The Birth of Jazz and the Jews of South Rampart Street

The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak

This article is excertped from Randy Fertel's forthcoming book, The Gorilla Man And The Empress Of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir. Click on the book cover above to see more information about the work.

The world of South Rampart Street, New Orleans, where my grandmother Annie Fertel grew up was an odd mixture—at once a claustrophobic, Orthodox Jewish mercantile enclave and the epicenter of an artistic whirlwind destined to change world culture. Jazz was being born all around them. Annie was born the year Louis Armstrong claimed for his birth; records now show he was born a year later, in 1901. A few blocks across Canal St. down North Rampart lay Congo Square where slaves had once congregated on Sundays, held their market, danced to their drums, and sung the call-and-response, polyrhythmic chants that would lay the groundwork for the structure of jazz. In popular imagination jazz emerged from the bordellos of Storyville, the legendary red-light district where piano-players like Jelly Roll Morton entertained the prostitutes and their sporting men. But South Rampart itself was a prior birthplace to jazz along with neighboring Back a’ Town, the unofficial Black Storyville that long antedated Storyville’s founding in 1897. (It closed in 1918.) Like thrice-born Dionysius, jazz had two mothers, for a while simultaneously: according to the late jazz historian Tad Jones, South Rampart was the spot for jazz.”

When I knew her, Grandma Annie lived above the Fertel Loan Office, already long gone. Perhaps there were other merchants still living above their stores but most had migrated to brick ranch houses in the suburbs—like us. Visits downtown felt like my first adventure to a foreign land. I’d watch the Jewish merchants at their storefronts work passers-by like Bourbon Street hawkers. Mostly to African Americans they’d declare they had just the right blue suit for next Sat’day night. Even at six, I sensed that normal people didn’t live in downtown New Orleans across Canal Street from the French Quarter and certainly not on South Rampart Street, which, in the mid-50s, was one step up from Skid Row.

Of course there was little normal about Annie whose inherited wealth both abetted and gave cover to her eccentricities. Drop-cord lighting revealed her sparse furnishings. A once handsome, now rickety cast-iron gallery (what we call balconies in New Orleans) was close to collapse from rust and decay. While the family was still whole, my brother and I loved to go out on the gallery to watch the streetcar rattle past on its way toward Congo Square. Eventually we weren’t allowed to venture out for fear of its falling. Longing for normal, I failed to appreciate Annie’s world’s uniqueness and of course, like many New Orleanians, I was oblivious to the history that lay at my feet.

It was on these streets—South Rampart between Perdido and Gravier—where Louis Armstrong walked along in 1910 singing for coins with his “spasm band,” named for their dancing style. His singing was so good that a friend dragged Jelly Roll Morton across Canal from Storyville to hear him. Louis sets the scene in his vibrant memoir Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans: “in that one block … more people were crowded than you ever saw in your life. There were church people, gamblers, hustlers, cheap pimps, thieves, prostitutes and lots of children. There were bars, honky-tonks and saloons, and women walking the streets for tricks to take to their ‘pads,’ as they called their rooms.” As Michael Ondaatje wrote in Coming Through Slaughter, Rampart Street’s paving stones were “made marble by jazz.”

New Orleans Panorama

A panorama of Fertel's world, circa 1900. Left to right: the spire of the Central Police Station, Basin Street, Storyville, Union Station, Chinatown (in foreground), Rampart Street, the Roosevelt Hotel, and in the near corner, the roof of the Fertel Loan Office. Credit: Library of Congress.

Mixed in with the saloons, social halls, dance clubs, and vaudeville theaters lay the pawnshops, haberdasheries and milliners that catered to African Americans who lived nearby in Back a’ Town. Front a’ Town lay toward the riverfront, the commercial heart of the city. Back a’ Town, the city’s soul, lay beyond the former ramparts which gave the street its name. When the French settled New Orleans in 1718, the ramparts were meant less to keep out the hostiles than to keep out the back-swamp that surrounded the city. Across from South Rampart lay the Battlefield, so-called because “those bad characters,” wrote Louis, “would shoot and fight so much.” It was also known as Black Storyville—his mother probably turned tricks there—or as “The Swamp,” perhaps as much for its low morals as for its low ground. Louis grew up on Liberty Street and Perdido, a street that got its name during the Spanish colonial period because it was “lost” after every heavy rain. (Now the site of the Superdome, the area saw three feet in the federal floods following Katrina.) All this a quick walk from the Fertels.

Fertel Building at Perdido

The Fertel Building at Rampart and Perdido, dated 1910. Credit: Historic New Orleans Collection.

