Dooky Chase, a Treme landmark, is a restaurant run for decades by award-winning chef and community leader Leah Chase. The business began as a sandwich shop run by Edgar “Dooky” Chase Sr. in the early 1940s. His teenage son, Dooky Chase Jr., played trumpet and led a touring big band of young musicians, including trombonist Benny Powell and trumpeter Emory Thompson. In 1946 the younger Chase married Leah Lange and left the road to help run the business. In time Leah Chase expanded the restaurant’s offerings to include several Creole dishes including Gumbo Z’Herbes, famously served on Holy Thursday, the day before Good Friday.
Dooky Chase restaurant became a popular destination in the local Black community and attracted several high-profile patrons from around the country, including Thurgood Marshall. Artists and musicians were always welcomed: Leah Chase cooked for Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Ray Charles liked it so much he mentioned it by name in the song “Early in the Morning Blues.” Local musicians found the kitchen open late at night, so it became a place to gather after gigs. The family’s connection to the music community has continued through Leah Chase’s daughter, also named Leah Chase, a jazz vocalist.
The restaurant contributed to the civil rights movement in New Orleans by offering a meeting place for organizers who, in the days of segregation, could be prohibited from gathering in public. By the 1970s, Leah Chase developed an interest visual art by African American artists, eventually amassing a major collection. Today the restaurant displays many pieces prominently.
Dooky Chase flooded when the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, though with community assistance Chase reopened it in 2007. The next year, presidential candidate Barack Obama ate a meal here, and the chef chided him for adding hot sauce to his gumbo before tasting it. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016. Dooky Chase passed away later that year, and Leah Chase died in 2019. Their family tomb is in St. Louis Cemetery No. 2.
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). Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the Candlelight Lounge was the last live music club in the area.
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.
A profile of Leah Chase produced for the James Beard Foundation's 2016 Gala Awards.
From Bon Appetite, an inside look at Dooky Chase.
NVLP records, preserves and shares the histories of extraordinary African American elders, passing on the African American tradition of social change. Learn more at www.visionaryproject.org.
An extended conversation with Leah Chase from the National Visionary Leadership Project. More videos here.