Historic jazz club shining again on Rampart Street

Along Rampart Street in New Orleans are historic buildings that, together, are the collective birthplace of jazz. Many of them have sat empty for decades, but in the 400 block of Rampart the Little Gem Saloon is back in action.

“New Orleans has been losing part of its heritage,” said Charles Clark, one of the Little Gem’s three owners, and the owner of the construction company that recently completed extensive renovations to the old building. “And the 400 block of Rampart is extremely important to our city and to the nation as a whole in terms of jazz and where it originated.

“We’ve lost so many historic sites, but by redeveloping this one we hope to help spur further redevelopment here, to save what we still have.”

The Little Gem Saloon first opened in 1903, hosting music that was, then, called ragtime. Along with its neighboring venues, the Little Gem hosted early jazz performers such as Jelly Roll Morton, serving as a cradle for the entire musical genre.

“Bringing back this building helps link us to our history,” Clark said. “When friends come to visit, they inevitably ask the same question — ‘Where can we see real New Orleans jazz?’ And while we have some great places ... they’re relatively new. This building was here a hundred years ago. When you listen to traditional New Orleans jazz in the Little Gem, you’re hearing it in the place it all started.”

Clark and his partners wanted to recreate the feel of the historic Little Gem, but they didn’t want to merely piece together an amusement park facsimile of what the place might once have been like.

Working with designers, they instead chose a concept that would renovate the building so that it would feel as if it had been continually operating over the past century.

“Different areas are designed with different eras in mind, as if they were worked on at various stages of the 20th century,” Clark said. “We have ceramic tile on the first floor that is period specific to the early 1900s. As you go through the building, times change.

“The restrooms feel as though they were designed in a 1940s renovation, and upstairs you have a 1970s Spanish Revival feel. We want people to feel as if they are inside a building that has continually developed since 1903.”

The most important part of the Little Gem’s modern story is, of course, the music.

The Saloon hosts happy hours every day, featuring jazz duos or trios. Every night from Wednesday through Saturday, there are live shows. And on Sundays, the Little Gem features a traditional New Orleans jazz brunch, showcasing New Orleans music and traditional Creole food.

“We rebuilt the Little Gem Saloon to recreate the old feel of New Orleans jazz,” Clark said. “But we don’t limit ourselves by not allowing other New Orleans music. We’ve had Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins and a whole host of other acts that range from 1920s jazz lounge music to modern Latin jazz. Above all else we just wanted something that was authentic and real.”

“One of the biggest compliments we could ever get is,” Clark added, is “ ‘Wow, is that ceramic tile original?’ ”

Bradley Washauer is a contributing writer. He can be reached at raptorbpw@gmail.com.