Historic Little Gem Saloon Thrives After Resurrection
When jazz was developing in the early 20th century, the 300 and 400 blocks of Rampart Street in New Orleans were its incubators. Now, one of the famed venues that housed many early jazz musicians, Little Gem Saloon, has been revived as part of that neighborhood’s recent gentrification project.
Dr. Nicolas Bazan, whose son, Nicolas Bazan III, owns New Orleans restaurants RioMar and La Boca, acquired the property last year. With a budget of $5 million, siblings Charles Clark and Tim Clark, of Tim Clark Construction, redeveloped and reopened Little Gem in December 2012 as a restaurant and jazz venue.
The neighborhood where Little Gem is located, commonly known as “The Ramp” or “Black Storyville” is an important component of New Orleans’ cultural history. Legendary figures such as trumpeters Freddie Keppard and King Oliver and trombonist Frankie Dusen played at area bars and venues, such as Eagle Saloon. “The Ramp” neighborhood also included the Iroquois Theatre, where trumpeter Louis Armstrong won legendary talent contests.
Located on the corner of Poydras and Rampart, Little Gem was the bar where the musicians came to drink after their sets. It doubled as a laundromat and Chinese restaurant and in later years became the start and end point of Zulu Social Aide and Pleasure Club jazz funerals.
As that age came to a close, Rampart Street fell victim to urban renewal, and several venues were destroyed and replaced by office buildings, parking lots and New Orleans City Hall.
The new Little Gem, however, features both upstairs and downstairs music rooms with a classy vibe and sophisticated décor: red curtains, graceful chandeliers and a white-tiled mosaic floor. A wraparound balcony lets patrons view the expanse of Rampart Street and catch the changing colorful lights of the Superdome peeking out from behind the buildings on Poydras.
Little Gem Executive Chef Robert Bruce is of distant relation to the family that originally opened nearby historic eatery Maylie’s. The waitstaff is as knowledgeable about the venue’s music and history as it is about the food, a menu of traditional Creole cuisine from oyster stew to stuffed trout and roasted quail.
The owner of Little Gem’s also updated its programming, from the solo piano stylings of Andre Bohren and Joshua Paxton to bluesy, soul-drenched guitarist Marc Stone to modern jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis. Vocalist Meschiya Lake and her band, The Little Big Horns, performed three sets of jazz at the grand opening of the venue on Jan. 23. Lake, who will appear for a second time at Little Gem on May 17, combines the raspy force of Ma Rainey with the finesse of Sarah Vaughan.
Other forthcoming performances include regular Sunday jazz brunches with Richard Knox & The Little Gem Jazz Men, as well as concerts by Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and Marc Stone (May 8, 15, 22 and 29) Micah McKee & The Little Maker Trio (May 10, 24 and 31).
The opening of the Little Gem Saloon is a great event for a city that always needs another place to hear music, but bodes especially well for this redeveloping block.
For more information on Little Gem, visit the official website.