A home base for the community of musicians that gave rise to jazz, the Eagle Saloon building is one of the most important landmarks of the art form’s dawn still standing in New Orleans.
The Eagle Saloon was on the first floor of the building at 401 – 403 S. Rampart Street, though much of the music that made its reputation was played in a ballroom either on its third floor or on the third floor of the adjoining Odd Fellows and Masonic Hall, which faced Perdido Street (it has since collapsed). Around the turn of the 20th century, these two buildings formed an L-shaped complex where the commercial corridor of South Rampart Street brushed the outskirts of the red light district called Black Storyville.
Odd Fellows Hall
In 1897, an association of Black chapters of two fraternal organizations, the Odd Fellows and the Masons, rented the third story of the Eagle Saloon building along with all three stories of the building fronting Perdido. 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.
Brass bands regularly played just outside for the 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 launch 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. He was back on the block in 1949 as King of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club’s Mardi Gras parade.
By then, the concerts held in the hall from the late 1890s through the 1910s were already legendary. In the early years they featured bands including those 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 smoother, structured compositions. Jazz emerged from a synthesis of these styles, and the hall was a key venue in that process, where Bolden and Robichaux “simultaneously borrowed from each other,” according to Marquis.
Bolden pointed the way forward with improvised runs on his cornet that packed the dancefloor 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 sent everyone packing with the song “Get Out of Here and Go on Home.” Bolden’s fame spread from here across the city.
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 relcoated his shop in 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 were redubbed the Eagle Band, adopting the name on the building they continued to fill week after week. The association was deep: bassist Bob Lyons stayed in a room on the building’s 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 its work with Bolden alone would secure its place in history, the Eagle Band 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 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 Eagle Band 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 dancefloor.
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. While that structure has been lost, the Eagle Saloon building, acquired by the segregationist political boss Louis “Doc” Meraux in 1929, managed to survive the demolitions of the urban renewal era that wiped out most of the old South Rampart Street/Black Storyville area.
Under the stewardship of Meraux’s heirs, the building sat vacant and deteriorating for decades. Since 2001, multiple redevelopment efforts have been announced but none have come to fruition. Today it is owned by a nonprofit called the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame, and remains empty.
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.