By Lyndsey Beaulieu
In this week’s episode, “Sunset on Louisianne,” the music career of DJ Davis (Steve Zahn) is thwarted yet again when his band of Educated Fools arrives at Caledonia’s for a gig -- only to find it closed for business. The club may be fictional, but that some of the best music clubs on N. Rampart St. were shut down following Hurricane Katrina is not.
The long revered stretch of N. Rampart St. between Canal St. and Esplanade Ave. was a hotspot for authentic New Orleans music, with the Funky Butt (714 N. Rampart), and Donna’s Bar and Grill (800 N. Rampart St.), at its center. The Funky Butt, operated by Sam Williams of Big Sam’s Funky Nation and his wife, Shanekah Williams, was hands-down one of the best places in town to hear live music. But like so many of the dive bars in the area, the Funky Butt was in such a state of disrepair that it was forced to close just before Katrina. After the storm, a New Orleans businessman attempted to bring the Funky Butt back to greatness, but city politics and re-zoning put a fast stop to the plan. Between the residents of the Vieux Carre and City Hall, there was virtually no support for the once-venerable club’s reopening.
Donna’s Bar and Grill was the last mainstay to go, closing its doors in 2010. For over 20 years, Monday nights at Donna’s were legendary; a rite of passage where musicians came to see other musicians jam until the wee hours of the morning. Also legendary were the red beans and rice and barbecue chicken served by its proprietors, husband and wife team Donna Poniatowski and Charlie Sims. But like the Funky Butt, extensive damage and dilapidation eventually did them in, effectively ending the era of live music on N. Rampart St.
Music legends were also born on N. Rampart St., at the historic J&M studios, which is now a laundromat. Legends like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Lloyd Price and Jerry Lee Lewis put some of their biggest hits on wax at 838-840 N. Rampart St.
Given the history and pedigree of the music to come from the area, it seems incongruous that many of its music clubs now sit in silence. There’s little desire from the community to see it turned into anything commercial -- unless it includes swanky restaurants, art galleries, or condos. I can’t say that I blame them; I understand the concern that the clubs will bring unwanted foot traffic and crime, returning the area to its former seediness. With the recent openings of a couple high-end restaurants, and the reopenings of the Mahalia Jackson Theater, The Saenger Theater, and Armstrong Park, new life has been breathed into area.
In recent months, there has been talk of revitalization centered around the musical landmarks on S. Rampart St. on the other side of Canal -- namely the old Iroquois Theater, Eagle Saloon, and the Karnofsky Store. All three are considered to be at the center of jazz as we know it today, and were featured in the unofficial history of jazz tours McAlary conducted in Season 3. This summer, talk of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry stepping in to consult on the redevelopment of the area began. If and when the jazz district comes to fruition, I’ll bet it’ll be the type of “corporate succubus” McAlary would loathe. As he told Nelson Hidalgo (Jon Seda) in the first episode of the season, “The music lives where it lives, brah. You can’t fuck with that. You don’t wanna fuck with that.”
Davis McAlary, love him or hate him, is always fighting to preserve the magic that is New Orleans music, encouraging the masses to appreciate as much as he does. The music is what he believes in and what he fights for, but while N. Rampart St. may be on track to enjoy a renaissance, it won’t include the music clubs of yesteryear so beloved by purists like McAlary.