Saturday, September 4, 2010

So Long, Donna's

Music has been a part of life on New Orleans' Rampart Street at least since the beginnings of jazz. On South Rampart one could hear Bunk Johnson and Sidney Bechet playing at the Eagle Saloon or young Louis Armstrong holding forth at the Red Onion. (Both of these buildings are still standing.) The ballroom of the Astoria Hotel was a popular spot in the 1920s and 30s; you could catch Lee Collins and David Jones with their Astoria Hot Eight. Heading downtown to North Rampart, Luis Russell led the band at the Cadillac before moving north to Chicago. The Boswell Sisters were "discovered" while singing at the New Orleans Athletic Club. Cosimo Matassa opened his first recording studio at the corner of North Rampart and Dumaine, the corner immortalized in Professor Longhair's "Go To the Mardi Gras." In the 1970s, Lu & Charlie's featured Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, and James Booker. More recently, Big Sam Williams' Funky Butt was one of the best places in the city to hear music, but the club never reopened after Katrina hit. And now an era has ended: a couple of weeks ago Donna's, the last music club on North Rampart, closed its doors for the last time.

Music clubs come and go all the time; none of them last forever - although it looks like the Village Vanguard has a shot at immortality. So why does the closing of Donna's affect me so much?

From the time that it opened in the early 1990s (I don't remember the exact year), Donna's was something special. Even to an introvert like me, who mostly just wants to be left alone, Donna's was warm and welcoming. It's kind of a cliche, but you felt like family as soon as you walked in the door.

And, of course, the music was often amazing. In the early days, Donna featured brass bands; there weren't really any other clubs featuring this amazing New Orleans hybrid music at the time. The bands would stand at one end of the room, and if you wanted to use the restroom, you had to walk through the band. The first time I heard a New Orleans brass band in the flesh was in Jackson Square, where the young Rebirth Brass Band was playing for tips, but my second exposure to this incredible sound was at Donna's, where I heard the Algiers Brass Band. It was such a stunning experience that I went back a couple of nights later to hear the Pin Stripe BB. I was also fortunate enough to catch Tuba Fats' Chosen Few, the Mahogany, Treme, Hurricane (from Holland), and Hot 8 Brass Bands there.

Later, of course, they built a bandstand against the windows facing Rampart. And expanding from brass bands, Donna booked a variety of New Orleans music (mostly jazz) into the club.

Memories from Donna's:

The Tom McDermott Quartet had just played a version of "Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gave to Me" which took all sorts of unexpected and unusual turns. I remember one passage in which drummer Shannon Powell was playing in a different, but related, tempo than the rest of the group. As they played the last note, a police car zoomed down North Rampart, sirens blaring. Bassist Matt Perrine laughed and said, "Oh, no - the trad police!"

Uncle Lionel Batiste coming into the club, dressed as sharp as a tack, and dancing with all the young ladies to whatever band was playing.

Speaking of Mr. Batiste - standing near him as the Treme Brass Band was playing and realizing just how interesting and creative his bass drumming is.

Hearing Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers' dark, spooky version of "Light Up." One young man took the message of the song to heart and lit up a joint in the middle of the floor. Donna, who was sensitive to illegal shenanigans in her club, came over the bar like some sort of action hero and had the guy out the door in seconds.

The sitters-in: you never knew who was going to show up to play - Leroy Jones, Nicholas Payton, David Torkanowsky, Kermit, visiting musicians from Europe or Japan. One night Tom McDermott was playing with the young band Loose Marbles when veteran trumpeter Jack Fine came in and sat at the bar. He stayed there all night with his horn on the bar, and whenever he felt like it, he'd pick up the trumpet and join in from his barstool.

And on a couple of occasions, Donna's was where I experienced some of the best music I have ever heard in my life. I can think of at least two evenings when Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott, playing either with a quartet or as a duo, "lifted the bandstand," as Thelonious Monk put it - they played music that transcended "good music" and touched another level.

Donna's husband Charlie manned the kitchen. I still think his barbecue ribs were the best I ever had.

Donna and Charlie decided to close the club for a variety of reasons. Charlie has had health problems, and Donna has been commuting to and from Florida, where she has a teaching job. But the primary reason seems to be the condition of the building; the landlord has been unwilling to make repairs, and the building has been slowly falling apart. Incidentally, this was one of the reasons for the demise of the Funky Butt - and that building was owned by the same landlord.

I don't live in New Orleans; I was a couple-of-times-a-year visitor to Donna's. I doubt anyone associated with the club would remember me. But I owe some of my most cherished memories to that little club on the corner of North Rampart and St. Ann. So long, Donna's - I'll miss you.