Is jazz a dying art form in the city of its birth?


Published: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

SOMEWHERE IN TEXAS ON INTERSTATE-10 — As we move farther west of New Orleans, my thoughts drift back to a childhood memory in that fabled city that gave birth to jazz.

At the age of 12, before I had ever heard names like Miles Davis or Oscar Peterson, I spent a late night staring out the window of a hotel overlooking the French Quarter. Across the street, under a glowing lamppost, a solitary saxophonist sent a series of blues notes into the October air.

Transfixed by the sound, I sat at that window all night, and by the time I went to sleep I would be forever infected with a love of the only music Americans can truly call their own.

Trolling the Quarter Monday night, there wasn't a saxophone to be heard from Canal Street to Esplanade. And even before Hurricane Katrina flushed so many musicians from New Orleans, I had found it increasingly difficult to hear a horn playing any real jazz in the city.

Indeed, a night in New Orleans should sufficiently prove that most clubs in the Quarter have traded Louis Armstrong for karaoke or a Bon Jovi cover band. And, surprisingly, there seems little objection. Tourists appear to have gladly waved goodbye to decades of jazz tradition for a chance to guzzle a Hurricane whilst being filmed in a "Girls Gone Wild" episode.

There is, however, one notable exception — one place in New Orleans where time seems to have managed to stand still. It's such a rare gem, in fact, that I'm almost loath to share it with readers for fear of spoiling a secret that's mostly confined to aficionados and locals. But a place like Donna's Bar and Grill deserves to be talked about, just as Donna herself deserves praise for keeping it open all these years.

Donna Sims, 60, opened the club at 800 North Rampart 14 years ago. The joint ain't much to look at. An unimpressive stage stands just above the floor, and on a hopping night in the small club — increasingly rare post-Katrina — patrons have trouble lighting a cigarette without burning their neighbor.

But, prideful proprietor that she is, Sims pays attention to the details that matter. On Monday night, she insisted a patron give up her steel folding chair in exchange for a classier model that Sims quickly retrieved from the back.

"I hate these," Sims whispered, glancing accusingly at the chair that somehow found its way into her bar.

New Orleans' jazz history is filled with stories of little clubs like Donna's, where a horn player from the street may walk in at any moment to jam with the house band for a couple of numbers. But, as Donna Sims will tell you, those days are gone — and some don't miss them.

"New Orleans doesn't give a (expletive deleted) about jazz," she says, forcing a smirk that barely hides her contempt.

Back in the kitchen Monday night, Sims' husband, Charlie, cooks up a batch of barbecue chicken. A well worn skillet filled with cornbread sits on the stove top, and I broach the topic of jazz's apparent demise in the city of its birth.

Charlie Sims, 71, simply refuses to discuss the matter on the record with me. He keeps his public opinions about the state of jazz in New Orleans as well guarded as his recipe for red beans and rice. In some way, it seems, Charlie Sims feels it would be inappropriate to discuss this. It would be like discussing personal details about his wife or his sister.

"Don't put me in the newspaper talking about this," he says, peering out from under a black beret.

But Donna chimes in again, suggesting city officials have systematically worked to kill jazz traditions they deem to be antiquated or even racist. Some, for instance, have opposed the "second line," a long-standing tradition of lengthy parades filled with booze, dancing and jazz.

As I walk home Monday night, the streets are quiet but for the strip clubs and beer stands. The evening has grown colder, and I think of Louis Armstrong's now poignant words: "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" I do, Satchmo. I really do.

Sun reporters Nathan Crabbe (left) and Jack Stripling take a road trip to Glendale following the Gators to the National Championship.

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