African Americans in New Orleans: The Music--Part Five

A number of Crescent City neighborhoods have been associated with the historic development of New Orleans jazz, from Storyville and the Vieux Carre to Milneburg and Marrero. The African American counterpart to Storyville is known as the Back O' Town district. Since the Back O' Town lay directly outside of the Library's door, we've chosen to highlight it in this section of the exhibit.

Square 333, bounded by Perdido, South Liberty, Gravier, and South Franklin Streets, as it appeared in the 1980 Sanborn Insurance Map (volume 3). Union Sons of Honor Hall, known also as Funky Butt Hall, was an early music venue in the Back O' Town district. Buddy Bolden played there. Just down Perdido St., at #1303, is the house where Louis Armstrong grew up.
A group of African American businessmen erected the Pythian Temple at the corner of Gravier and Saratoga (now Loyola Ave.) Streets in about 1908. This page from a 1908 number of Architectural Art and its Allies reproduces the plan for a second-floor theatre in the building. In 1909, a neighborhood group known as the "Tramps" attended a Temple Theatre performance of a skit featuring a Zulu tribe and its king. The "Tramps" were so taken with the portrayal of the Zulu king that they retired to their clubhouse on Perdido St. and reorganized themselves as the Zulus. Thus was born the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, the most famous African American carnival organization in the Crescent City.

Some years later the owners of the Pythian Temple added a roof garden to their structure. The new facility became a popular venue for jazz musicians. It is said that Sidney Bechet first played the saxophone with A.J. Piron's band at the Roof Garden. Papa Celestin's Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra and Kid Rena's Jazz Band also played there with some regularity. The Pythian Temple went out of black ownership during the 1940s, but the building still stands, though hidden behind a 1950s glass facade just across Loyola Ave. from the Library. The Temple Theatre and the Roof Garden, however, long ago disappeared.
A rare 1927 aerial photograph of the NOPSI Gas Department complex on Poydras St. provides us with a glimpse of the Back O' Town district, the Central Business District, Storyville, the French Quarter, and beyond before the demolition of many locations of significance to the history of New Orleans jazz. It is possible to pick out sites such as Funky Butt Hall, Globe Hall (near Congo Square), the old Criminal Court and Parish Prison complex, and the old Southern Railway Terminal at the edge of Storyville.
This double residence at 436-438 South Franklin St., ca. 1952, was one of hundreds of structures in the Back O' Town to be leveled prior to the Civic Center's construction.
George Lewis, Joe Watkins, and Sweet Emma Barrett performing at Preservation Hall [photograph from the Grauman Marks Collection]
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January 30, 1997--wme