The Little Gem Saloon was Frank Douroux’s first tavern in the 400 block of South Rampart Street. Douroux later opened a second, the Eagle Saloon, at the corner of South Rampart and Perdido Streets. From 1903 to 1909, the Little Gem Saloon featured dance band performances, and was patronized by jazz legends Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, and Jelly Roll Morton.
From 1926 to 1949, the building was a popular “loan office” (pawn shop), where musicians were known to pawn their instruments and hang out. In the mid-20th century it was the site of Pete’s Blue Heaven bar, which was a stop for the Zulu parade and other processions.
The building was restored in 2012 and now features live jazz performances to honor its heritage and namesake. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Considering it alongside the Karnofsky building, 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.”
As part of New Orleans’ tricentennial in 2018, the artist Brandan Odums, known as BMike, painted a mural on the Little Gem based on the only known photograph of Bolden — that’s him in the back row holding his cornet. The halo around his head is deliberately unfinished, according to Odums, to evoke the psychological condition that cut short Bodlen’s career. He was institutionalized as a young man and died in the care of the state. Though he was buried in an unmarked grave, he received a marker at Holt Cemetery in 1996.
Sadly, Odums’ mural was destroyed in Hurricane Ida on August 29th, 2021.
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.