Jerome “PopAgee” Johnson made a name for himself locally as the dreamer who managed to buy a prized but dilapidated city landmark, a 19th-century building on South Rampart once a hangout for pioneering jazz musicians like Buddy Bolden.
But after a decade of ownership through the nonprofit New Orleans Music Hall of Fame, the building known as the Eagle Saloon still sits boarded up and tagged with graffiti, surrounded by parking lots. Johnson, a onetime fried-chicken restaurant owner, died in July 2014, according to a spokesman with the reorganized nonprofit group.
There was no obituary and Johnson left behind no cash in the bank for his Music Hall of Fame after racking up debts. His passionate vision of a jazz club and wax museum remained entirely unrealized.
Now, a new group is starting over in hopes of restoring this New Orleans treasure — a building on the National Register of Historic Places — at last. The Eagle Saloon Initiative and new board members for the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame this week began rallying community and business leaders in a fundraising drive for a $500,000 stabilization of the building to first secure its preservation.
Ultimately, the idea is to open the three-story building to the public again with a first-floor performance venue, possibly with a WWOZ studio. The second and third floors would be devoted to jazz history and education, including programs for children. Organizers say the full details are still being worked out, as they look for people around the city to partner with.
The Eagle Saloon, built in 1851, is one of four buildings in the 400 block of South Rampart that are remnants of “back of town,” a bustling African-American commercial corridor: the 1889 Little Gem Saloon which has been renovated and reopened at the corner of Rampart and Poydras; the shuttered Iroquois Theater, once a vaudeville theater; and the former tailor shop of the Karnofsky family, who were close with a young Louis Armstrong and later converted the space to the city’s first jazz record shop.
The back of town corridor “provided a place for people to be innovative, and that environment and that vibe is what created sounds and let people express themselves and ultimately led to what people call jazz music,” said Mike Bertel, who is leading the volunteer-based Eagle Saloon Initiative.
The Meraux Charitable Foundation, which originally sold the Eagle Saloon to Johnson and owns the Iroquois and Karnofsky buildings, said it has committed $250,000 to match the first $250,000 in donations to the campaign for the building stabilization. Johnson named the Meraux Foundation’s Floyd and Rita Gue to the board of the New Orleans Music Hall of Fame before his death, a spokesman said.
New Orleans lawyer Mike Sherman, who has since joined the nonprofit group’s board, said a preservation architect, a structural engineer and a design-build contractor have already begun work on the building. Sherman said the structure needs help but is not in imminent danger of collapse.
Organizers have collected an advisory panel of music legends and leaders as “cultural ambassadors” to get the word out and guide historical research: George Porter Jr. of The Meters, WWOZ’s Dwayne Brashears, producer Eric Krasno, Buddy Bolden’s great-grandson Big Sam, Ian and Ivan Neville of Dumpstaphunk, P.J. Morton of Maroon 5 and “Deacon” John Moore.
Bertel said he hopes the development will be a grassroots effort that brings together locals’ memories and histories. “It can really be something the entire community can be proud of and play an important role in helping,” he said.
The Eagle Saloon once shared a wall with the Odd Fellows and Masonic Hall on Perdido Street, a dance hall where jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden and dozens of other musicians were known to play. The Eagle Saloon became a green-room of sorts for musicians to gather before and after gigs at Odd Fellows, which was later torn down.
A young Louis Armstrong lived a couple of blocks away and was often within listening distance of the music. He worked jobs for the Karnofsky family, owners of the tailor shop, who helped him acquire his first trumpet.
At one point, the National Park Service wanted to buy the historic South Rampart buildings to include in a national jazz park. Over the years, preservationists and musicians grew concerned about their crumbling condition.
Meraux Foundation spokesman Todd Ragusa said the foundation has spent about $700,000 to stabilize and preserve the Iroquois and the Karnofsky buildings. The next step is for a developer to take over the buildings, although a specific plan hasn’t been settled, he said. “Their vision is, whatever happens to these buildings, it will pay tribute to the history that occurred there,” Ragusa said.
“Deacon” John, the 74-year-old president of the local musicians’ union, said the restoration of the Eagle Saloon and the full South Rampart Street jazz corridor has the potential to create more gigs for local musicians and teach people about jazz.
“My fondest dream is that we will bring attention to the importance of New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz throughout the world,” Moore said.