To visit this site, enter Armstrong Park at 801 N Rampart Street, turn right, and proceed to the far side of the lagoon. The building was at the intersection of St. Claude and St. Philip Street, half of which remains just outside the park’s perimeter fence.
“Uncle” Lionel Batiste, the drummer, singer, grand marshal, and bon vivant, said he was born on the second floor of this building in 1932 (his obituary said he was born in 1931; one imagines Batiste grinning at the discrepancy). His family worked for the building’s owner, Michael Tessitore, who ran a grocery store and saloon downstairs. After stints as the Japanese Tea Room and the Gypsy Tea Room II, it opened as the Caldonia Nite Club in 1947, and was called the Caldonia Inn by the early 50s.
In March 1948 Tessitore hired a piano player named Henry Roeland Byrd (1918 -1980), and gave him the nickname Professor Longhair—the title of “Professor” had been bestowed on New Orleans piano players since the days of Storyville, and “Longhair” referred to Byrd’s relaxed coiffure. His backing band, the Three Hair or Four Hair Combo depending on the night, included guitarist Walter “Papoose” Nelson, who went on to play in Fats Domino’s band.
Professor Longhair’s distinctive style, particularly the Latin-influenced rhythms he played with his left hand, has influenced every New Orleans piano player since. Allen Toussaint called him, memorably, “the Bach of Rock.” When Eddie Bo was a kid he stood outside the Caldonia to listen to Byrd on Sunday evenings. In 1949 a record label based in Dallas found Byrd and cut the original version of “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” which included a lyric about seeing the Zulu King on St. Claude and Dumaine, just up the block from the Caldonia. (King Zulu that year was Louis Armstrong, and the Caldonia had been a stop on his parade route.)
Though they are considered classics today, Byrd’s records sold modestly, and by the mid-1960s he was sweeping up at the One Stop Record Shop on South Rampart Street, the strip where he’d tap-danced for change as a kid. In 1970, though, some young, white promoters put helped Byrd jumpstart a late-career revival. He became a fixture at the new Jazz & Heritage Festival, and inspired the opening of the Uptown nightclub Tipitina’s in 1977. He was a local hero at the time his death in 1980.
While the Caldonia is best remembered for launching Professor Longhair, in its day it was known for drag shows (the club’s name evoked Louis Jordan’s 1945 jump blues hit “Caldonia,” which was reputedly about a drag queen.) The Caldonia was also welcoming to gay patrons—Byrd recalled playing a gay wedding there. As Trumpeter Frank Mitchell told author Jeff Hannusch, “The Caldonia had the best female impersonator show in the city. It was so popular that the white sissies started coming there until the police ran them off. We’d back their show and then play two sets of dance music.” (The use of the term ”sissy” in this context prefigures the “sissy bounce” label that Big Freedia and other gay and trans artists embraced in the 2000s.)
St. Philip Street was a well-trod second line route, and the Caldonia was a popular parade stop through the 50s and 60s. Standout drummers James Black and John Boudreaux grew up around the corner and across the street from the club, respectively, taking in the rhythms of Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands playing for social aid and pleasure clubs like the Treme Sports.
The Caldonia met an untimely end in 1971 when the city leveled it and several surrounding blocks to make way for a “cultural center” that never came to be. The irony of bulldozing the Caldonia in the name of culture was not lost on neighborhood residents, who protested with a mock jazz funeral. While the Olympia Brass Band played a dirge, pallbearers threw a casket containing a dummy into the building before it was demolished. There was also a procession to a new Caldonia club at 1533 St. Philip Street with a velvet-lined casket. Inside it, Uncle Lionel played the corpse.
About Armstrong Park
Spanning 32 acres, Louis Armstrong Park comprises Congo Square, the Municipal Auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, a cluster of historic buildings including Perseverance Hall, and sculptures related to New Orleans music arranged around a series of lagoons and bridges. It’s a placid landscape belying nearly a century of contentious political maneuvers for control of the grounds and the culture presented on them.
The park took shape in the 1970s on real estate the city had spent decades appropriating in Treme, the neighborhood directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter. The first acquisition was in the late 1920s, in order to build the Municipal Auditorium. Clearing two half-blocks of what was then a diverse, working-class neighborhood, the city positioned the auditorium along Congo Square, greenspace it had owned since the early 1800s, when enslaved people practiced sacred traditions of music and dance there at Sunday gatherings.
