Music Uptown and Downtown


Don’t we need one of these?

Not as many people have been around music as a business for as long as me, and just like everything else, the local club scene has changed drastically.

I’ve written about this before, but an email from a bar owner uptown started me thinking about it again.

Almost 30 years, when I was still a major club rat (oh, yes, I was), I spent most of my time at venues uptown: Tip’s, Le Bon Temps, the Maple Leaf, Jed’s (that changed into Muddy Water’s), Carrollton Station, Jimmy’s, Tyler’s Beer Garden, some places I can’t remember the names of, and a few other holes in the wall…Kemp’s, even the Dew Drop (when it was open). Being a music freak, I also hit the Bourbon Street Gospel & Blues Hall (it did exist), the original Howlin’ Wolf in Fat City, Sidney’s Saloon, the Funky Butt, Donna’s, Check Point Charlie’s, the Mint (then the Matador, then BMC), the Toulouse Theater (then the Shim Sham Club, now One Eyed Jack’s), Snug Harbor, the Dream Palace, Café Brasil, Joe’s Cozy Corner, Sweet Lorraine’sand just about anywhere else there was music being played. I was always looking to experience the music.

Now I was not a college kid, I was just a dyed-in-the-wool music freak, and that’s why OffBeat exists. I know these people like this still exist.

But it takes hard work to keep a bar open, and really, really hard work to keep a venue that features music open and thriving.

As a music lover who was also a business person, it was evident to me that there were a lot of things the music community could have done better. For one thing: organizing and promoting its common interests. The music bars uptown were, for the most part, not close to each other; they were “uptown” and unless they were clustered on Oak or Willow, you had to drive go from one club to the other, which what us music freaks used to do: hear two or three or four bands in a night.

But we did it.

About 12 to 15 years ago (I’m not sure exactly when), there started to be a shift in where you could hear music. There was the “uptown” contingent and the “downtown” contingent. Slowly, there started to be a coalescing of music venues more downtown than uptown. That became Frenchmen Street.

At the time, the uptown venues took no notice. They should have. Tourists and visitors have always been an important market for music in New Orleans. It takes a lot more marketing and promotion to get Joe Tourist to schlep uptown than it does to get them to walk a few blocks or take a short cheap cab ride to the Marigny. In my memory, the only club who really tried to court visitors was Tipitina’s. They distributed flyers at hotels, sought publicity, and marketed the club heavily towards visitors. Yep, there are local music freaks (like yours truly, and a lot of college students) who will venture out to hear music on a regular basis, but savvy music club people recognized the fact that their bars could and did attract visitors.

Sounds like common sense, doesn’t it?

A couple of uptown clubs other than Tip’s made sure they did the same thing (OffBeat helped, since the magazine has always been delivered to area hotels). Some half-heartedly marketed to visitors.

And then we got hit by Mademoiselle Katrina, which kicked live music uptown—and live music in general—in the butt. Musicians were gone, no one was here. It’s a miracvle that any of the music clubs survived at all.

Maple Leaf rallied, Tip’s rebooted by establishing the Tipitina’s Foundation. Jimmy’s closed, Carrollton Station was sold to new owners. But all-in-all, the music scene gravitated more and more downtown, to Frenchmen Street. It grew organically, and steadily into what it is today: pretty much to a tipping point of too much music and too many patrons, if there is such a thing. But the music venues on Frenchmen flourished because they were in proximity (music freaks could walk from club to club and get a different dose of band), and also because they were able to establish a brand.

The uptown clubs were never able to work together to do that.

So, I’m reminded of this by corresponding with a bar owner uptown who claims that he’s pretty much had it with music. He just wants to have a neighborhood bar that has music every once in a while. Too hard to keep it going. I must note that the current owner doesn’t market his place to visitors.

So in some ways, it almost seems that the music scene uptown is sadly shriveling away.

