The Little Gem Saloon was a driving force in New Orleans’ music scene in 1906, the era when jazz was born. That history has been honored in its renovation as an upscale music club and restaurant at 445 South Rampart Street. It’s the locale of the original Frank Douroux’s Little Gem Saloon, which boasted regulars such as Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton.
The long-neglected building got a lavish period revival makeover. But it isn’t all about the new look. Staying true to its history, the venue will focus on music. “The whole driving concept behind the booking at Little Gem is that it has to be soulful,” says entertainment director Marc Stone. “It has to have a tangible connection to the roots that created all the great American music and the jazz pantheon.”
The intimate Ramp Room offers a classic jazz-supper-club stage cloaked in burgundy velvet. Downstairs, the Saloon stage is awash in period detail, such as clamshell lighting. Regular performers include trumpet maestro Charlie Miller, who played in Dr. John’s earliest bands. The night we heard Miller sit in with Stone, he moved from trumpet to piano back to trumpet all in the course of one song. New Orleans jazz master Delfeayo Marsalis also holds court at a weekly gig, as does Stone with a masterful rhythm-and-blues guitar set.
While you hear them play, order some food from executive chef Robert Bruce, formerly of Commander’s Palace. The main restaurant is downstairs, but high-end cuisine is available in both rooms. Go for the local dishes, ranging from fresh Gulf fish amandine with Creole meunière sauce to shrimp, tasso and creamy grits.
The best time to visit the jazz hot spot is festival season. It all kicks off today with New Orleans’ own Benny Turner in a tribute to his brother, the late Freddie King. Turner’s band will include Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen; Walter “Wolfman” Washington; Kirk Joseph; Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr.; Chuck Campbell of Sacred Steel; and Stone. Then check out Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Quartet on April 27, or see Richard Knox & The Little Gem Jazz Men during brunch in the Saloon or Derrick Freeman: Smoker’s World Deluxe Edition in the Ramp Room on April 28. This new Little Gem is just ramping up.