The Candlelight Lounge, a low-key neighborhood bar, took on outsized significance after Hurricane Katrina when it became the last redoubt of live music in Treme. The neighborhood had been a musical hotbed for more than century, but with longtime residents displaced after the flood, new neighbors and rising costs changed the character of the area. In 2014 the Cornerstones project and Tulane City Center collaborated with the Candlelight community to document the significance of the club:
Barrooms are intensively-used spaces, and they can be viewed as ‘nuisance’ uses in communities, but in New Orleans, barrooms like the Candlelight Lounge have been central to some of the city’s most prominent cultural activities, as well as serving socially fundamental functions, such as providing food to hungry regulars or serving as a gig networking space for local musicians. The Candlelight and similar spaces in the city should not be overlooked for the important functions they play in keeping communities connected, particularly in times of disruption, like Hurricane Katrina, or major change, like gentrification, when residents profoundly need the continuity and comfort of community and tradition.
The Candlelight addressed these needs thanks largely to Leona Grandison—known as Ms. Chine—who opened the lounge with her brother Landry Grandison in 1985. A Treme native, she made the club a second home for musicians, social aid and pleasure clubs, and other neighborhood residents. Music, along with her cooking, was a regular attraction on weekends. Sunday second lines often stopped at the Candlelight, and the White Cloud Hunters Mardi Gras Indians held practices here in the 80s.
When Grandison’s business plummeted after Hurricane Katrina, brass band luminary Benny Jones (a relative by marriage) stepped in to help keep the Candlelight afloat. Jones, another Treme native, brought his Treme Brass Band to the club on Wednesday nights, and built an audience using his relationships in the second line community and the music business—he co-founded the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in the 70s before forming the Treme Brass Band in the 90s. The gig gave old regulars a chance to stay connected to the neighborhood and visitors a taste of the scene that defined Treme before it became a destination.
Jones’ nephew, trombonist and bandleader Corey Henry, grew up in the neighborhood, too. In the 90s he went to the Candlelight to listen to brass bands like Tuba Fats’ Chosen Few, and started playing here on Sunday nights after the storm to connect a younger generation to the tradition. (The future of his own musical family looks bright: his daughter, Jazz Henry, plays in the Pinettes Brass Band.)
The barroom’s legacy as a brass band headquarters goes back even further than Grandison. Before she took over it was called the Grease Lounge, for manager Gregory “Grease” Davis, Sr. (His son, Gregory Davis, Jr., is the longtime trumpeter with the Dirty Dozen). The elder Davis hosted the Rebirth Brass Band here when several members were still students at nearby Clark High School. Then known as the Rebirth Jazz Band, they made their first recording in the bar, Here to Stay: Live at the Grease Lounge, 1984. WWOZ co-founder Jerry Brock set up the session for the teenagers, who would become a dominant influence in brass band music in the decades to come.
The Grease Lounge also featured blues and R&B artists (the Candlelight continued these bookings in its early years). One was Barbara George, who’d scored a national hit with “I Know” on Treme-based AFO Records in 1961. The 19-year-old singer brought the lyrics to the great Harold Battiste, who composed music for them based on the chords to the gospel song “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” He also wrote a solo for cornetist Melvin Lastie to play on the record which became a touchstone of New Orleans R&B. The song looked like it would launch AFO Records to the big time, but a disgruntled business partner of Battiste lured George to another label, and both foundered. She left the music business in the 70s but started gigging again in the 80s at small clubs like the Grease Lounge.
Today, the Candlelight, along with Tuba Fats Square on the next lot and Charbonnet-Labat-Glapion funeral home around the corner, anchors a segment of Treme that has resisted gentrification. This has been possible because Grandison was one of the few operators of Black nightclubs in New Orleans who managed to buy the property she managed, and the owners of Tuba Fats Square and the funeral home are also committed to supporting neighborhood traditions. Sadly, Grandison’s family has to carry on the mission without her: she passed away after contracting the coronavirus in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in New Orleans. Prohibitions against public gatherings during the pandemic prevented her from receiving a proper jazz funeral, but a memorial went up on the sidewalk in front of the Candlelight.
