To visit this site, enter Armstrong Park at 801 N Rampart Street, proceed past the sculptures, past the Municipal Auditorium to the left, and past the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts to the right. The building stood on the far side of what it is now a parking lot.
The Gypsy Tea Room was one of the premiere black nightclubs in New Orleans in the 1930s and 40s. It attracted a swanky crowd, including visiting celebrities like Cab Calloway and heavyweight champ Joe Louis. They rubbed elbows with local doctors and lawyers in a room decorated in a starry night motif, with lit candles suspended from the ceiling. (The club’s name was inspired by a nationwide Gypsy Tea Room fad in the Depression era—Treme’s own Louis Prima was one of several artists to record a tune called “In a Little Gypsy Tea Room” in 1935.)
The music here was top shelf. Before making rock and roll history with Fats Domino, a young Dave Bartholomew led his 10-piece orchestra in one of its first gigs here. Harold “Duke” Dejan (1909-2002), best remembered as the leader of the Olympia Brass Band, played here with Kid Rena before fronting his own group, which became a fixture at the Gypsy Tea Room in the 30s. Dejan’s band often appeared in “battles” with the best big bands in the city, including those led by Sidney Desvigne and William Houston, Sr. Dejan remembered:
They had girls that used to dress as gypsies and sing a little but after we went in with the band they got a whole floor show in there that we played. It was a beautiful place, a big bar in front and a side door for the club. They had tables all over the floor and a bandstand for us. My wife, Rose, was a gypsy.
Some of the vaudeville-style shows were produced by the bluesman Pleasant Joseph, better known as Cousin Joe or Smiling Joe (1907-1989), who also played guitar, sang, and danced. He and his companion Eva Soule, a dancer herself, were living above the Gypsy Tea Room in 1937 when an explosion in the adjacent grocery store shot flames into the barroom. Fortunately, everyone escaped with their lives, though Cousin Joe and Soule lost all of their possessions in the fire.
The club was rebuilt, and, as big bands fell out of favor in the 40s, the New Gypsy Tea Room booked smaller combos, including a trio with two local heros, barrelhouse pianist “Tuts” Washington and blues shouter Smiley Lewis. The new room also hosted recording sessions, notably for clarinetist George Lewis, who enjoyed a late-career resurgence in the traditional jazz revival of the 1940s.
The club was full of characters. Patsy Vidalia, the female impersonator who famously emceed at the Dew Drop Inn, premiered her act at the Gypsy Tea Room. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer Earl Palmer, who grew up in the neighborhood, recalled the scene: “Buddy Tureaud was the emcee and spoke the worst English in the world: ‘Y’all get ready, we going bring y’all so-and-so, boy shit can she sing!’” Palmer also remembered fights onstage between husband and wife team Billie and DeDe Pierce, who, like Dejan, became regulars at Preservation Hall later in their lives.
Beyond its bandstand, the Gypsy Tea Room was integral to the Treme’s parading traditions, serving as a stop for the Zulu parade on Mardi Gras Day, for Mardi Gras Indians on Carnival and St. Joseph’s Night, and as a venue for Social Aid & Pleasure Club events.
The club had closed and the building housed a different nightspot in the 1960s when the city acquired and demolished it to make way for a “cultural center.” After that project proved to be a boondoggle, the cleared land was developed as Armstrong Park.
About Armstrong Park
Spanning 32 acres, Louis Armstrong Park comprises Congo Square, the Municipal Auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts, a cluster of historic buildings including Perseverance Hall, and sculptures related to New Orleans music arranged around a series of lagoons and bridges. It’s a placid landscape belying nearly a century of contentious political maneuvers for control of the grounds and the culture presented on them.
The park took shape in the 1970s on real estate the city had spent decades appropriating in Treme, the neighborhood directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter. The first acquisition was in the late 1920s, in order to build the Municipal Auditorium. Clearing two half-blocks of what was then a diverse, working-class neighborhood, the city positioned the auditorium along Congo Square, greenspace it had owned since the early 1800s, when enslaved people practiced sacred traditions of music and dance there at Sunday gatherings.
The new auditorium—a home for opera and classical music, among other things—catered to the city’s elite. It was strictly segregated, part of a citywide trend of intensifying segregation in the 1930s and 40s that, by midcentury, made this section of Treme solidly Black. Mayor “Chep” Morrison then targeted it for “slum clearance” in the 50s, part of the same effort to remake the city center that wiped out Louis Armstrong’s old neighborhood along South Rampart Street.
