The Grunewald name is synonymous with New Orleans music history, thanks to prominent German immigrant Louis Grunewald (1827-1915), a Bavarian musician who founded the Grunewald Music Store, Grunewald Hall, and the Grunewald Hotel, which would later become the Roosevelt Hotel. After World War II, Grunewald’s descendants opened the Grunewald School of Music at 827 Camp, which had housed Naval Brigade Hall from 1903 until the 1940s.
Designed by architect Julius Koch, the Naval Brigade Hall was already legendary in local music history as an incubator of ragtime music in the early 1900s: The hall band was led by the noted local rag composer and violinist William Braun. “It was a very active hall; they had dances and music there,” New Orleans music historian Jack Stewart recalled.
The Grunewald Music Co.’s eponymous music school would educate some of the most famous players in New Orleans jazz, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll, many of whom attended after military service thanks to the G.I. Bill. Faculty members included Louis Barbarin, Frank Federico, Otto Finck, Willie Humphrey, Clyde Kerr Sr., and Wardell Quezergue, to name just a few. The curriculum stressed the fundamentals of music theory.
Grunewald’s students constituted a constellation of New Orleans music, both traditionalists and modernists, who came to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s: Warren Bell, Al Belletto, Peter “Chuck” Badie, Warren Battiste, Edgar Blanchard, Eddie Bo, Lawrence Cotton, Roger Lewis, Ernest McLean, Earl Palmer, Robert Parker, Richard Payne, Tommy Ridgley, and Alvin “Red” Tyler — the list is seemingly endless.
The Grunewald School was even more notable for its casual defiance of the era’s Jim Crow laws. It accepted students of color, with white ones on one floor and black ones on another. Although segregation was the law of the land, interaction and even camaraderie between the races was plentiful here, among both students and teachers.
When the school closed its faculty moved to 1838 North Claiborne Avenue and continued teaching as the Educational Gateways Music School. By 2005, the Camp Street building had been acquired by Tipitina’s nightclub owner Roland von Kurnatowski, who was in the process of converting it into condominiums when Hurricane Katrina struck and partly damaged the structure. In a freak accident, the building was destroyed by a group of firefighters from out of town who had come to aid in the city’s post-Katrina fire protection — unaware that they had reduced one of the most significant musical landmarks in Crescent City history to a pile of rubble.
About Music Education in New Orleans
Jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis’ famous observation that New Orleans culture “bubbles up from the streets” is sometimes invoked to suggest he city’s music is naturally occurring, like an underground spring just waiting to be tapped. In fact, Marsalis was differentiating New Orleans from places where culture is imposed “from on high.” He knew better than anyone that music doesn’t just happen—he raised a family of musicians, trained generations of performers and teachers, and established jazz studies programs at multiple schools and universities. His career as an educator is a testament to the work required to keep the culture bubbling.
Historically, institutional support for this effort has been hard to come by. Jazz was prohibited in New Orleans schools for most of a century after its birth, on racist and classist grounds. A few early jazz musicians taught themselves, but often they learned from elders, sometimes relatives or neighbors, or in private lessons with professionals. Promising students graduated to on-the-job training: New Orleans bandleaders have a long history of recruiting apprentices to perform with them. Once they joined the professional ranks, the density of bandstands in the city made it easy for musicians to listen to and learn from their peers.
Some jazz pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton studied music formally, while others learned by ear. A typical early jazz artist grew up surrounded by music: at home, in church, in parks, in barrooms, and, sure enough, from the streets, in parades and funeral processions, from buskers and bands advertising themselves on flatbeds of passing trucks. Music performed various functions in everyday life in New Orleans, and musicians often trained to be versatile enough to find employment in different settings.
As for classroom instruction, the city maintained two segregated school systems well into the 1960s, with Black students often crowded into run-down facilities. Some of their music teachers, like the venerable Yvonne Busch, let a little jazz into their lessons, official policy notwithstanding (she also encouraged students interested in playing rhythm and blues outside of school). Generally, though, school music programs for both Black and white students were taught conventional curricula, of the kind found across the country.
The face of music education in New Orleans changed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when, after more than a decade of resistance, the city’s school system desegregated in earnest. The ensuing departure of white students meant public school bands became predominantly Black cultural institutions. Marching bands in particular gained city-wide prominence through their performances in Mardi Gras parades. Though the schools were chronically under-funded, devoted band directors and boosters helped make these programs points of pride. They also produced musicians who would power the brass band revival of the 1980s and 90s (several after-school programs and summer camps contributed on that front, too).
Marsalis helped inaugurate the first formal jazz program in New Orleans’ public schools at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA) in 1973. It cultivated students’ awareness of music history and business savvy along with their instrumental chops, and launched a slew of nationally influential artists, including Donald Harrison, Jr., Harry Connick, Jr., Nicholas Payton, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and Jon Batiste (as well as Marsalis’ sons, Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason).
Marsalis also founded the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans in 1988, tapping the great Harold Battiste, an old bandmate, as a professor. Other world-class teaching artists anchored university programs in the area, including Alvin Batiste at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Edward “Kidd” Jordan at Southern University in New Orleans, Dr. Michael White at Xavier University, Maynard Chatters at Dillard University, and Terence Blanchard (another NOCCA alumnus) at the University of New Orleans and the Monk Institute at Loyola University.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city laid off public school teachers en masse and thousands, including veteran band directors, were never rehired. The post-Katrina displacement of roughly 100,000 Black residents from New Orleans also did heavy damage to community-based music instruction in churches and homes, where many students lost contact with elder artists.
In the absence of systemic public support, privately funded non-profits sought to fill in some of the gaps. Since 2008, one of the most successful has been the Roots of Music, an after-school marching band for middle-schoolers, the brainchild of Rebirth Brass Band snare drummer Derrick Tabb. Growing up in Treme in the 80s, Tabb learned to play by following the second lines that went by his house, practicing with his neighbors, and being drilled by career band directors at his nearby middle and high schools. With opportunities like these limited for students today, the pressure is on to cultivate the next generation of New Orleans musicians.
Video courtesy of Kevin McCaffrey.
From 2016, a glimpse of the lot where the Grunewald School of Music once stood.