Tipitina’s distinctive signage. Photo by Louisiana Travel via Flickr, used with permission under the Creative Commons.
Located uptown on the corner of Napoleon and Tchoupitoulas, Tipitina’s opened on January 14, 1977 as a club for local musicians. Just a few blocks from numerous bars on Magazine Street and situated between Uptown and the Garden District, this neighborhood venue catered to a variety of fans and performers in its early days. Although founded as a place for music lovers to enjoy a good party and local talent, Tipitina’s evolved into a nationally renowned music club. Today, the club’s contribution to the musical heritage of New Orleans is supplemented by the development of community programs organized through the Tipitina’s Foundation.
Hank Drevich and a group of friends attended a Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd or Fess) gig at Jed’s in the late 1970’s and found themselves blown away by the piano playing. After the show, Hank asked Longhair where he would be playing next and with a smile he replied, “Probably the Jazz Festival,” which was still six months away (1). Soon thereafter, “The Fabulous Fo’teen” devised a plan to create a venue that would showcase local and rediscovered musicians (2).
After pooling their money, the club’s founders took over the 501 Club, a longshoreman’s bar with a room in the back sometimes used for dancing (3) Located in an area of uptown near apartments and family cottages, this location was familiar to several of the founders who had previously hosted parties or balls on the premises (4). The building at the corner of Napolean and Tchoupitoulas remains Tipitina’s home to this day.
As a testament to their love of Professor Longhair’s music, the founders named the club after the 1953 Longhair hit “Tipitina.” Longhair claims his “Tipitina” refers to either the name of an African volcano he found in a book or his nickname for the neighborhood pot dealer (5).
Small-audience gigs and street fairs characterized Tipitina’s early years. In a half-joking advertising ploy, the founders began offering free bananas with every show, a tradition that would last for years. Rapidly, Tipitina’s “primitive and tribal feeling” grew in popularity among the New Orleans music community, and began to attract national acts and tourists (6).
The 1984 world’s fair in New Orleans drew patrons away from traditional bars and clubs within the crescent city. All-day free music shows directly affected Tipitina’s business, and the club was forced to close its doors in the summer of 1984 (7). Tipitina’s would remain closed for a little over a year as a change in ownership occurred (2).
In 1984, a group of shareholders bought Tipitina’s with a few small investors. Shareholders consisted of various famous musicians such as Earl King, James Booker, Huey Smith, Jessie Hill, and Art and Aaron Neville. A $20,000 down payment paved the way for Tipitina’s to become a brand commodity. Business practices became much more generic as the new owners cut labor costs by firing members of the kitchen staff of Napitoulas and stopped serving several meals a week (8).
The Tipitina Social Aid Pleasure Club then controlled the name “Tipitina’s.” Seven trustees remained from the original fourteen founders of Tipitina’s to head the club. The chief investor in the venue was the Real New Orleans Inc., which licensed the use of the name from the Pleasure Club. The investors committed to running the business of the club while the trustees handled the music (9). The presence of Hank Drevich and his fellow co-founders is extremely important in the legacy of Tipitina’s because of their role in preserving the unique atmosphere of the venue.
After opening its doors again in January of 1986, Tipitina’s soon emerged as a stop-off point for many artists’ national tours. Competition stiffened in the New Orleans market in the mid 1990s with the construction of the House of Blues. In 1996, Roland von Kurnatowski became the new owner of the club and worked towards balancing local, traditional acts with big name shows to draw tourists. Today, the Tipitina’s Foundation owns the club.
Formed in 1997, the Tipitina’s Foundation works to preserve, nurture and grow the music culture throughout the state of Louisiana. The 501©(3) non-profit offers a variety of programs aimed at encouraging interest in music during the early years of schooling. Instruments A Comin’ provides instruments to local school bands. At Sunday Music Workshops, famous musicians teach and play music with students from the community. Tipitina’s also created an internship program (T.I.P.) in 1993 to mentor and develop students dedicated to a career in the music industry.
To hear Jim Markway, a seasoned New Orleans musician and Tulane University music professor, discuss his memories of the Tipitina’s Foundation, listen to the audio clip entitled: “Tipitina’s Foundation.”
