When the jazz classic “On Green Dolphin Street” emanated from Donna’s Bar & Grill, you could bet that trumpeter Leroy Jones was blowing on stage. Charlie Sims, the beloved chef and co-owner, with his wife Donna, of the now defunct North Rampart Street club, would step out of the kitchen, his realm, to hear his favorite song. Sims, who loved jazz and cooking, died at home in Casselberry, Florida on Sunday, February 5. He was 81.
“It was a prerequisite to play ‘On Green Dolphin Street,’” remembers Jones. “He loved the Miles Davis version of it and that’s the one we used to do, including the bass intro—he was waiting for that. He’d say if the cats didn’t know that, they didn’t know the song.”
“Charlie was very musical,” agrees drummer Shannon Powell, who began playing at Donna’s at trumpeter Kermit Ruffins’ notorious Monday night gigs, when Sims would lay out a spread of his delicious red beans and rice and chicken. “He’d always be talking about not just the local musicians but people he met coming up as a young man in Chicago.
Sims, who was born in Rome, Georgia and raised in Chicago, led a diverse life. He served 13 years in the United States Navy, including as a crew member on the nuclear submarine the USS Skate. Later he attended the Culinary Institute of America, which prepared him for his employment with Amtrak, the company he retired from in 2000 after 23 years. Sims arrived in the Crescent City by rail as the head chef of Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans.” Its route from Chicago to the Crescent City became a fateful one when in 1993 he met Donna, who had just opened the corner spot and was looking for someone to take over the kitchen. It was a perfect match not only for Charlie and Donna, who were married in Armstrong Park on October 15, 1994, but for the New Orleans music community.
“Charlie was almost like a musician because all of the musicians were crazy about him,” offers trumpeter/vocalist Gregg Stafford. “He knew everybody by name. He was the kind of person who loved to have fun, loved to talk and he cared about people.”
It was at Donna’s that the young Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his brass band played its first official gig, holding down a residency on Sundays. “Even though we were kids, he wasn’t really treating us like kids—he treated us like professional musicians,” Andrews remembers with appreciation. “He was a strong New Orleans music lover and he and Donna played their part in giving us a home to call ‘Brass Band Headquarters.’”
Donna’s small kitchen became the spot where he would “hold court” while flipping his famous cheeseburgers. Donning his signature beret and white chef jacket, he was at the center of the storytelling, the jokes and the laughter.
“Sometimes there were musicians up front playing and there was a whole group of musicians in the kitchen,” says Stafford, mentioning regulars like drummer Bob French and saxophonist Red Morgan.
“In his exact words, Charlie would say, he loved to talk plenty shit,” Jones adds. “And that’s exactly what he did.”
“I always asked him a million questions and he always had an answer,” Powell says with a laugh. “He taught me a lot about cooking and he really knew how to make mac ’n’ cheese. He put in a lot of cream, a lot of butter and a lot of garlic powder and it would rise like a cake.”
“I was lucky enough to hang out in that kitchen with Charlie on many Mondays and you know what we’d be doin’ in the kitchen,” Ruffins adds.
Charlie and Kermit, known for their generous natures and love of cooking, started up the now legendary Tuesdays on the lot (now Tuba Fats Square) in the Treme. “We would put up all our money, hire a band and a deejay and we’d cook for the whole neighborhood,” Ruffins remembers, adding that Oswald “Bo Monkey” Jones would be there helping out.
“I’d go on my bike straight from McDonogh 15 to my house to get my trombone and went to the lot and played and ate free barbecue,” Andrews still recalls with pleasure. “Mr. Charlie was one of the nicest human beings that I ever came across in life and he was always passing along a lot of knowledge.”
“Charlie was always open arms to everyone—white, black, homosexual, crazy,” Jones offers. “If there was a problem, though, he’d straight up let you know you had to go. Charlie would always say, ‘You ain’t gotta go home, but you got to get the hell up outta here.’”
A memorial for Charlie Sims will be held on Saturday, March 4 at the Carver Theater, 2101 Orleans Avenue. Music and remembrances will begin at 11 a.m. followed by a jazz funeral that will disband at the Mississippi River Bottom bar (MRB) at 515 St. Philip St.