If Front a’ Town was the world of the French Opera House—oldest in America—and blue-blood Mardi Gras balls, then Back a’ Town imbibed its violence in less ritualized form. Cattycorner from the Fertels lay a labyrinthine Chinatown where a young Louis delighted in the “Lead Beans and Lice” his mother sometimes treated him to. But it was also where a young Jelly Roll Morton was sent by older band members “with a sealed note and a small amount of money to get ‘hop’—opium.” This not fifty yards from the Fertels and directly across from the Central Police Station. In the year of Annie’s birth, “Back to Africa” advocate Robert Charles objecting to police harassment went on a shooting spree that left seven dead and twenty wounded; he was surrounded on Saratoga Street just off Rampart and riddled with bullets. At one point during the race riot Charles inspired, a mob of 3,000 descended upon the Central Police Station, less than half a block from the Fertels. Ten years earlier, Police Chief Hennessy was gunned down just off Rampart, six blocks away. His dying words—“The Dagoes did it”—led to the arrest of 250 Italians. National newspaper coverage of the murder trial of nine Sicilians introduced the word “Mafia” into the American vocabulary. When they were acquitted, a mob of 8,000 met at the Henry Clay statue on Canal Street, then marched to Rampart Street and on to Parish Prison behind Congo Square where they lynched the “assassins.”

The intrinsic violence of the general culture’s disdain and hostility was one strand of the genetic material that linked the cultures, Jewish and African American (and Italian, for that matter). Louis Armstrong, who knew Jim Crow well and later recorded a masterpiece—“Black and Blue”—to indict it, expressed his astonishment that “other white folks’ nationalities … felt that they were better than the Jewish race. I was only seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.” The Pickwick Club barred Jews. Its membership manned the Mardi Gras courts of Comus and Rex and led the volunteer militia into the infamous Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 that overwhelmed Federal troops at the Customs House and struck the blow that led to Reconstruction’s end and Jim Crow’s birth. In 1928 my great-grandfather Sam Fertel, wanting a membership in order to play pinochle at their tables, denied them a new lease on the Pickwick clubhouse in his Canal Street building at the corner of Rampart. Blacks and Jews had at least one enemy in common.

George Schmidt painting

Little Louis nabbed for firing a weapon on New Year's Eve, as imagined by artist George Schmidt.

Immigrants from Krakow, Annie’s parents, Sam and Julia, owned three of the four corners in the second block from Canal Street, and still another at the most famous corner of all, Rampart and Perdido where Little Louis was arrested for firing a handgun and sent to the Colored Waifs Home where he learned the cornet. Sam was known as Moneybags Fertel, Julia as a tough businesswoman and an eccentric.

When Julia died in 1941, Harnett Kane, a talented local-colorist, told the Fertel story at length in the States-Item, capturing the city’s astonishment:

A saga in penny-saving came to light in New Orleans today.

A woman pawnbroker, whose name meant nothing to most Orleanians, left an estate of $2,379,159.39 [about $36 million today]—one of the biggest of recent history, larger than that of most cotton factors, financiers or bankers of Louisiana….

During all her quiet life, Mrs. Julia Deiches Fertel denied herself, accumulated money and bought property after property. She seldom sold. Real estate was the thing; one day she stopped a friend and told him, slapping her hand against the wall—‘Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar, that is what counts.’

“They used to laugh at me,” Sam told Kane, “when Mrs. Fertel and I bought property so far ‘out’ along toward Rampart. They said I was crazy. I said nothing.” They laughed not only because Rampart was so far—from the commercial center—but also because it was so near: to Back a’ Town.

Kane summed them up with a matter-of-factness that seems meant to match their own:

They went to Rampart Street; they liked a location on the 200 block, and they set up their shop. They prospered, because their wants were small, their hopes of property large. The Fertels however, were not a very friendly family. They held to themselves, for the most part. The neighbors did not know them well; they were polite, but had little to say to others.

As Sam put it, “Always, it was the business. We didn’t need anybody, no, to help us. We got used to doing everything for ourselves. Why should we want others?”

Fertel Sign

Credit: Historic New Orleans Collection.

On the side wall of the Fertel Building, this sign:

A FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND INDEED

IF YOU NEED MONEY

See FERTEL’S

LOWEST RATES IN THE CITY

Friends to all (and to none), they are in this world but not of it.

And yet a man’s gotta eat, right? Julia is said not to have known her way to the kitchen let alone know her way around it. Every day at lunchtime, the Fertels ventured across the street to the Astoria Hotel and its Tick Tock Tavern owned by the Braden family, prominent Creoles of Color. Founded by King of Storyville Tom Anderson in 1895 and then sold to the Bradens, the Astoria was the best African American hotel in town and holy ground in the history of jazz. All the top black musicians traveling through New Orleans stayed there and played the Tick Tock. Louis Armstrong wrote in his memoir of playing the “Bradens [sic] Astoria Hotel dance hall (Rampart and Gravier)” in 1915 as a 14-year-old. Even though his estranged wife lived nearby, Louis stayed there with his girlfriend in 1931.

The Astoria’s side entrance was at 235 Rampart, not half a block from the Fertels. Its music was heard late into the night from the Fertels’ cast iron gallery. Besides, the Tick Tock had gaming tables and they were happy to take Moneybag Fertel’s pinochle money. Julia’s game was bourré. A family legend speaks of Louis Armstrong’s visits to the Loan Office across the street to pawn his cornet to stay in the game. All that life and all that good Creole cooking swirling all around them.

