Around the turn of the 20th century, two adjoining buildings formed an L-shaped complex here, where the commercial corridor of South Rampart Street brushed the outskirts of the red light district called Black Storyville.
The building at the corner of South Rampart and Perdido streets housed the Eagle Saloon, a base for the community of musicians that gave rise to jazz from 1908 through the 1910s. Today, it is one of the most important jazz landmarks still standing in New Orleans.
The second building, fronting Perdido Street, was Odd Fellows and Masonic Hall, where a third-floor ballroom hosted performances by legendary jazz pioneers including Buddy Bolden. Sadly, this structure has since collapsed.
Odd Fellows and Masonic Hall
In 1897, an association of Black chapters of two fraternal organizations, the Odd Fellows and the Masons, rented the three-story building on Perdido Street along with the the third floor of the adjacent Eagle Saloon building. The association hired dance bands to play in its ballroom, and rented the space to other Black lodges, benevolent associations, and social clubs, who presented bands at events of their own.
In the early years, these dances featured bands led by cornetist Buddy Bolden and violinist John Robichaux, which were, according to author Don Marquis, “the most popular in the city and thus great rivals.” Bolden, who was African American, played by ear, drawing on the blues and the music of Protestant churches. Robichaux, who was Afro Creole, used his formal training to play written compositions in a smoother style. According to Marquis, Bolden and Robichaux “simultaneously borrowed from each other,” and jazz emerged as a synthesis of their approaches. This hall was a key venue in that process.
Bolden pointed the way forward with improvised runs on his cornet that packed the dance floor at his regular Saturday night gig here. After midnight he played to a young crowd, including denizens of Black Storyville. To George Baquet, a refined Afro Creole clarinetist, the scene “was plenty rough.” But like most everyone else, he was won over by the power of Bolden’s sound, from the first notes until he closed with “Get Out of Here and Go on Home.” Bolden’s fame spread from here across the city.
In addition to the dances inside the building, brass bands regularly played on the corner outside, for funeral processions of the association’s members as well as its annual parade. Louis Armstrong, who grew up around the corner, proudly recalled his father marching “as the grand marshal in the Odd Fellows parade…in his uniform and his high hat with the beautiful streamer hanging down by his side.”
Odd Fellows Hall helped establish the corner of Rampart and Perdido as launching point for parades and a gathering place for musicians through the mid-20th century. Famously, Armstrong shot a pistol in the air here to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 1912, and was arrested and sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, where he studied the cornet.
The Eagle Saloon and Eagle Band
In the early 1900s, Jake Itzkovitch’s Eagle Loan Office (a polite name for a pawn shop) did a steady trade in musical instruments at 401 S. Rampart. Itzkovich told writer Al Rose that all the big names in early jazz came through his place: “Joe [King] Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Papa Mutt [Carey], [Kid] Rena, [Manuel] Perez — they all hocked with me. They got famous but they didn’t get rich.” When Itzkovitch relocated his shop in January 1908, the proprietor of the Little Gem Saloon at the other end of the block opened a new barroom in the vacated space under the name Eagle.
Tragically, Bolden wasn’t around to see it—he’d suffered a mental breakdown and been institutionalized the prior year. His band carried on with a new cornet player under the leadership of trombonist Frankie Duson (also recorded as Dusen).
They called themselves the Eagle Band, adopting the name on the building, which they continued to fill week after week. The group’s affiliation with the building ran deep: bassist Bob Lyons stayed in a room on the second floor, and Bunk Johnson, a gifted cornetist who would help drive the traditional jazz revival of the 1940s, spent late nights at the bar. Bassist Pops Foster recalled, “If we came along and wanted to shoot pool, we’d just lift Bunk off [the pool table] and lay him on a bench.” A notice for the band in the newspaper referred booking inquiries to the saloon.
Though the band’s work with Bolden alone would secure its place in history, it had a remarkable second act, employing some of the biggest names in early jazz, and helping launch the careers of greats Sidney Bechet and Baby Dodds. Both were tapped as young teenagers to join the Eagle Brass Band, an expanded version of the group Dusen used for parades.
The roster rotated into the 1910s, and came to include trumpeters Buddy Petit, Freddie Keppard, and Joe “King” Oliver; clarinetists Big Eye Louis Nelson, Johnny Dodds, and Lorenzo Tio, Jr.; violinist Armand Piron; violinist/trumpeter Peter Bocage; bassists Lyons and Foster; and drummers Henry Zeno and Chinee Foster.
Bechet said the group was distinguished as “a real gutbucket band – a low-down band which really played the blues, and those slow tempos.” Following Bolden’s lead, the group succeeded by keeping bellies rubbing on the dance floor.
The Eagle Band had peaked by 1919, when the Odd Fellows and Masonic association cleared out of the upper floor of the building on Perdido Street.
In 1929 the segregationist political boss Louis “Doc” Meraux acquired the Eagle Saloon building. It survived the urban renewal-era demolitions that wiped out most of the neighborhood, but the structure has been vacant for decades.
Read more about Black Storyville and the music scene on South Rampart Street.
From the 2017 Ponderosa Stomp Music History Conference, Richard Campanella, Bruce Raeburn, and "Deacon" John Moore discuss the music and geography of South Rampart Street with moderator Jordan Hirsch.