The goal of the Tipitina’s Foundation’s Instruments A Comin’ (IAC) program, which began in 2001, is to increase youth participation in the Greater New Orleans area school music programs. As a result, proceeds from this event are used to purchase new musical instruments for New Orleans public, charter, and parochial schools. IAC is a benefit concert, auction, and cultural fair that is held annually on the first Monday Night of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Tipitina’s on Napoleon Avenue. The benefit concert is open only to individuals 18 years of age or older that have purchased tickets for the event; however, preceding the benefit concert is a family-friendly outdoor street party that is open to the public of all ages. The street party includes the Foundation’s famous IAC Silent Auction, Battle of the Marching Bands that features IACrecipient schools, and the Walk of Fame Induciton Ceremony. The program is has been implemented for thirteen years (since 2001) and has purchased over $2.7 million dollars worth of instruments for thousands of students in more than 80 schools (10). A traditional feature of the annual event is the induction of new artists onto New Orleans Walk of Fame. The New Orleans Walk of Fame is located just outside the uptown music venue and is a permanent tribute to some of New Orleans’ finest musicians, producers, and cultural standard bearers. In 2014, the Walk of Fame Induction Ceremony honored Phish and Terence Blanchard (11). Some of the most iconic musicians on the Walk of Fame include Grammy winner Irma Thomas, actor and musician Harry Connick, Jr., New Orleans musical legend, Dr. John, pianist James Booker, and rock ‘n’ roll legend Antoine “Fats” Domino (12). Most rewarding was the Foundation’s fifth annual benefit concert and auction that immediately followed Hurricane Katrina in May, 2006. This crucial benefit concert restored the music culture of New Orleans that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. This large feat was accomplished by Popeye’s sponsorship, $125.00 VIP tickets that included an open bar, food from classic New Orleans restaurants (including Clancy’s and Jacques Imo’s), Ms. Linda, complimentary Instruments A Comin’ posters, and admission to the Event’s artists’ VIP party (13).
Its thirteenth annual IAC program that was held in 2014 was sold out! Here, General Admission tickets were on sale for $50.00 and VIP tickets were on sale for $200, which included access to the outdoor VIP lounge, VIP outside viewing area, VIP side entrance access, VIP balcony access, specialty cocktails and open bar, and food provided by local chefs (14). Instrument, and monetary, donations are accepted daily; to donate click here.
To hear Matt Schwartz, a Tulane University alum from the class of 1999, discuss his involvement with the Tipitina’s Foundation and Instruments A Comin’, listen to the clip entitled: “Tipitina’s Foundation post-Katrina; Instruments A Comin’.”
As a part of the Tipitina’s Foundation, there have been seven Tipitina’s music office co-ops set-up around Louisiana (15). In addition to the New Orleans location, the other co-ops are located in Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Alexandria and Monroe. These offices provide a fully equipped work space for musicians, film makers and other media professionals who would otherwise not be able to afford these kinds of spaces. In the summer of 2014, the New Orleans co-op opened a local hearing clinic at the office (16). Based on the belief that “if you want to preserve the music, preserve the musicians,” the clinic offers free hearing screenings on the first Monday of every month to hopefully restore and save the hearing of local musicians and marching band members.
Every Fall, the Tipitina’s Foundation offers a jazz program for a diverse pool of high school students interested in pursuing a career in the music industry, with the goal of “supporting Louisiana and New Orleans’ irreplaceable music community and preserving the state’s unique musical cultures” (17). Students are required to attend a multitude of events in the New Orleans area, and hone their skills under the instruction of artistic director, Donald Harrison Jr., through classes that teach them about both the recording and the business side of the music industry. Due to the programs rigorous nature, many students have gone on to study at some of the countries most prestigious music schools, including the Julliard School and the Berklee School of Music. Donald Harrison Jr. rightly refers to his students as “the New Orleans jazz stars of the future” (18). The program is offered in New Orleans, as well as in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, and is free of charge to encourage applicants from all socioeconomic backgrounds (19).
For more information on the program click here.
Another facet of the Tipitina’s Foundation, the Sunday Youth Music Workshops were started in the 1980s by Stanton Moore and Johnny & Deborah Vidacovich (20). These workshops provide young aspiring musicians from all walks of life to play alongside and learn from some of Louisiana’s most experienced musicians. The children have the opportunity to play in jam sessions with local musicians on a professional stage to allow for a real concert experience. This program is intended for middle and high school aged musicians, but all members of the public are invited to join the audience. Students are required to bring their own instruments to this hands-on and improvisational music workshop. After Hurricane Katrina hit, the revival of the Sunday Youth Music Workshops was crucial in preserving the local value of passing musical traditions onto younger generations. Workshops are available in New Orleans, Lafayette, Monroe, and Lake Charles. For more information and a schedule of upcoming workshops, click here.
