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Walk Through Music History in NOLA

Free interactive website brings the city’s music past to life

Dew Drop Cafe
The historic Dew Drop Cafe was known as "The South's Swankiest Night Spot." (Photo Courtesy: Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.)

For a music-obsessed city steeped in nearly 300 years of history, New Orleans hasn’t always been the best at lionizing the sites where our music was born, developed and thrived. In recent years, however, that’s started to change.

In 2015, the Preservation Resource Center launched the “Jazz Houses” app, offering free information about the previous residences of New Orleans’ jazz luminaries. This summer, the Eagle Saloon unveiled a new set of plaques commemorating the building’s history as one of the first and most significant venues for early jazz. In June, WWOZ joined the push to make information about the city’s music history available for free.

Historic club, Joe’s Cozy Corner was once a Treme anchor. Photo Courtesy: Aubrey Edwards was created in conjunction with the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation, writer and philanthropist Randy Fertel, Bent Media and e/Prime Media. It features extensive, map-based content about places in the city that bear historical significance to the stories of New Orleans jazz, R&B, Mardi Gras Indian music, brass band music, and bounce. Users can opt to select from pre-curated tours on subjects like Louis Armstrong’s life in New Orleans, the homes of early jazz bandleaders and “home-grown hip-hop”. They can also create their own custom tours by filtering information by categories such as chronology, neighborhood, or music genre.

A section called “Lagniappe” currently hosts information about the history of dances in New Orleans, as well as additional context for the development of early jazz.

“For me, it goes way back to the ‘90s when a friend of mine and I were thinking of doing a jazz history walking tour book. And then it occurred to me 10 years later if I created an app, we could use all that wonderful archival audio visual material,” says Fertel, whose family has roots on South Rampart Street not far from the block where the Eagle Saloon and Karnofsky shop and residence both stand.

Fertel took the project to WWOZ, which brought in Bent Media. As it turned out, Bent Media was already in the process of developing a similar project with the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation.

“My project was just going to be early jazz but suddenly there’s all this material post WWII, and not just the birth of jazz, but rhythm and blues and rock and roll too,” Fertel recalls. “It was way better than we ever imagined,” Fertel says.

Fertel explains that because archival institutions like the Historic New Orleans Collection, Music Rising, the Hogan Jazz Archive, and the Amistad Center at Tulane have been studiously digitizing their collections, there were these huge troves to link to for A Closer Walk NOLA.

Pictured here at The Dew Drop Cafe is Joe Fox on drums, Joe Tillman on saxophone, Curtis Mitchell on piano and an unnamed dancer. (Photo Courtesy: Ralston Crawford Collection of New Orleans Jazz Photography, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University)

However, including those rich sources of material would have meant eating up lots of memory on users’ phones. So the team found an alternative.

The team opted for a mobile optimized site that behaves like an app. Users visit the URL on their devices, save it to the home screen, and it looks like an app and behaves like an app. (See WWOZ’s detailed instructions on using ACloserWalkNOLA here.)

With a plan to create content specifically for schools, Fertel says that a good deal of information is already in the hopper, and ready to make its way onto the site.

The website also incorporates video from previous Ponderosa Stomp conferences, including clips from Cosimo Matassa’s studio, and the Dew Drop Inn. When the Stomp conference returns in October, Stomp founder Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos says it will have a major tie-in to ACloserWalkNola. It will include website-relevant panels about Bourbon Street clubs in the ‘60s, the return of the New Orleans gospel label Rosemont Records, the musical history and geography of South Rampart Street, and more.

Jennifer Odell is a freelance music writer. Her work appears regularly in DownBeat, Jazz Times, Offbeat and the Gambit, among other publications, and she leads the New Orleans chapter of the Jazz Journalists Association. In her spare time, she enjoys second lining to the Hot 8 or TBC, costuming, and eating all of the crawfish.

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