City planners had long regarded the Municipal Auditorium and Congo Square as a potential anchor for a larger complex of public buildings. Morrison ran with the idea, acquiring land adjacent to them that set the table for his successor to develop a “cultural center” here in the late 1960s. Based on Lincoln Center in Manhattan, the designs were meant to entice white audiences migrating toward the suburbs to spend money on live entertainment in the city.
The ensuing demolition displaced hundreds of low-income Black residents from Treme, which had long been a cultural center of its own, home to some of the city’s greatest musicians and parading organizations. The bulldozed buildings included the multi-generational homes of musical families, historic early jazz venues, and businesses like the Caldonia Inn, a home base for second lines and Black Masking Indians. (Preservationists were able to spare Perseverance Hall, but attempts to open it as a jazz museum came up short.)
In 1969 Treme residents organized opposition to the city’s plans for the center, calling for their Afro Creole and African American heritage to be integrated into its Eurocentric program. Despite their objections, the city opened the Theater for the Performing Arts as a new venue for opera and Western classical music (it was renamed for Mahalia Jackson decades later). The theater was meant to be the first piece of a larger campus, but a lack of funding and waning public support made it the last, leaving a cavity in the heart of the neighborhood.
In 1973 the city decided to make this vacant land into a park dedicated to Louis Armstrong, who had recently died. This time community organizers won a concession—the city built the Treme Community Center on a corner of the property. But it, and the rest of the neighborhood, was outside an iron fence around the park’s perimeter, which was widely understood as an effort to keep the facility segregated. According to Lois Nelson, a Treme tradition bearer and mother of James and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, “they built the fence to keep us out.”
The park, featuring a larger-than-life bronze statue of Armstrong, took seven years to complete. By the time it opened in 1980, New Orleans had its first Black mayor, “Dutch” Morial, and local Black music was becoming more important economically as the city turned to tourism to shore up its finances. With Armstrong Park a drag on the budget, Morial and his successor each tried privatizing it as a paid tourist attraction, taking proposals for everything from a floating bandstand in the lagoon to hot air balloon rides. Financing didn’t materialize, though, and Treme residents, wary of “commercial exploitation,” helped scuttle the efforts.
In 1992 the city funded the Black Music Hall of Fame, which it hoped would make the park a national destination, but, after presenting exhibits in Perseverance Hall for a few years, the project fizzled. In 1999 the city turned over the hall and surrounding buildings to the National Park Service, to serve as headquarters for the Jazz National Historical Park, which was founded to preserve and promote the living history of the artform. Those plans were still being fine-tuned in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina damaged the park.
The gates were padlocked for the next three and a half years, except for a few special events. WWOZ radio, which, for over 20 years before the storm, had broadcasted from a small building next to Perseverance Hall, moved its studio to the French Market. The Park Service restored Perseverance Hall but ultimately concentrated its programming in its French Quarter visitor center and the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint. After a round of renovations, Armstrong Park and the Mahalia Jackson Theater reopened in 2009.
Mayor Ray Nagin’s subsequent proposal, to have two associates redevelop the flooded Municipal Auditorium as a “performance and production complex” with public funds, was shelved after running afoul of the city’s Inspector General. One of those associates, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, later misappropriated funds allocated by Nagin for the creation of Armstrong Park’s Roots of Music Sculpture Garden. The mayor rushed that project through his last days in office, and its botched construction shut down the park for most of the next 18 months. Still, since reopening in 2011, it has memorialized some of the people and musical traditions that once thrived here.
As of 2021, roughly 50 years after the city uprooted a swath of Treme, and 40 years after it began trying to showcase its culture here, the Cantrell administration is drawing up the latest set of redevelopment plans. In the meantime, despite its tumultuous history, Armstrong Park has achieved something profound: the preservation of Congo Square as a public gathering place and pilgrimage site. The Congo Square Preservation Society, which secured its inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, continues the tradition of African drumming and dancing here on Sundays. The park also hosts a variety of music festivals and special events each year.
Cousin Joe, who lived over and worked in the Gypsy Tea Room, performs in 1984.
Dave Bartholomew leading his band in 1986, a half century after cutting his chops on the bandstand at the Gypsy Tea Room.
Harold "Duke" Dejan, seen here with his Olympia Brass Band in 1988, was a mainstay at the Gypsy Tea Room in the 1930s.