Authentic cooperation among retired and current musicians, producers owners and the diverse fan base solidified Tipitina’s spot among some of the world’s best music clubs. Dedicated to providing a good time and atmosphere for all, the founders always looked past issues of race that divided much of the entertainment industry. Tipitina’s also helped create the locally popular WWOZ 90.7 FM, as the club’s owners rented the radio station’s founder, Jerry Brock, the apartments above the club for broadcasts (21). Today, the club remains open for nightly shows and continues to cater to a wide variety of musicians, students, tourists and locals.
Sara Furer, a member of the Tulane University class of 2012 who is now a professional in the music industry, reminisces about Tipitinas’ value for artists based on her industry expertise, as well as the venue’s impact on her college experience:
“Living out of New Orleans for a few years now and being in the music industry in New York has actually given me a much greater appreciation for what a special and historic venue Tipitina’s is. All of the most legendary New Orleans musicians have played that room, from Dr. John to The Meters to the Neville brothers. It’s the epicenter of the funk capital of the world. Artists love playing there because of its rich cultural history and typically give some of their best performances due to the energy that seems to just emanate from the room. Aside from that, they keep it fresh with events such as the annual Galactic Lundi Gras show which goes from something like 2-8 AM the last night of Mardi Gras. After 5 days of minimal sleep and maximum alcohol consumption, when you think you can’t possibly go on, you push your limits to go see one of the greatest funk acts out there with a slew of special guests, then exit into broad daylight. This is definitely one of my fondest college memories and what made going to school in New Orleans so special.”
-Sara Furer interviewed by Rebecca Green
Beyond the dedicatory name, Tipitina’s has become inseparable from the legacy of its patron saint Professor (Fess) Longhair (22). The building itself acts as a pseudo museum of Longhair ephemera. As mentioned, the bust of Henry Roeland Byrd (Fess) greets guests at the door while a mural of his face watches over all from atop the stage. More discreetly exhibited are a number of historically significant photographs by Michael P. Smith. Smith was one of the founders of Tipitina’s in 1977, having invested $1,000 (23). Aside from his role as a member of “The Fabulous Fo’teen”, Smith was also a recognized cultural photographer and often turned his lens to the subject of Tipitina’s performers, particularly its namesake Fess (24). The upstairs dance floor exhibits numerous historical photographs including an image of Fess’ hands on a piano shaped birthday cake, taken at his 59th birthday celebration in Tipitina’s inaugural year (25). Located within the building’s main stairwell is a large-format print of a commemorative poster featuring another photo of Fess taken by Michael P. Smith.
In addition to the link between Fess’ legacy and the club’s physical location, the Tipitina’s Foundation is also working to preserve his story beyond the walls of the venue. In 2012, the foundation began work on an effort to restore Longhair’s Central City home (26). When completed, the restoration would feature a small museum of Longhair memorabilia as well as function as a home for Byrd’s daughter and grandson.
Mary Von Kurnatowski of the Tipitina’s Foundation said, “There are very few people and places that are as inextricably linked as Professor Longhair and Tipitina’s; Spiritually, artistically, emotionally, historically” (27).
To hear Jim Markway, a seasoned New Orleans musician and Tulane University music professor, discuss his memories of Fess’ Legacy, listen to the clip entilted: “Fess’ Legacy.”
Jim Markway is a bassist and a veteran of the New Orleans music scene. In addition to playing at Tipitina’s since 1976, he is also a music professor at Tulane University. Listen below to hear him discuss some of his “Most Memorable Performances”.
Rachel Epstein is a member of the Tulane University class of 2015. To find out why she thinks Tipitina’s is a great place to listen to music, listen below to “Why Rachel Epstein Likes Tipitina’s.”
Matt Schwartz is a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist living in the Greater New Orleans area. He is the principal of his real estate firm, The Domain Companies, and is also a member of the Tulane University class of 1999.
This piece was originally published on November 29, 2012.