Back to Walking ‘Round in the Sixth Ward: Treme Tour

Treme Community Center

900 N. Villere
New Orleans LA 70116
Location Status: Same structure, same use
Curated by
The Ponderosa Stomp Foundation

This city-run rec center is a longtime home of the Tambourine and Fan youth organization, which was integral to the brass band revival of the late 1900s and to the greater cultural fabric of Treme. Civil rights leaders Jerome Smith and Rudy Lombard created the program in 1968, and Smith still runs it in 2021. In Talk That Music Talk, an essential volume about the city’s brass band community, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes writes that Smith “created a curriculum for understanding how music, street culture, and social justice are connected in New Orleans, and then taught it by example.” 

While Smith earned a national profile as an activist—he was a Freedom Rider who dealt directly with Robert F. Kennedy—he stayed rooted in Treme, where he grew up. With Tambourine and Fan, he crafted after-school and summer programs to cultivate social awareness among children in the neighborhood. “The tambourine symbolizes Mardi Gras Indians,” Smith explained, “and the fan is that artifact popularized in the street parade. But both connect to the church, and spirituality.” He earned the nickname Big Duck, since kids followed him like ducklings.

Smith was a drum major at Joseph S. Clark High School under band director Yvonne Busch in the 1950s, and played in Southern University’s renowned marching band. He considered music, and New Orleans’ brass band tradition in particular, as a sacred practice grounded in community rituals. Through Tambourine and Fan, he put instruments in children’s hands, played jazz records for them, and taught them to listen. “The saying of ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ is New Orleans music,” he often noted. 

Several brass band musicians emerged from the program, including the core of the New Birth Brass Band, bass drummer Cayetano “Tanio” Hingle and snare drummer Kerry “Fatman” Hunter, and the group’s front man for many years, trumpeter Kenny Terry. Murals on the Treme Community Center link students like them to a deep historical lineage: one image reproduced a photograph of the band at the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, where, as an 11-year-old in 1912, Louis Armstrong took cornet lessons that set him on a path that changed American music.

It’s a poignant connection to make on this particular plot of land, which was once home to the Batistes, a musical family that embodied Jerome Smith’s ideal of community-oriented art—they paraded as Baby Dolls for Carnival and formed the Dirty Dozen Kazoo Band, the precursor to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. One of its members, “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, became an iconic bass drummer and grand marshal. Their house was one of more than 100 bulldozed by the city in the late 1960s and early 70s to make way for a “cultural center” that was never completed (the land eventually became Louis Armstrong Park). Organizers who’d opposed that project compelled the city to build the Treme Community Center as a concession to the neighborhood. 

The latest threat to the cultural continuity of Treme came after Hurricane Katrina, when the city’s uneven recovery contributed to a wave of gentrification here. Along with structural changes across the street at Craig Elementary, the social networks that Tambourine and Fan grew from and reinforced have frayed in recent years. Amid the changes, Smith still teaches young people here “that the music is of them, and from them.” 

About Treme

Located directly across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter, Treme is arguably the oldest Black neighborhood in the country, and one of the most influential in shaping popular American music. As early as 1726, free people of color lived along Bayou Road and enslaved Africans practiced sacred traditions of music and dance in a nearby commons. The area was subdivided as an urban neighborhood in the 1810s, leaving a square block of the commons, Congo Square, as greenspace (gatherings of enslaved people continued there, under increasing regulation, through the mid-19th century).

Treme became fairly diverse later in the 1800s as Sicilians and other European immigrants arrived, but the neighborhood was strongly associated with its French-speaking Afro Creole community. Historians Joseph Logsdon and Caryn Cosse Bell note that Creoles of color, among other distinctions, were known for embracing “dance, music, … ritualized festivals, and marching bands.” Music venues in the 19th century included churches and meeting halls of the benevolent societies that were integral to social life here.

While Treme doesn’t stand alone as the “Birthplace of Jazz”—the artform developed across the city—a high concentration of its pioneers lived here. These include the Tio family, influential clarinet players and teachers; Armand Piron, violinist and popular bandleader; Freddie Keppard, the “cornet king” after the legendary Buddy Bolden; and Alphonse Picou, clarinet ace and manager of a bar in the neighborhood. Others, including Bolden, Sidney Bechet, and Kid Ory, came to Treme to perform at dance halls in the early 1900s.

The streets themselves were often full of music. The density of benevolent societies along with funeral homes and cemeteries in the area made brass band parades and jazz funerals common. Young people played homemade instruments on street corners, and early jazz bands promoted gigs by playing on flatbeds pulled through the neighborhood. On Mardi Gras, Black Masking Indians (also known as Mardi Gras Indians) and Baby Dolls rolled with musical accompaniment, often gathering under the canopy of live oaks on North Claiborne Avenue.

In the middle of the 20th century, segregation intensified across New Orleans and Treme became increasingly Black. Neighborhood bars and nightclubs emerged as venues for the remnants of Black vaudeville acts and big bands, then, after World War II, for the city’s brand of rhythm and blues. It’s no coincidence that some of the greatest drummers of the R&B era—including Earl Palmer, Smokey Johnson, and James Black—grew up in Treme. “The difference is the bass drum,” Johnson told writer Bunny Matthews. “That comes from hearing them street parades, them marching bands.” Palmer brought the parade beat into J&M Studios, which faced Treme on Rampart Street, recording seminal R&B hits with Fats Domino, Little Richard, and others, giving rise to rock and roll.

In the late 1960s two public works projects transformed Treme. The construction of an elevated expressway along North Claiborne Avenue devastated what had been a corridor of Black businesses (including record labels, Houston’s School of Music, and the Black musicians’ union) and a tree-shaded promenade for parades. The demolitions that claimed the Batiste family home came soon after.  Years of divestment followed.

Despite these losses—and, in part, in response to them—Treme was at the heart of a brass band and second line renaissance that began in the 1970s and gathered momentum through the 1990s. New generations of musical families like the Andrews infused brass band music with R&B, funk, and hip-hop, and a new wave of social aid and pleasure clubs (descendants of 19th century benevolent societies), Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs reinvigorated local parading traditions. At the same time, music programs in neighborhood schools produced scores of young artists including Mannie Fresh, the multiplatinum-selling producer for Cash Money Records, who brought the sounds of New Orleans streets back to the top of the national charts.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, public policy once again forced a mass displacement from Treme. With renters largely ineligible for recovery assistance and public housing complexes demolished, many longtime residents were priced out of the neighborhood, which rapidly gentrified (it was 92% Black before the flood and 57% Black in 2018). Before the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the Candlelight Lounge was the last live music club in the area.

Today, if music no longer infuses daily life in Treme like it used to, culture bearers have a heightened sense of purpose in keeping local traditions alive. Events like second lines, funerals, and Mardi Gras parades continue to fill the streets as they have since the 19th century, and drum circles and festivals continue in Congo Square, now inside Armstrong Park.

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Videos

Jerome Smith describes the significance of his work, including music education, at the Treme Center.

Trailer for the book Talk That Music Talk narrated by Jerome Smith.