Buddy Bolden Mural on the back of the Little Gem. Photo: Eli Mergel

Music in New Orleans is a lot more than entertainment

There are some new developments related to music that are proposed in New Orleans. One is the property on South Rampart that includes the Eagle Saloon, the Karnofsky Tailor Shop, the Iroquois Theater, the Little Gem and parking lots adjacent to the buildings. This site has been in play for a very long time.

The previously mentioned buildings on the site, bounded by South Rampart, Poydras, Loyola and Perdido are incredibly important in the history of jazz.

The Eagle Saloon is owned by the non-profit New Orleans Music Hall of Fame, Inc., (NOMHOF) a continuation of the “Hall of Fame” set up by Jerome Johnson, who passed away some years ago. Then most of the site was owned by the Meraux Foundation; they too are no longer involved.

All of the buildings, except the Eagle Saloon, have been purchased by Cleveland-based GBX Group (From their website: “A firm that specializes in acquiring, preserving and operating historic real estate in urban markets. The company has partnered with investors to fund the purchase and preservation of historic real estate to generate community revitalization and economic growth. Since its founding in 2001, GBX has completed over 100 projects in 18 states.”).

The Eagle Saloon Initiative (ESI) is a group that was formed to act as a supporting arm to NOMHOF, to bring awareness to the Saloon, to help to aid in crafting the outcome of the building and to place the revamped building within the context of the entire historical site.  ESI was also set up to raise money to improve the derelict property, and some work was done, but the group has not been able to raise enough money to put the building back into any sort of usable condition; it’s still owned by NOMHOF, whose board members include attorney Mike Sherman, musician Deacon John, and architect Todd James.

What will the new owners of the three historic properties do with Karnofsky, Iroquois and Little Gem—these precious properties that are so integral to jazz history and New Orleans culture? Will they create an environment where they actually showcase their historical value and cultural significance?  Will they provide information on the history of the buildings, the people who occupied and performed in them and why they are so valuable to New Orleans? Will they really be able to represent the city’s deep ties to. jazz music and the musicians who created it? Or will they be converted into a “Disneyfied” part of a mainstream entertainment complex? Of course not.

Zach Fawcett, who heads up ESI, suggested that the Karnofsky property contain a small coffee shop and restaurant, and possibly a working retail outlet that could sell, restore and repair brass instruments, and perhaps even showcase the repairs to the public. It could also be a place where people could buy vinyl or CDs, pick up literature or books on New Orleans music, tours, and other music-related attractions in New Orleans, or even a gift shop…all in keeping with the location’s importance to the history of jazz.

The Eagle Saloon is the linchpin of the entire development, and could be a small museum about the block, the “Black Storyville” and the history of jazz at that location (Louis Armstrong is associated with the Eagle Saloon), with a meeting room on the second floor and a small performance area on the first floor along with a more museum-like atmosphere, perhaps with a limited number of interactive exhibits.

The Iroquois Theater would be an ideal place for ongoing performances of traditional jazz, as well as a bar. The Little Gem already has a restaurant with a small stage downstairs and a bar and small performance area upstairs.

Anyone who knows about music in New Orleans would be interested in seeing where jazz purportedly began, in the Black Storyville. But what’s even better is that, if designed properly, this could be a real music and cultural educational opportunity for locals too. What we don’t want is another sports bar, a place where cover bands churn out music, and an inauthentic, sterile entertainment experience. That would be a shame and a travesty. Would it be possible to add in a soupçon of culture to a city that’s continually marketed itself to visitors as a non-stop party where drinking and debauchery are tolerated, even welcomed, 24/7? Maybe try to attract more cultural tourists to New Orleans rather than people looking to get drunk and stupid? What a concept!

Whoever develops this property has to get major input from music historians, the music community itself, and from carefully-selected and vetted developers who are not only imaginative but who are culturally sensitive. We don’t need a flashy commercial entertainment complex that merely exploits our musical heritage. Authenticity is the key; we need to demand that it be done before we potentially lose more cultural landmarks and more of our precious musical heritage.

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something incredible at this location: there are no other buildings, no other location in New Orleans that are so historic and so important to the history of jazz in this country. Let’s make sure that it’s done right, because once it’s gone…it’s gone.