a life-long love of traditional jazz.
“My greatest pleasure is doing jazz,” says George Buck, who initially bought the building as a warehouse to store his vast inventory of recordings. By the time he moved from Atlanta to New Orleans in 1986, Buck, who produced his first record with Tony Parenti and the New Orleanians on his own Jazzology label in 1949, headed eight record labels under the auspices of his GHB Foundation.
“The purpose of Jazzology was for permanent documentation of authentic jazz throughout the years,” he states. We [the GHB Foundation] probably have the largest record catalog of jazz that was recorded in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and into the 2000s.” Having acquired numerous other labels through the decades, it also boasts material dating back to the 1920s.
Jazzology began as a radio program Buck created in 1947 that aired on WWOD in Virginia. The show’s format lives, and airing on several of the stations he owns, including WTIX in New Orleans. It was his acquisition of radio stations beginning in 1958 with WCOS in South Carolina—ironically a Top 40 show that he built up to a number one standing—that allowed him the means to pursue his passion of recording jazz.
“All of the income from the radio went to finance everything that I’ve recorded,” says Buck, who continues to host programs from his upstairs studio.
When her husband purchased the French Quarter building, Nina Buck envisioned a small coffee shop on the main floor. Soon the British-born music enthusiast, who was a regular at London’s jazz hot spots of the 1960s such as Ronnie Scott’s and Ken Coyler’s, broadened her vision by eventually expanding the café, which opened in 1989, to what is now a lovely and renowned music venue and restaurant that seats 200 with extra space available in the bistro area.
“We provided something that really wasn’t there,” say Nina Buck of the club’s success. “I’m not saying there was no jazz—but people wanted a comfortable place to come, listen to good music, have New Orleans style food—Creole food—and meet with friends. Also the New Orleans atmosphere—they feel as if they’re really here. They really feel that the New Orleans spirit is here. That’s what we tried to create.
“I think it’s been special for the musicians too,” adds Buck, remembering the early days with musicians like banjoist/guitarist Danny Barker, trumpeter Percy Humphrey and his clarinetist brother Willie Humphrey, clarinetist Pud Brown, and trombonist Louis Nelson as well as the importance of the next-generation of players. “It’s given them a place to play where they are appreciated and they feel comfortable. There weren’t many places for them to play. It’s been a very special for me too—it’s just my life. I’ve always loved this music.”
While the Palm Court thrives on tourists and particularly convention attendees, Nina wanted the club to be welcoming to locals as well. She achieved this by limiting the cover charge to table seating so folks could stop by for a drink at the bar and enjoy the music.
“They add a lot—we have a lovely bar crowd,” Nina says with a smile. “They talk to the musicians; they’re friends. I’ve had some groups that have booked the whole place who have asked me to keep the bar open because that’s the atmosphere.”
Fortunately, the building that houses the Palm Court and the GHB Foundation ventures sustained very little damage in Hurricane Katrina. George Buck said his mail order record business was not greatly affected by the storm because most of his dealings are with customers from around the country and the world. Once he got the word out through his Jazzology magazine that he was still in business, customers responded. The biggest difference now is that his product gets shipped from the post office in Metairie.
The Palm Court Jazz Café made a triumph return to the scene post-Katrina when it opened on October 19, 2005. Locals packed the place to hear the likes of pianist Lars Edegran, trumpeter Leroy Jones and bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie and the music continued through most of November. Somewhat overwhelmed by having to deal with the losses at the couple’s other properties as well as working with a minimal staff at the club, Nina decided to close the Palm Court for the month of December and reopen for New Year’s Eve. It will then be back offering live traditional jazz five nights a week.
“Rhythm is our business,” declares George Buck.