23 May 2013

Post 84: THE DEW DROP HALL - THE OLDEST SURVIVING VENUE


The Dew Drop Hall
Before a Concert - April 2015
For me the ambition to see The Dew Drop Hall started when I read that Marla Dixon's Shotgun Jazz Band played there on 7th November, 2014. That was what prompted me to find out more about this important jazz venue. It must have been a great thrill for Marla and her team to play in this very spot, among the spirits of so many of the Greats who performed there one hundred years earlier.

So let me tell you about this truly legendary old building that is one of the most important venues in the history of traditional jazz. It's the oldest surviving building in the world in which jazz was played in the earliest years of its development; and traditional jazz is again being played there today. I'm referring to the The Dew Drop Dance and Social Hall, which is situated at 430 Lamarque Street in Old Mandeville, Louisiana.
A great thrill for me was finally setting foot in The Dew Drop Hall in April 2015, when I went to New Orleans for the French Quarter Festival.

The story begins on 5 May 1885, when local African Americans created The Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Association - aiming to provide help to the sick and the needy.

The Association built the hall from cypress timber nine years later - and opened it in 1895. Its foundations were simple brick piers (a wise choice for flood protection at the time). The pier at the front on the left still bears the original inscription (now barely legible).
It commemorates the founding of the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Society No. 2 of Mandeville on May 5th, 1885, and the construction of the building in 1895, along with the names of the building committee.

Thwalls were covered with weather-boards at the front, and batten on the sides and rear; and they were originally painted green. The carpenters created the large wooden double-door at the front gable end, and a smaller door on the right at the back. There was an open beam ceiling. It was essentially a one-room structure, available for meetings, celebrations, vaudeville, dances and so on. It became the centre of social life.
The dais (mainly used as a bandstand) at the far end was typical of the time - with a wooden banister front opening in two places for the steps. The original dais was small (the part behind the banister on the left) but it was later extended to what we see in the picture above. The hall was built without electricity - or plumbing - or even glass: the 'windows' were simply openings measuring 6 feet high by 4 feet wide. They were normally covered by wooden shutters. These windows must have helped keep the band and audience cool on humid evenings.

Lamarque Street is to this day a quiet sparsely-populated, leafy, narrow road.

But where exactly is it? Answer: about 35 miles north of The French Quarter in New Orleans. It's where I've put the red dot at the centre top of this Google Map, very close to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain.


From the earliest days, musicians started to cross the lake by steamboat to play for Saturday night dances in the Hall.
There were three landing-places for the boats on the shoreline - from east to west the Camellia Landing (destroyed by fire in 1912), the St. Tammany Pier (destroyed by fire in 1926), and the Lewisburg Landing (at the Lewis Plantation). The bands brought plenty of fans with them: Mandeville was considered a fashionable resort. It had several bands playing in various venues, including pavilions, the hotels and local park.

Pretty well all the famous early jazz musicians played at The Dew Drop Hall. Buddy Petit, Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory, Tommy Ladnier, Louis Armstrong, Papa Celestin, Sam Morgan, Chester Zardis and George Lewis were among them. Local man Isidore Fritz - according to such witnesses as George Lewis one of the best jazz clarinet players of all time - was a regular there, leading The Independence Band, which was hugely popular. He had Tommy Ladnier on trumpet and Edmond Hall on clarinet. Isidore's two brothers also played. What a pity the band was never recorded (or even photographed, it seems). Fritz was unwilling to cross the Lake to play in New Orleans. Why? Because he was doing very nicely in Mandeville and also had a family building business there. Fritz died in 1940.

Lillian, the wife of banjo-player Buddy Manaday (of Buddy Petit's Band) later recalled that white people as well as black attended and they all got along well together. Petit's Band, by the way, played at many venues in the  region - including at Bogalusa, Pensacola and Moss Point.

By the 1920s and 1930s, the Hall was a major centre for jazz concerts. Wooden benches provided limited and basic seating for about 100 people.

But - how sad! - as fashions and customs changed, the young were no longer interested, the Dew Drop Association ceased to exist and the Hall was virtually abandoned in the mid-1940s. This state of affairs continued for about half a century.

What amazing luck that nobody knocked the building down! All the other similar dance halls of its era were demolished or changed hands and acquired new uses or (like The Sons and Daughters Hall - also in Mandeville, on Lake Shore Drive) burned down.

The overgrown plot was bought at auction in 1993 by Jacqueline 'Jinx' Vidrine. She might have been expected to demolish the building and erect a modern house there; but she was a jazz enthusiast and knew what she was doing. She cleared the plot and investigated the building. She even found an old upright piano inside.
Jacqueline dreamed of re-opening the Hall as a jazz venue or museum. After some years, she managed to get the local Parks Service interested. By 1999, a first concert was possible! Mayor Eddie Price and the Mandeville Council recognised the importance of the property and bought the plot of land from Jacqueline. She herself donated the Hall to the community. Funds had been raised, including donations from the English. 

There had been a plan to transport the Hall to a site in Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans. But the Mayor of Mandeville was easily convinced that the Hall should stay where it was. In 2001 the Hall was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 'official' re-opening was on 5 May, 2002. In 2006, two members of the Mandeville City Council led a campaign to create The Friends of Dew Drop - a non-profit organisation. There had to be a little refurbishment (at a cost of about 25,000 dollars), but they ensured it was entirely sympathetic with the original design of the Hall. Here is how the Hall looked in Lamarque Street when I visited. Note the (inevitably moss-covered) tree in front of it.
Concerts featuring the best of local musicians are now put on fortnightly in the Spring and Autumn. There are string bands, jug bands and various similar groups as well as traditional jazz bands.

The band performing when I was there included the great Gregg Stafford and Michael White and the outstanding young bass player Tyler Thomson.
There was even a brolly parade.
Just inside the entrance door
I'm thrilled to say that 'Jinx' is still very much involved in helping with activities at the Hall. She was there and I had the honour of being introduced to her.
Jacqueline Vidrine -
the driving force in preserving the Hall
If you go to The Dew Drop, you have a choice between standing, or arriving early to secure one of those wooden seats, or (bringing your picnic chairs) listening from outside to the wonderful music drifting through the large open windows (three on each side). Good Louisiana food is usually on sale outside the Hall, as it was in the earliest days.

The Shotgun Jazz Band
performing there in 2014
By the way, you may care to watch a video I made about this concert and The Dew Drop:
CLICK HERE.
Three days after the Gregg Stafford concert, the great Tuba Skinny played at The Dew Drop Hall. A video showing one of the tunes they played can be seen by clicking on here.
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Just in case you may be interested to know which tunes were played when I was there for the Gregg Stafford concert in April 2015, the programme was:
SET ONE
Hindustan
We Shall Walk Through The Streets of the City
Bye Bye Blackbird
Redwing
Fidgety Feet
Careless Love
Golden Leaf Strut (final strain of 'Milneberg Joys')
SET TWO
Panama Rag
When You're Smiling
Burgundy Street Blues (Michael White feature)
You Always Hurt The One You Love
Blueberry Hill
SET THREE
Baby Won't You Please Come Home
Creole Love Call
Just a Little While To Stay Here
What a Friend We Have in Jesus
When The Saints Go Marching In

Long may The Dew Drop continue!