Back to Back o’ Town Blues: Louis Armstrong in New Orleans Tour

Karnofsky Shop and Residence

427 S. Rampart St.
New Orleans LA 70112
Location Status: Location threatened, damaged or not in use
Curated by
e/Prime Media & Randy Fertel

Beginning in 1913, this was the tailor shop, with a residence above, of the Jewish family that provided a second home to the young Louis Armstrong. He grew up nearby on Perdido Street; this is the area where, on New Year’s Eve 1912, Armstrong was arrested for firing a .38 and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home. The Karnofsky family hired Armstrong to work on their junk and coal wagons, on which he would play a small tin horn. He recalled:

“After blowing the tin horn—so long—I wondered how would I do blowing a real horn—a cornet was what I had in mind. Sure enough, I saw a little cornet in a pawn shop window—five dollars—my luck was just right. With the Karnofskys loaning me on my salary—I saved 50 cents a week, and bought the horn. All dirty—but was soon pretty to me.”

Armstrong developed a close relationship with the family, learning a song called “Russian Lullaby” from Tillie Karnofsky, who sang it to her baby. As he remembered:

“My first Jewish meal was at the age of seven. I liked the Jewish food very much. Every time we would come in late on the little wagon from buying old rags and bones, when they would be having ‘supper’ they would fix a plate of food for me, saying you’ve worked, might as well eat here with us.”

Morris Karnofsky, the son of the family and Armstrong’s boyhood friend, went on to open Morris Music, the first jazz record shop in the city, and a place that Armstrong visited on his many returns after he moved away in 1921.

The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Considering it alongside the Little Gem Saloon, the Iroquois Theater, and the Eagle Saloon, John Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, said “There is probably no other block in America with buildings bearing so much significance to the history of our country’s great art form, jazz.”

About South Rampart Street

South Rampart Street was the main commercial corridor in “back o’ town,” originally a swampy area at the back end of the city where New Orleans’ racial order relegated black residents in the late 1800s. The strip filled with businesses—many run by Jewish, Italian, and Chinese merchants—catering to a black clientele. Among these were dance halls, juke joints, tailors who outfitted bands with uniforms, and pawn shops that bought and sold instruments.

Churches here tended to be Protestant, with emotive spirituals and hymns in their services that reverberated through the neighborhood. To the ministers’ chagrin this area included Black Storyville, the red light district for those barred from the whites-only bordellos and gambling houses just across Canal Street. This traffic fueled some social ills. It also helped attract audiences for working musicians. (Business continued after 1917, when the white vice district—Storyville—shut down).

In 1938, the WPA City Guide called South Rampart “The Harlem of New Orleans.” It was full of music, from barrelhouse piano players like Tuts Washington to big bands like Papa Celestin’s. The street itself was a venue, with benevolent societies and social clubs parading with brass bands, and, on Carnival, the Zulu parade, Baby Dolls, and chanting bands of Mardi Gras Indians.

The strip was referenced in popular songs, from the traditional jazz tune “South Rampart Street Parade” to Louis Jordan’s jump blues hit “Saturday Night Fish Fry” in 1949, about a house on Rampart “rockin’” till the break of dawn.

While the “New Orleans sound” of R&B played across the country in the 1950s, South Rampart Street went the way of other black inner city neighborhoods in the age of urban renewal. Whole blocks were demolished and redeveloped, paving the way for a new city hall and today’s Central Business District.

Show More
show location on the map


2011 clip from author John McCusker: "Louis Armstrong's New Orleans," a five-minute look at Satchmo's formative years and the state of landmarks associated with him.