McDonogh No. 35, commonly referred to today as “Thirty-five,” became the first public high school for black students in Louisiana when it opened in 1917. The city placed it in a run-down building on the corner of South Rampart and Girod, so close to a red light district that students had to maneuver past its customers on their way to class in the morning.
In Chord Changes on the Chalkboard, author Al Kennedy describes the lineage of music teachers at McDonogh 35. The first was Edward Belfield Spriggins, who also wrote important examinations of early jazz for the newspaper Louisiana Weekly.
Osceola Blanchet, a musician who played in the popular Manuel Perez Band among many others, taught music at McDonogh 35 from the 1920s through the 1960s. He worked tirelessly for his students, arranging public performances for them and teaching them after hours about everything from opera to visual art.
Clyde Kerr, Sr., one of Blanchet’s students in the late 1920s, went on to be a prominent arranger and bandleader. His group, the Clyde Kerr Orchestra, gigged all over town, including down the street at the Astoria. Like Blanchet, he became a passionate educator in and out of school. His mentees and students included artists who would later define the sound of New Orleans R&B, including Dave Bartholomew, Wardell Quezergue, Alvin “Red” Tyler, and Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton. His son Clyde Kerr, Jr. became a trumpeter and a venerated teacher himself.
Alvin Batiste taught music at McDonogh 35, fresh off of a tour with Ray Charles in 1954. Batiste, a heady modern jazz clarinetist, recorded with Cannonball Adderly and other heavyweights over a long career. He also founded a jazz institute at Southern University in Baton Rouge. His students included Branford Marsalis, Henry Butler, Herlin Riley, and “American Idol” judge Randy Jackson.
In 1965, Hurricane Betsy damaged the school building on South Rampart beyond repair. After a few moves, McDonogh 35 settled at 1331 Kerlerec, where it stayed until Hurricane Katrina and the flood of 2005. In 2015, as part of a city-wide post-Katrina school redevelopment plan, McDonogh 35 moved to a new facility in Gentilly. A brick from the South Rampart Street building is displayed there today.
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.
Lining up before a Mardi Gras parade in 2017, the Mcdonough 35 marching band "battles" the Edna Karr High School marching band.
From the 2017 Ponderosa Stomp Music History Conference, Richard Campanella, Bruce Raeburn, and "Deacon" John Moore discuss music on South Rampart Street with Jordan Hirsch.