4 June 2013

Post 96: LUTHJENS - A PIECE OF JAZZ HISTORY

I have long been vaguely aware that there once was a 'Luthjens Dance Hall' somewhere in New Orleans and that our mid-Twentieth Century traditional jazz heroes played there. But it was not until The Shotgun Jazz Band announced that they had recorded their 2014 CD entitled 'Yearning' at Luthjens that my curiosity was further aroused. (The CD, by the way, presents the music with a wonderfully clear 'empty hall' acoustic.)

I have set out to discover what I can about Luthjens and I learned, for example, that there had been an earlier Luthjens Dance Hall at a different location.

But I have not been able to discover any more than I am about to tell you; so if any reader can put me right on a point or two or send me more information, I would be glad to hear from you.

Here's the story.

There has always been a great fondness for dancing in New Orleans, so it is not surprising that many dance halls sprang up. Obviously they gave plentiful employment to musicians.

Having a good night out was not too expensive. The halls themselves would be sparsely furnished. There were bare wooden tables and simple chairs or benches.

Luthjens Dance Hall was situated in the 1200 block of Franklin Avenue (I think at the junction with Marais Street).
The original Luthjens Dance Hall
The location, among quiet tree-lined streets, was pleasant. It was about a mile north-east of the French Quarter.

How did the Hall get its name? It was established by Mrs. Clementine Luthjens, who was born in New Orleans in 1880. (Probably there was some German ancestry - at least on her husband's side: there had been plenty of migration of German people with the surname 'Luthjens' (or, more commonly 'Lutjens' without the 'h', I guess becoming 'Luthjens' in the USA).

She bought the humble, unpretentious building (previously a seafood restaurant) and set it up as a 'beer parlor and dance hall'. Steadfastly, she employed only the authentic old-style black jazzmen. She wanted the establishment to be family-friendly: she liked couples to bring the children. (However, it later acquired the nickname 'The Old Folks' Home': its patrons tended to be elderly white people.)

Informal dress was encouraged. Prices charged for drinks were reasonable. So it was the most economical venue in New Orleans if you wanted to hear the 'good 'ol'-fashioned' jazz; and tourists often sought it out. Dancing took place on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. On the other nights of the week, Luthjens was merely a kind of bistro, complete with a juke-box.

Many of the legendary musicians of the mid-Twentieth Century played there. Emile Barnes is believed to have led the first band. Later came such players as Big Eye Louis Nelson, George Lewis, Joseph Bourgeau, Alton Purnell, 'Slow Drag' Pavageau, Lawrence Marrero, Harrison Brazlee, Louis Gallaud, George Henderson, Alcide Landry, Ernest Rogers, Benny Turner, Peter Bocage, and Charlie Love; and in the final years the virtual 'house band' was that of De De and Billie Pierce.

The patrons liked the more stately forms of dancing and disapproved of 'jitterbugging'! The two-step, the one-step and the waltz were mostly in demand.
As you can see, it was quite a small building. So I imagine that - if you had a band and about 60 dancers in there - it would have felt crowded. The band was 'protected' from collisions with dancers by being placed at one end of the hall on a small bandstand two feet off the floor, (as at The Dew Drop Hall).

Sadly, the Luthjens Dance Hall in that photo burnt down in the early hours of Saturday, 30 January, 1960, with the loss of the lives of both Mrs. Clementine Luthjens (then aged 81) and her son Jules (aged 50), who were living in the back apartment of the premises. By that time, Mrs. Luthjens was a wheelchair-bound invalid. I wonder whether her son died while trying to save her: we shall never know. Perhaps it is not surprising that a fire - even in a one-storey building - could have had such dreadful consequences: it seems to have been a flimsy wooden structure, covered by tar-paper. Perhaps a smouldering cigarette end, left by a customer, caused the fire. Apparently smoking 'while dancing' was forbidden, but I suppose there was plenty of smoking by customers relaxing at tables.

Clementine's nephew Jerome Luthjens in 1961 opened a new Luthjens at 2300 Chartres (at the corner of Chartres and Marigny Streets - less than a mile from the original building). This was a more substantial brick-built hall, again of one storey, though with a flat roof. It was about half a mile nearer to the Mississippi, or - to put it another way - a mere 250 metres east of the present-day Frenchmen Street jazz bars, such as The Spotted Cat, The Three Muses, and The Maison. It too was in a pleasant, leafy area, among pretty houses - many of them of the 'Shotgun' type.

Jerome Luthjens ran this dance hall until his death in 1975. It continued in business under the management of his widow Louise until 1981, when it finally closed. With the help of Google Maps, I have located the building as it appears today:
In more recent times, bands have not been giving public performances at Luthjens. The reasons may be partly that the area has been re-classified as a 'residential zone' and partly that Luthjens no longer has a liquor licence and mainly that about one-third of the building is now occupied by a recording studio. Here's how it looks inside:
This was where, in 2014, The Shotgun Jazz Band made their CD. They chose not to use the main studio's facilities or equipment. They just set up on the stage as if at a regular gig and used a combination of room microphones and and close microphones.

The resulting product was excellent and nostalgic. Amy Johnson filmed them in the Hall while they were recording one of the tunes. You can watch the video by clicking here. Although there is no audience present, it gives us an idea of what it was like to play there, especially as this band has so much in common with the De De Pierce Band of half a century earlier.

By the way, the name is sometimes given as Luthjen's Dance Hall; but this is the result of a punctuation error. Mrs. Luthjens' name definitely ended with the 's'. It should be written Luthjens' Dance Hall or Luthjens Dance Hall.

[with thanks to several readers, including John Dixon, who have already sent me helpful information]