The San Jacinto Club, sometimes called San Jacinto Hall, hosted some of the country’s top African-American musicians from the 1920s through the 1950s. This building on Dumaine Street was the headquarters of the San Jacinto Social and Pleasure Club, an organization formed by elite creoles of color in 1903. In addition to parading and conferring medical and burial assistance to members, the club conducted a range of activities from Christmas toy giveaways to civil rights organizing.
After a major renovation in 1922, the facility included office space, a reading room, a bar, and a gymnasium. (The latter attracted prizefighters from around the country as well as a youngster from the neighborhood, Earl Palmer, who eventually hung up his gloves to focus on drumming, and played his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
Concerts were a regular feature at the San Jacinto Club’s auditorium, which held up to 3,000 people. Often, other black social organizations and promoters rented the hall to put them on—it was one of only a few venues of its size for black audiences under segregation. There were dances, balls, soirees, and battles of the bands. Baby Dolls and Mardi Gras Indians, groups who mask for Carnival, held functions here, too. For decades, the space was central to black social life in downtown New Orleans.
While early jazz bandleaders like Chris Kelly and Kid Rena played at the San Jacinto Club in the 20s, today’s traditional jazz fans are most likely to know it as a recording studio. In 1944 William Russell, a prime mover in the midcentury revival of New Orleans-style jazz, produced a series of recordings here with Bunk Johnson, a once-prominent trumpet player who’d influenced Louis Armstrong. The San Jacinto had a nice sound and was affordable to rent, so sessions with clarinetist George Lewis and other revivalists followed.
In the 50s, though, rhythm and blues is what brought crowds to the auditorium. Mother’s Day in 1950 featured Dave Bartholomew’s big band, Smiley Lewis, Fats Domino, and Professor Longhair. Touring artists came through the San Jacinto, too. Homegrown stars Shirley and Lee recalled being nervous to follow Big Mama Thornton in 1953, when her record “Hound Dog” was hot. Ray Charles appeared later that summer. On Mardi Gras Day in 1960, Professor Longhair was arrested on the bandstand, reportedly for possession of marijuana.
The building was put to other uses during daylight hours. The traditional brass band drummer Lawrence Batiste told documentarian David Kunian that his backyard abutted the club, so he copped free lessons by listening to bands rehearse there during the day. The American Federation of Musicians Local 496—the black musicians union—held meetings in the hall in the 40s before establishing its office on North Claiborne Avenue.
By the early 1960s the San Jacinto Club had vacated the facility and a nightclub operated in its place. On January 9, 1967 the building went up in flames. By then the city had acquired it and several surrounding blocks, which it bulldozed to make way for a Cultural Center. When those plans fell through, the area was converted into Armstrong Park.