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Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club celebrates 60 plus years of business by the Sylvester Family

By Vincent Sylvain, The New Orleans Agenda

NEW ORLEANS (9/2/09) During Labor Day weekend Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club is hosting Sweet Lorraine’s Community Jazz Festival; a free day-long music extravaganza on Saturday and Sunday, September 5 & 6, 2009, culminating with the tradition Black Men of Labor Second Line Parade which begins at 3:00 pm on that Sunday.   The Community Festival celebrates more than sixty years of combined service in the entertainment business by Paul Sylvestre, Jr. and his late parents, Paul & Lorraine Sylvestre. 

The weekend begins with Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club 10th Anniversary highlighted by a concert and patron party featuring Jazz/R&B legend Norman Connors and New Orleans’ jazz vocalist Stephanie Jordan on Friday and Saturday, September 4 & 5, 2009 for two shows each night at 9:00 pm and 11:00 pm. 

Recognizing New Orleans contribution to America's only original art form, jazz; the 100th United States Congress declared jazz a "rare and valuable national American treasure to which we should devote our attention, support and resources to make certain it is preserved, understood, and promulgated."  While Paul Sylvester, Jr. has lived that mantra for the past ten years, the full story of Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club doesn’t begin there.

A far back as 1943, Paul’s maternal grandmother Clara McCarthy operated Melvina & Lorraine’s Garden of Joy from 1943 to 1966.   Her husband, Mitchell McCarthy was a trucker for Mahoney Trucking Company & Brown Velvet’s Ice Cream, the steady income allow them to opportunity to invest in their own business.  The first location was at 2215 Ongaza Street.  A victim of urban renewal, the business moved to 1614 New Orleans Street (now Hunter’s Field) in 1948, operating from that location until 1966.  Finally, again being forced to move by the government because of the pending construction of federal interstate (I-10) system through the heart of the historic Faubourg Tremé neighborhood, not unlike many other residents who lived in this proud part of the city which had served as America’s oldest neighborhood for "free-people-of-color," Clara decided to give up and not relocate her business a third time. 

Fortunately, at an early age Clara’s entrepreneur spirit had inspired one of her three daughters, Lorraine.  Sonja McCarthy, one of two sisters of Lorraine reflects on their earlier days, "my sister developed a sense of independence as child, while my sister Melvina (McCarthy-Williams) and I were playing Lorraine was always thinking of ways to earn money.  It started with the "penny parties" as a child and continued through her adult life."  She continues, "Hand scraping "snow balls" at 5 cents each and 1 penny extra for condense milk with a cherry on top, the childhood hustle began to grow.  My daddy had to build a front counter for serving and a side counters to hold the one-hundred pound blocks of ice.  There were times when my sister would scrap as much as two-hundred pounds of ice a day."

That feeling of doing for self apparently would have an influence her of selection of a mate.  Her husband Paul whom she married in 1950 was also a businessman.  From 1949 1958 they operated Sylvester’s Sea Food Bar & Restaurant; initially located at 406 Flake Avenue, in 1952 they move the business to 2131 Iberville Street and finally in 1955 moving  to 2318 Saint Anthony Street.   Fully understanding the advantage of business diversity, they also operated three cars from Jet Taxi; one of the City’s earliest Black-owned cab companies during that era.  During that time span, Paul also ran the Circle Bar at 2220 London Avenue (now known as A.P. Tureaud). 

In 1958 Paul and Lorraine separated, however they remained extremely close friends and would continue to help each other out with their business ventures.  Still, Lorraine would branch out independently for the first time since the days of the "snow ball" stand.

Her first solo venture in the entertainment business would be Lorraine’s Lounge  which she operated at 1621 Saint Bernard Avenue from 1958 1965, overlapping during a time in which her mother operated Melvina & Lorraine’s Garden of Joy.  Probably because of the two properties rears being adjacent to each other, the locals affectionately referred to Lorraine’s Lounge as the Two Way In.

