Spinning the Quarter: Searching for a Sense of Place
A personal guide to the Vieux Carré by those who experience it
Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub
Photographs by Bryan Tarnowski
Jazz has long been associated with the French Quarter, but the music for much of the century since its birth was a stepchild to the rowdy strip joints of Bourbon Street. In the 1940s the neighborhood was down at the heels, a neighborhood so rough that blacks referred to upper Burgundy Street as “Burma Road.”
The writer Lyle Saxon spearheaded a preservationist movement that improved old buildings in the residential area near Esplanade Avenue. The tawdry glitz of Bourbon Street was “where vaudeville went to die” – but it was a slow death with lots of booze and sex on the hoof.
The few jazz clubs nearest Canal Street in the late 1950s featured Dixieland comets Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, while the Creole bandleader Oscar “Papa” Celestin anchored the Paddock Lounge. Ironically, strip joints largely defined the entertainment commerce back then. Black jazzmen who played the strip joints were quarantined behind a curtain to satisfy segregation laws (no race mixing) as the women took it off to grinding melodies a few feet away.
Alto saxophonist Al Belletto, a veteran bebopper who went on to lead a big band, once recalled a New Year’s Eve show he played on Bourbon Street “with a dead guy in the dressing room ... they weren’t going to notify the police until all that good business had come in and gone.”
These days, the migration of jazz to high-end hotels is a sign of sophisticated cultural commerce and a moral threshold of sorts. Trumpeter Jeremy Davenport is the star of the Davenport Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton. His recent album is We’ll Dance ’Til Dawn and we have no reports of anybody topless at the bar.
The Ritz-Carlton's Jeremy Davenport
Jazz commerce is rolling in the lower French Quarter these days; in fact more of the music is featured in sleek locations than ever before. Davenport is one trendsetter; but Irvin Mayfield, trumpeter and leader of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, is a musical entrepreneur with clubs in two frontline hotels that showcase major local artists. As welcome as these events are for local fans – hire a sitter, drive downtown, spend an evening in a plush spot with great music – we should suffer no delusions of originality. New York hotels have been doing this for years. Still, Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, which occupies the lounge off the lobby of the Royal Sonesta, has music seven nights a week and features trumpeters such as Shamarr Allen and the meteoric trombonist Glen David Andrews. Six nights a week there’s no cover charge at all. On Wednesdays, the tag is $15 for NOJO under Mayfield – a good deal to say the least. With many of the town’s cream players cycling through on a given night – Kermit Ruffins has been known to waltz in and share the spotlight with Mayfield – the Jazz Playhouse is one of the hottest locations in town.
The Sonesta is across the street from the Sho-Bar, where Governor Earl K. Long in 1959 fell in love with a stripper name of Blaze Starr. (It is hard to imagine Bobby Jindal doing that.)
Mayfield’s I Club at the JW Marriott features music Wednesday through Saturday nights from 8 a.m. to midnight. Covers vary from $5 to $15 depending on the group. Mia Borders typically performs on Wednesdays. Amanda Shaw plays Cajun music for “Good Southern Girls Night” on Thursdays. Walter “Wolfman” Washington has been the mainstay on Fridays in recent months. Bluesmen Little Freddie King and Mem Shannon perform frequently. Most Saturdays feature Los Hombres Calientes with Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers. Javier Gutierrez and Vivaz play Latin music as the opening act on Saturdays. The Iguanas and Cyril Neville are known to play the I Club as well.
All of this activity descends in a very real sense from the 1961 founding of Preservation Hall. The temple of New Orleans Style jazz founded by Larry Borenstein, and soon taken over by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, was for many years a wing-and-a-prayer effort to keep one place where the classical idiom could thrive and the musicians have regular work. Today, under bassist, tubist and scion Ben Jaffe, the Hall is stronger than ever, featuring a wealth of local jazz artists with periodic shows going beyond the traditional idiom. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band maintains an active touring schedule, pushing its recordings and taking the music to foreign countries and other points on the domestic map.
Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub is a beacon of culture amid the neon bedlam with regulars including clarinetists Tim Laughlin and Tom Fischer, pianist Tom McDermott, and trumpeter Wendell Brunious.
“Tom Fischer and Friends were on stage leading the audience into a frenzy of the sort that Fritzel’s is known for,” wrote Wade Luquet for AllAboutJazz.com. “The music is traditional, and the playing is exceptional. Fischer and Scott carried the tune on ‘St. James Infirmary,’ which began as the sad song that it is and ended on a high note that had the audience cheering.”
Wade, we support your views.
Palm Court Jazz Cafe
The Palm Court Jazz Cafe has an extensive dining area and spacious dance floor with a crowd of loyalists drawn to the music by Lionel Ferbos, the 100-year old trumpeter, and the overlapping personnel led by pianist Lars Edegran. Their ranks often include trumpeter and cornetist Connie Jones, who has one of the finest tones in town, as found on the exceptional CD Creole Nocturne, a collaboration with pianist Tom McDermott.
Jazz spots within major French Quarter hotels and vibrant performances at smaller clubs attest to the city’s cultural resurgence since Hurricane Katrina. The draw that jazz has for tourists and locals in equal measure is a sign of the how the music has grown in the popular imagination. In the town where jazz began, even as rap records hugely overpower the sales of jazz albums, the popularity of New Orleans Style is a sign that the music is elemental to what makes the city work.
Jazz venues in order mentioned:
921 Canal St.
Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse
Royal Sonesta Hotel
300 Bourbon St.
JW Marriott Hotel
614 Canal St.
726 Saint Peter St.
Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub
733 Bourbon St.
The Palm Court Jazz Cafe
1204 Decatur St.