“Rampart St. was hoppin’,” my father’s first cousin Stanley Fink told me before his recent death. He knew South Rampart as a teenager in the Thirties. His father Max Fink, Sam and Julia’s daughter and Nettie’s first husband, was both a concert violinist of note and, according to Variety in 1932, the best dance-band leader in the South. “Effective in both classical and ‘rag time’ playing,” reported the New Orleans Item in 1915, he “often memorizes an entire opera score by playing it only once.” His sixteen-piece band regularly played the Saenger, the St. Charles Hotel, and, in the same block as the Fertels, the Little Club on Rampart. He toured the national Orpheum circuit. According to jazz historian Tad Jones, “Max Fink went on to have a big band and became pretty well known. We think that’s why Armstrong bought his first cornet there”—at Jake Fink’s Loan Office (next door to the Eagle Loan Office at Rampart and Perdido). Yes, a relative by marriage sold Louis Armstrong his first cornet.

Hotel Astoria

The Braden's Hotel Astoria with its Tick Tock Tavern. Credit: Historic New Orleans Collection.

But it is the Karnofsky family, not the Fertels or the Finks, rightly credited with giving fullest expression to this double helix of cultures, Jewish and African American. Lithuanian Jews, the Karnofskys in the 1890s were Sam and Julia’s neighbors at 209 South Rampart. Later they moved to the 400 block near the Finks. In 1907 the Karnofskys took Little Louis under their wing, gave him a job selling coal from a wagon. Little Louis used coal delivery (hard coal, a nickel a bucket) as an excuse to hang out on the banquettes (sidewalks) of Storyville to hear his hero Joe “King” Oliver at Pete Lala’s saloon. Later he worked the Karnofsky “rag cart” collecting junk—“old rags, bones, bottles”—that son Morris drove. Morris gave Little Louis “one of them long tin horns they celebrate Christmas with” to help attract business on the junk wagon. He played it day after day, all day, even learning “to play popular tunes on it.”

Unlike Julia Fertel, the Karnofskys were blessed with what Saul Bellow called “cupboard love,” that readiness to share the daily victuals, along with their big hearts. “Mother Tillie” fed him before he’d go home to The Battlefield. Her Russian lullabies “instills in me singing from the heart,” which he will one day do in a way that many credit with transforming how we sing. It was the Karnofskys, whose tin whistle first inspired the desire to play, who loaned Louis the $2 down payment on the $5 cornet at Jake Fink’s Loan Office, and who nurtured the spirit of a kid from a broken family, a broken life, and transformed it into a cornucopia, a brass one of course.

For the rest of his life, Louis Armstrong wore a Jewish star and ate Jewish food with almost as much relish as his New Orleans favorite, red beans and rice. He forever extolled the warmth that nurtured his extraordinary celebration of life. “I shall always love them,” he wrote and explained, “I learned a lot from them about how to live—real life and determination…. I began to feel like I had a future and ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ after all.”

Morris Music House

Credit: Historic New Orleans Collection

Years later, two doors away from our perch above Rampart Street, competing with the streetcars clanking down South Rampart, loudspeakers on the sidewalk outside Morris Music blasted Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and Little Richard. My brother and I had no idea that Morris Music was owned by that Morris (Karnofsky), nor that Louis Armstrong stopped in, two doors from the Fertels, every time he came to New Orleans. R&B would provide the soundscape for my teenage years. I was as unaware that R&B and Rock had their roots in jazz, as that jazz had its roots in the drums on Congo Square.

The cityscape once called Back a’ Town was another expression of those roots. Amidst an outcry of preservationists, the building that housed Morris Music was torn down in 2004. Sam Fink’s Loan office, the Astoria and its Tick Tock Tavern are all gone. Black Storyville now lies beneath New Orleans City Hall and its surrounding buildings. The Rampart streetcar that Back a’ Town kids could ride all the way to Bayou St. John where I lived and to City Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, is gone. In the 1970s the Fertel buildings in the 200 block were razed to build eighteen stories of concrete and glass, an ugly office building that now needs tenants and refurbishment.

Though what little remains is protected by a National Register of Historic Places designation, buildings that for me still vibrate with all that once-lived-life continue to crumble. What became the Karnofsky Tailor Shop in the 400 block still stands, protected by the good wishes of preservations but little else. Efforts to create a historic jazz district on South Rampart are revived now and then and each time run into the brick wall of civic ignorance, indifference, and the absence of federal funds. It should be built in part as a monument to the symbiotic relationship between jazzmen and Jews.

Randy Fertel has contributed to NPR and Huffington Post, and has taught the literature of war and of exile at the New School for Social Research and at Tulane University. He is cofounder of the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth-Telling, co-sponsored by the Nation Institute and awarded every spring at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. His book, The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir, is forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi. For more information, go to http://www.gorillamanofneworleans.com
 
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