Another interesting note is that on the front of the building were the words written in large 12-inch letters, "FOR COLORED ONLY."  These words replaced the letters of a previous owner of the building which read, "WHITE ONLY."  This was symbolic of the changing times our country was engaged during this period of segregation and the Civil Rights struggle.

Urban renewal and the construction of I-10 would have an effect on Lorraine’s Lounge as well, forcing her to find a new location for her business. In 1965 she temporally moved to 2340 Pauger for two years.  From 1968 1975, she operated Lorraine’s Lounge from a location at 1715 North Claiborne Avenue.

In 1975, Lorraine moved to 1931 Saint Claude Street, operating under the name of Lorraine’s Dugout Lounge.  The Club sponsored a team which played in the Crescent City Baseball League and served as a popular watering hole for patrons of the League.  It was also a gathering spot for the traditional Mardi Gras Indians and their followers.

However, the name Lorraine’s Dugout Lounge was inspired not by the baseball team she sponsored, but rather by a visit to Las Vegas she experienced with her two sisters.  "We dined in a place called the Dugout Restaurant, she loved the place and was inspired by the service as well as a few players they had met, she vowed that the next business she opened would be named after the Vegas restaurant," adds Sonya. 

She returned to New Orleans and honored that commitment, operating Lorraine’s Dugout Lounge until the time of her death on June 4, 1984. Paul would take over the operation of the business.  With the passing of Melvina McCarthy Williams on February, 3, 1985 and Clara McCarthy on July, 23, 1986, it was a difficult time for the family.

A little more than a decade following his mother’s death, Paul would renovate and re-open the place as a jazz club on Labor Day weekend, September 5, 1999, honoring his mother with a new name of what was formerly Lorraine’s Dugout Lounge. The song "Sweet Lorraine" by Nat King Cole was a favorite of both his mother and father and was on the record box of every established that the two had owned, both individually as well as after their separation. "My father had passed away on March 27, 1996 while tending to his garden.  Knowing the importance of that tune to the two of them, and with Lorraine being her first name, "Sweet Lorraine’s" was a fitting tribute," says Paul.

And fitting it is, Sweet Lorraine's Jazz Club has been featured in Essence and Travel & Leisure Magazine, while USA Today rates the place as one of the Top 10 Jazz Clubs in the country.  Located only blocks from the world famous French Quarter, Sweet Lorraine’s endures as "Stewarts in the Tradition" of music and community with a mission of forwarding Jazz music’s traditional high standards, while providing a venue and vehicle for growth and exhibition.

In an interview with music writer Geraldine Wyckoff, "Sylvester credits his mother's reputation as a generous woman with great business sense for the success of the St. Claude Street nightspot in both of its incarnations. Things might not have gone as well, he says, if the club was somewhere else with a different name. Sweet Lorraine's has endured despite hardships including a 2000 fire in the next building that closed the club for 18 months. Then came the roof damage inflicted by Katrina and the subsequent flooding when the levees broke. Through it all, patrons remained loyal to her memory and name, Lorraine, that graced almost all of the welcoming clubs where she greeted people with respect and often freshly boiled seafood . . ."

The Club is based in the Tremé community which lays claim to its rightful place in the beginnings of Jazz; this thin-stripped area became famous as hallowed grounds of greats such as Sidney Bechet, "Jelly Role" Morton, and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong.  That tradition is being carried out by a new generation of Tremé jazz musicians such as Kermit Ruffins, James Andrews, Glenn David Andrews and Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, and others.  

The Club has hosted the likes of Roy Ayers, Pieces of a Dream, Deacon Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Angela Bofill, Garto Barbierl, Wes Anderson, Lonnie Liston Smith, the Marsalis Family, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, and a host of others.  Paul adds that "By continuing to showcase Live Jazz, Sweet Lorraine’s pay tribute to the only true indigenous American art form. This classic American music has its genetic marker undeniably anchored in this historic community." 

