The Little Gem Saloon was integral to the music scene on South Rampart Street, where, around the turn of the 20th century, a community of artists including bandleader Buddy Bolden forged a new style of music later known as jazz. After a long dormancy, the building was reopened as a live music venue in the 2010s, and became a landmark thanks to a two-story mural of Bolden’s band.
In 1890 New Orleans police chief David Hennessey had a half dozen oysters at the Little Gem Saloon minutes before he was assassinated a few blocks away, a shocking crime made infamous by the ensuing lynching of 11 men of Italian descent suspected to be involved. The saloon’s cameo in the Hennessey affair suggests that it served the city’s power structure before the hardening of segregation laws in the 1890s; after that, it changed hands and became a hangout for Black musicians like Jelly Roll Morton and Freddie Keppard.
The new proprietor, Frank Douroux, took over around the beginning of 1904 (he may have operated without the name Little Gem—contemporary newspapers identify the business by his name and its location). Douroux’s name would be well-known among musicians as proprietor of the nearby Eagle Saloon a few years later, but his affiliation with the first generation of jazz pioneers, including Bolden, began here.
The son of a French immigrant, Douroux was a member of white benevolent and fraternal organizations, similar in structure to the Black groups that met at the Odd Fellows and Masonic Hall, adjacent to the Eagle Saloon. (Black benevolent and fraternal organizations hired Bolden and others for dances there, facilitating the emergence of jazz.)
We have no documents of specific performances at Douroux’s first saloon, but early jazz musicians recalled it decades later as part of the social life of South Rampart Street, a hub of music, dancing, and entertainment. Douroux’s well-known embrace of live music up the block starting in 1908 makes it plausible that Bolden and others picked up their instruments here as well.
Before Douroux’s tenure and after, this corner was on a popular parade route, with brass bands regularly passing by.
During prohibition it became a speakeasy—officially offering “soft drinks” while serving harder ones. When the Great Depression set in, it became a pawn shop where musicians bought and sold their instruments as their spotty work opportunities and need for cash dictated.
By World War II it was a new barroom, Pete’s Blue Heaven, resuming its function as a stop for second lines and Mardi Gras Parades, including those of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. In 1942, a WPA photographer captured images of Baby Dolls and Black Masking Indians dancing out its door on St. Joseph’s Day. In the 1950s it presented some live rhythm and blues.
Preservation and Revival
By the 1980s it was vacant, and in 2000 preservationists prevented its demolition by longtime owner Joe Canizaro, the developer who would present the controversial “Green Dot” plan after Hurricane Katrina, a proposal not to support rebuilding some flood-prone neighborhoods, which collectively housed 80 percent of the city’s Black population.
New owners renovated the structure in 2006-2007. Originally built as a row of adjoined houses, the building was modified a number of times from the 1890s onward. Historically, the barroom occupied the first floor of a single lot on the corner, but the post-Katrina renovation united three lots over two stories, making room for two bars and stages. From 2013 through 2019 the new Little Gem Saloon brought live music back to this venerable block for the first time in decades.
Buddy Bolden mural
In 2018 acclaimed artist Brandan “BMike” Odums painted a mural on the building based on the only surviving photo of Buddy Bolden, taken with his band. The photo, like the man, is mysterious: as musicologist Gerhard Kubik has written, its date is unknown, and it may have been printed from two negatives, one of which was inverted, considering that neither guitarist Brock Mumford nor bassist Jimmie Johnson was left-handed, as they appear in it. Still, because there are no known recordings of Bolden’s music, this is our most tangible link to the “first man of jazz.”
In 2021 Hurricane Ida destroyed the wall covered by the mural, but the current owners rebuilt it, and Odums repainted the iconic image with local students. The halo around the image of Bolden evokes his brilliance and the psychological condition that cut his career tragically short in 1907.