The new auditorium—a home for opera and classical music, among other things—catered to the city’s elite. It was strictly segregated, part of a citywide trend of intensifying segregation in the 1930s and 40s that, by midcentury, made this section of Treme solidly Black. Mayor “Chep” Morrison then targeted it for “slum clearance” in the 50s, part of the same effort to remake the city center that wiped out Louis Armstrong’s old neighborhood along South Rampart Street.
City planners had long regarded the Municipal Auditorium and Congo Square as a potential anchor for a larger complex of public buildings. Morrison ran with the idea, acquiring land adjacent to them that set the table for his successor to develop a “cultural center” here in the late 1960s. Based on Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the designs were meant to entice white audiences migrating toward the suburbs to spend money on live entertainment in the city.
The ensuing demolition displaced hundreds of low-income Black residents from Treme, which had long been a cultural center of its own, home to some of the city’s greatest musicians and parading organizations. The bulldozed buildings included the multi-generational homes of musical families like Lionel Batiste’s, historic early jazz venues, and businesses like the Caldonia Inn, a home base for second lines and Black Masking Indians. (Preservationists were able to spare Perseverance Hall, but attempts to open it as a jazz museum came up short.)
In 1969 Treme residents organized opposition to the city’s plans for the center, calling for their Afro Creole and African American heritage to be integrated into its Eurocentric program. Despite their objections, the city opened the Theater for the Performing Arts as a new venue for opera and Western classical music (it was renamed for Mahalia Jackson decades later). The theater was meant to be the first piece of a larger campus, but a lack of funding and waning public support made it the last, leaving a cavity in the heart of the neighborhood.
In 1973 the city decided to make this vacant land into a park dedicated to Louis Armstrong, who had recently died. This time community organizers won a concession—the city built the Treme Community Center on a corner of the property. But it, and the rest of the neighborhood, was outside an iron fence around the park’s perimeter, which was widely understood as an effort to keep the facility segregated. According to Lois Nelson, a Treme tradition bearer and mother of James and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, “they built the fence to keep us out.”
The park, featuring a larger-than-life bronze statue of Armstrong, took seven years to complete. By the time it opened in 1980, New Orleans had its first Black mayor, “Dutch” Morial, and local Black music was becoming more important economically as the city turned to tourism to shore up its finances. With Armstrong Park a drag on the budget, Morial and his successor each tried privatizing it as a paid tourist attraction, taking proposals for everything from a floating bandstand in the lagoon to hot air balloon rides. Financing didn’t materialize, though, and Treme residents, wary of “commercial exploitation,” helped scuttle the efforts.
In 1992 the city funded the Black Music Hall of Fame, which it hoped would make the park a national destination, but, after presenting exhibits in Perseverance Hall for a few years, the project fizzled. In 1999 the city turned over the hall and surrounding buildings to the National Park Service, to serve as headquarters for the Jazz National Historical Park, which was founded to preserve and promote the living history of the artform. Those plans were still being fine-tuned in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged the park.
The gates were padlocked for the next three and a half years, except for a few special events. WWOZ radio, which, for over 20 years before the storm, had broadcasted from a small building next to Perseverance Hall, moved its studio to the French Market. The Park Service restored Perseverance Hall but ultimately concentrated its programming in its French Quarter visitor center and the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint. After a round of renovations, Armstrong Park and the Mahalia Jackson Theater reopened in 2009.
Mayor Ray Nagin’s subsequent proposal, to have two associates redevelop the flooded Municipal Auditorium as a “performance and production complex” with public funds, was shelved after running afoul of the city’s Inspector General. One of those associates, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, later misappropriated funds allocated by Nagin for the creation of Armstrong Park’s Roots of Music Sculpture Garden. The mayor rushed that project through his last days in office, and its botched construction shut down the park for most of the next 18 months. Still, since reopening in 2011, it has memorialized some of the people and musical traditions that once thrived here.
As of 2021, roughly 50 years after the city uprooted a swath of Treme, and 40 years after it began trying to showcase its culture here, the Cantrell administration is drawing up the latest set of redevelopment plans. In the meantime, despite its tumultuous history, Armstrong Park has achieved something profound: the preservation of Congo Square as a public gathering place and pilgrimage site. The Congo Square Preservation Society, which secured its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, continues the tradition of African drumming and dancing here on Sundays. The park also hosts a variety of music festivals and special events each year.
Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint discuss Longhair's distinctive style; a brief performance clip follows.
Rare archival interview with Professor Longhair from 1969, the eve of his late-career revival.
From 1982, Treme residents Iona Rayon and Beatrice Austin recall the symbolic jazz funeral for the Caldonia eleven years earlier.