Located directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter, Treme is arguably the oldest Black neighborhood in the country, and one of the most influential in shaping popular American music. As early as 1726, free people of color lived along Bayou Road and enslaved Africans practiced sacred traditions of music and dance in a nearby commons. The area was subdivided as an urban neighborhood in the 1810s, leaving a square block of the commons, Congo Square, as greenspace (gatherings of enslaved people continued there, under increasing regulation, through the mid-19th century).
Treme became fairly diverse later in the 1800s as Sicilians and other European immigrants arrived, but the neighborhood was strongly associated with its French-speaking Afro Creole community. Historians Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cosse Bell note that Creoles of color, among other distinctions, were known for embracing “dance, music, … ritualized festivals, and marching bands.” Music venues in the 19th century included churches and meeting halls of the benevolent societies that were integral to social life here.
While Treme doesn’t stand alone as the “Birthplace of Jazz”—the artform developed across the city—a high concentration of its pioneers lived here. These include the Tio family, influential clarinet players and teachers; Armand Piron, violinist and popular bandleader; Freddie Keppard, the “cornet king” after the legendary Buddy Bolden; and Alphonse Picou, clarinet ace and manager of a bar in the neighborhood. Others, including Bolden, Sidney Bechet, and Kid Ory, came to Treme to perform at dance halls in the early 1900s.
The streets themselves were often full of music. The density of benevolent societies along with funeral homes and cemeteries in the area made brass band parades and jazz funerals common. Young people played homemade instruments on street corners, and early jazz bands promoted gigs by playing on flatbeds pulled through the neighborhood. On Mardi Gras, Black Masking Indians (also known as Mardi Gras Indians) and Baby Dolls rolled with musical accompaniment, often gathering under the canopy of live oaks on North Claiborne Avenue.
In the middle of the 20th century, segregation intensified across New Orleans and Treme became increasingly Black. Neighborhood bars and nightclubs emerged as venues for the remnants of Black vaudeville acts and big bands, then, after World War II, for the city’s brand of rhythm and blues. It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest drummers of the R&B era—including Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, and James Black—grew up in Treme. “The difference is the bass drum,” Johnson told writer Bunny Matthews. “That comes from hearing them street parades, them marching bands.” Palmer brought the parade beat into J&M Studios, which faced Treme on Rampart Street, recording seminal R&B hits with Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others, giving rise to rock and roll.
In the late 1960s two public works projects transformed Treme. The construction of an elevated expressway along North Claiborne Avenue devastated what had been a corridor of Black businesses (including record labels, Houston’s School of Music, and the Black musicians’ union) and a tree-shaded promenade for parades. Shortly afterward, the demolition of 10 square blocks for an ill-conceived “cultural center” uprooted hundreds of low-income Black households (the cleared land eventually became Armstrong Park). Years of divestment followed.
Despite these losses—and, in part, in response to them—Treme was at the heart of a brass band and second line renaissance that began in the 1970s and gathered momentum through the 1990s. New generations of musical families like the Andrews infused brass band music with R&B, funk, and hip-hop, and a new wave of social aid and pleasure clubs (descendants of 19th century benevolent societies), Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs reinvigorated local parading traditions. At the same time, music programs in neighborhood schools produced scores of young artists including Mannie Fresh, the multiplatinum-selling producer for Cash Money Records, who brought the sounds of New Orleans streets back to the top of the national charts.
Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, public policy once again forced a mass displacement from Treme. With renters largely ineligible for recovery assistance and public housing complexes demolished, many longtime residents were priced out of the neighborhood, which rapidly gentrified (it was 92% Black before the flood and 57% Black in 2018).
Today, if music no longer infuses daily life in Treme like it used to, culture bearers have a heightened sense of purpose in keeping local traditions alive. Events like second lines, funerals, and Mardi Gras parades continue to fill the streets as they have since the 19th century, and drum circles and festivals continue in Congo Square, now inside Armstrong Park.
From April 2020, a remembrance of Leona "Ms. Chine" Grandison amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Treme Brass Band performs at the Candlelight in 2010, featuring "Uncle" Lionel Batiste on bass drum and vocals from Kenny Terry on "Lil Liza Jane."
The Treme Brass Band performs at the Candlelight in 2012, with guest vocals from Bruce Sunpie Barnes. (Don't let the lack of a preview image throw you.)