I don’t think that you can blame it on Frenchmen Street. From my standpoint, we want music venues all over the city where musicians can play, get paid, and what could be done is to create music districts where other music clubs could literally brand themselves under a single moniker, just as Frenchmen Street has done. Why haven’t the uptown clubs marketed themselves to music lovers, even those (sometimes) dreaded “tourists.” Hey,  tourists love music and they drink beer and booze. Show them a little real local music. Get in touch with me. I’ll commit to help. The more music, the better, all over the city.

Just takes a little work, planning strategy, marketing, politicking and most of all, dedication to keeping the music culture alive and well.

  • NOLA Native

    Did the bar owner say that his only remaining customers are college students (which is why I started to abandon Uptown), or do they get a mix of ages which might encourage some of us to go back Uptown?

  • Hoodoonola

    Thank you Jan for your well-reasoned, sensible and practical approach to building unity in our collective efforts – You’ll be hearing from me and, I am sure, a number of us dedicated to keeping our music and culture and alive and well and prosperous for all …. thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • It seems to me that N.O. has evolved over the last 30 years too far toward newer music venues that we haven’t heard of, and has not supported enough the traditional venues and the great local talent that remains. Each year we search for the groups and players we know, and they seem to be playing less and less locally. I wish the jazz Market great success.

  • kmsoap

    The current zoning system of locking music away in Arts and Culture Overlays is to blame. The zoning code makes it extremely difficult to open a music venue, and the dysfunctional NIMBY neighborhood associations wield more power than their numbers suggest they should. The whole system needs an overhaul.

    • janramsey

      Amen. I agree that the neighborhood associations for the most part don’t take into account the culture of the city, especially as regards to music. And you are 100% correct that the power them seem to wield with city officials doesn’t correlate with the population as a whole. The real thing is that the neighborhood associations are organized, funded and have the resoures to be very vocal, consistently. I’ve always said that toughening up the requirements for sound amelioration and sticking to it would really make a big different. Also, there probablt shouldn’t be any “grandfathering in” of existing clubs. Let’s get it all done at once. If offending clubs have to beef up their sound buffers, well thenm why can’t the city provide some sort of tax credit for that expense so that they can all be in compliance. If the “noise” is an issue, then let’s fix that and let the music flow.

      • kmsoap

        The Overlays themselves create large concentrations of music that are then marketed as tourist destinations. By eliminating the overlay zoning and making the rules more liberal city wide, we can spread that economic prosperity to places that really need it.

        As for the NAs, the problem is available time. It’s an unimaginable luxury to have the free time to dedicate to meddling in every excruciating bit of neighborhood minutiae, and most people simply do not have it. That alone colors the demographic of these groups. And then there is desire. With all the city has to offer in both entertainment and volunteer opportunity, this is the thing they pick.

        That will go on until people get mad enough at their NA for saying crazy things in their name. There are groups (like MaCCNO) that exist to counter some of that misrepresentation, but the best way to solve it is to continue to communicate your own wishes to city government and reminding them that these niche groups do not speak for all.

        • janramsey

          Definitely right. Thank goodness for MaCCNO. The problem is that MaCCNO is not so funded and so focused as the myriad NA groups that have the ability to be the squeaky wheel in the ear of city officials. That’s an issue. I think MaCCNO needs to go after some sponsorship so it can really bring big guns against NA groups citywide.

          • kmsoap

            Funding is always an issue for grassroots organizations. MaCCNO is actively seeking sponsorship, as well as contributions from members and individuals.

  • Pittsburgh Frank

    Good article; saying what needs to be said and providing options rather than just ‘complaining’.
    I am a ‘blues’ fan’. Thirty years ago, I use to marvel at the weekly listing of ‘blues venues’ in my hometown; two pages long. Now that same list has dwindled to about a half-dozen. I pray ‘that day’ never comes to New Orleans.

  • Jeff Williams

    Interesting reading comments regarding zoning. In London, where I gig, there has been a tendency for corporate suit types to move into an area where live music has been prevalent and use their money and power to get said venues closed down. These are areas where venues were established. People are fighting back as these corporate suits are destroying the unique qualities of certain areas and making them become very soulless. Just like themselves! Here’s me