Reid Raymond and Al Jackson opened Treme’s Petit Jazz Museum in 2017. Jackson, a Treme native, has spent decades studying New Orleans’ music history, and uses the museum to display his personal collection of archival photographs, vintage instruments, and other memorabilia. (He is also a founding member of the Black Men of Labor Social Aid & Pleasure Club — decorations from the club’s headquarters, Sweet Lorraine’s, adorn one of the museum’s walls.)
The museum features paintings by the artist Joseph Parker, which Jackson commissioned to highlight aspects of the city’s musical history that can get short shrift in popular narratives. A painting depicting the drumming and dancing in Congo Square, for example, challenges the authority of the ubiquitous image of a musical gathering there by Edward W. Kemble. That black-and-white etching, based on the decades-old account of a white observer, shows a central figure with a rigid torso, a posture more common in European than African dance traditions. Parker’s image, painted in a vibrant palette, shows bodies in motion the way they often were in the African diaspora.
The museum also displays artifacts from the American Federation of Musicians Local 496 — the Black musicians’ union — which Jackson acquired from the branch’s former building on North Claiborne Avenue. The local operated there from the early 1950s until the forced merger of the black and white unions in 1969. By the 1990s it had fallen into disrepair, and Jackson bought the property to make it into a museum. Unfortunately, the building collapsed in 2002, but not before he secured a trove of archival material from it, including ledgers and contracts that offer a rare look at the inner workings of the city’s music economy at midcentury.
Visitors to the museum often receive one-on-one tours of the collection with Raymond or Jackson, who engage in a dialogue about the history of music in New Orleans. As Jackson says, “Come with an open mind about the origins of jazz.”
The museum is open Monday through Friday 11:30am – 5:00pm, Saturday 10:00am – 5:00pm, and Sunday appointment. (Hours are subject to change. You can call ahead at 504.715.0332.)
General admission is $10, $6 for high school students, and $8 for older students and seniors.
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. Shortly afterward, the demolition of 10 square blocks for an ill-conceived “cultural center” uprooted hundreds of low-income Black households (the cleared land eventually became Armstrong Park). 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.