Like a parent playing favorites, New Orleans dotes too heavily on its jazz heritage. I know this sounds like heresy, but it's true. The airport is named for Louis Armstrong, there's a 150-foot trompe-l'oeil mural of a clarinet running up the side of a Holiday Inn, and you don't have to look too hard for the Dixieland sound. All of which is wonderful and good for jazz. The problem is jazz isn't the only form of music that was born in the city. Rock 'n' roll began there, too. Yet the city has done little to preserve rock's history there or turned notable rock sites into thriving tourist attractions.
For example, while I was in New Orleans last week to interview Fats Domino for the Wall Street Journal, I walked to the site of J&M Studio on Rampart St., where Fats Domino's The Fat Man, Little Richard's Tutti Frutti and so many other early rock hits were recorded by owner-engineer Cosimo Matassa. Today, the studio is the Clothes Spin laundromat, with only a J&M Music Shop logo remaining embedded in the concrete outside the doorway [pictured]. The Dew Drop Inn, where so much early rock and r&b took place in the 1950s? It's shuttered [pictured]. The Robin Hood Club? Gone.
About 400 miles to the north, Memphis oozes rock 'n' roll history, from Graceland and Beale Street to Sun Studio and Stax Records museums. Now I'm by no means suggesting that New Orleans chuck jazz into the Mississippi. I'm merely pointing out that New Orleans is big enough for two music histories and that rock may offer the city much-needed revenue in the form of walking tours, T-shirts, live music, guest legend appearances and everything else exciting that goes on in Memphis.
Someone in New Orleans' city government should dispatch an emissary to Memphis to study what's happening up there and to meet with those who are responsible for keeping the city's rock legacy thriving. When I was in Memphis over the summer for Elvis Week, all of the city's historic sites mentioned above were jammed with tourists spending money. Perhaps it's time for New Orleans to create, say, a "Let the Good Times Roll Week?" At the very least, perhaps some of the rappers from the city who have gone on to fabulous wealth should set up a foundation to buy the laundry and restore J&M Studio and turn it into a museum.
My two days in New Orleans last week were a joy. I had never been to the city, so my expectations were high. I had plenty of places to eat and sites to see. Sadly my time was too limited to fully explore. My focus was on interviewing Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, who is notorious for cancelling at the last minute. In fact, when I first started making calls from New York six weeks ago, a concert-promoter friend told me to forget about it. "There's a 70% chance you won't get the interview," he said. "And if Fats agrees, there's a 90% chance he won't show up." Yikes. Fortunately, all worked out, thanks largely to those in New Orleans who understand why rock 'n' roll history is so important.
But I did get to eat. On my first day, I grabbed a solid fried-shrimp sandwich at Johnny's Po-Boy on St. Louis St. As most people know, a po-boy is really just a hefty sandwich with an emphasis on a fresh-baked roll. Shrimp actually was my second choice. "We have no oysters," the shop's owner said. "The crabs and shrimps could run away from the BP oil but oysters couldn't do much."
That night, I ate at Restaurant August on Tchoupitoulas St. with a friend who's close with the Domino family. The food was fancy and carefully prepared but a tad rich by New York standards. Lots of butter and cream sauces.
The next day, I grabbed beignets at Cafe Du Monde. It's a tourist spot on Decatur St., but the sizzling hot doughnut pockets covered in white powdery confectioner's sugar were comforting to say the least.
Lunch last Wednesday with Dave Bartholomew and his son Don was the high point. We ate at Dooky Chase's on Orleans Ave. The landmark cajun-creole restaurant was terribly beat up by Hurricane Katrina and only recently was rebuilt and serving soul food again. For two hours, the three of us ate gumbo and peach cobbler in the back room and talked about Fats and Dave's career. Dave, at 89, is sharp and his memory is vivid. Leah Chase, the restaurant's long-time owner and spiritual force, came out from the back to chat.
That night, at the Mahalia Jackson Theater, I spent time with Fats Domino. There's something so childlike and playful about the pianist, like a kid opening presents. The joy and love for music and people just pour out of him. The highlight for me was feeling Fats' fingers on the back of my hand. Treating my hand like a keyboard, he gave me an exciting sense of rock's earliest beat—and what it feels like to be a piano under those hands. His fingers were rock solid and bounced like a beating heart. [Pictured: Me, Fats Domino and Eric Paulsen; photo by Haydee Ellis]
With any luck, New Orleans will begin to see how much of its rock heritage needs to be protected and leveraged, and the city will find a way to bring its historic rock locations to life. Keep celebrating jazz, of course. But how about sharing the spotlight with rock and attracting a few more wallets to the mix of tourists?
JazzWax clip: Eric Paulsen, anchorman at WWL-TV in New Orleans, recently brought Fats and Dave together for a reunion of sorts and took along a camera crew. Fats and Dave had grown apart in past years, largely over silly things from earlier times. Eric's must-see segment aired in New Orleans last night—but you can see the clip here. It's on the left side of the station's home page.