Like the rest of New Orleans, Sweet Lorraine’s operation was halted in August of 2005 during hurricane Katrina with damage to the roof and flooding within the building.  While the official reopening was April of 2006, locals gathered at the place as early as November of 2005 and had a big 2006 New Year’s Celebration.  It was the only African American-owned establishment open in the City during that time. "It served as place where we could come and gather our thoughts about New Orleans future and our role in the recovery, if any," adds Paul.  "It brought us together, now almost as an unofficial "Black think-thank"."

While always a favorite among New Orleans’ political leaders, the Club seems to have gained added importance as the place to talk politics and recovery by both local and national organizations.  National Leaders such as Reverend Jesse Jackson, Susan Taylor, and Marc Morial have all held an event at Sweet Lorraine’s which were centered on the issue of the "Right to Return."  And each weekend there remains a table reserved for Mayor C. Ray Nagin. 

 "Since opening on September 5, 1999, the club has given other jazz venues in the city a run for their money.  On opening night alone, the musical lineup featured some of the biggest names on both the local, national, and international jazz scene, including Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton and vocalists Kim Prevost, Phillip Manuel and Germain Bazzle . . . ," wrote The Louisiana Weekly following the club’s opening day 10 years ago.   Serving as a host to New Orleans locals and tourist of all ages, many musicians have used Sweet Lorraine’s to sharpen their craft, as well as, launch careers.  "This stylish club is an exciting addition to the jazz scene.  Sweet Lorraine's has a brassy, art-deco feel to it that sets it apart from every place in town.  The sound and vibe are just perfect for jazz . . ." proclaims WHERE Y’AT Magazine.

The night concerts are certain to be a collection of New Orleans’ Who’s Who combined with everyday jazz lovers.   Having created virtually single-handedly the "Quiet Storm" genre with such classic soulful-yet-jazzy hits as "You Are My Starship," "Betcha By Golly Wow," "Valentine Love,"  "Love from the Sun" and more, Norman Connors has front some great recordings with vocal stars such as Dee Dee Bridgewater, Phyllis Hyman, Angela Bofill, Jean Carne, Michael Henderson and others.  His latest CD, Star Power is a beautiful new Norman Connors album in the vein of his greatest masterpieces, with an all-star lineup of guest vocalists and musicians (featuring Howard Hewett, Bobby Lyle, Ray Parker, Jr, Peabo Bryson, Michael Henderson, and Antoinette) delivering stunning originals and well-known classics including a brand new version of "You Are My Starship."   

Connors is best known for his major R & B records; however his roots are steeped in jazz music. Raised in the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Bill Cosby, Connors was exposed to jazz extensively.  As a child drummer, he once sat in for Elvin Jones at a John Coltrane performance he attended while in middle school.  Connors went on to study music at Philly's Temple University and the Juilliard School of Music in New York.  An accomplished drummer, composer, arranger, producer, and headliner, Norman Connors has collaborated with other greats such as Herbie Hancock, Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders, Carlos Garnett, Stanley Clarke and Gary Bartz.

Stephanie Jordan will join Norman Connors onstage as she performs some of the female lead from his long list of love classics.  Jordan’s vocal style has been described as having "impeccable diction, dead-center pitch, and a personal point of view . . . while drawing independent conclusions about tempo, phrasing, and dynamics." 

The Stephanie Jordan Big Band will open the night as she continues her signature trademark of singing jazz standards. In addition to arranger Mike Esneault on piano, Stephanie will feature members of her musical family, including Rachel Jordan on violin, Marlon Jordan on trumpet, and Kent Jordan on flute.   

Jordan, whom critics have placed in the company of Nancy Wilson and Diana Krall, began to receive national recognition following her stunning performance during the nationally televised Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert at New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center. JazzTimes Magazine states "Stephanie Jordan, a standout here, was the real discovery of the evening. Her haunting rendition of (Here's to Life) this bittersweet ode associated with Shirley Horn was delivered with uncanny poise and a depth of understated soul that mesmerized the crowd and registered to the back rows. Singing with clarity of diction that recalled Nat "King" Cole . . ."

The free outdoor extravaganza, complete with arts, craft, and food vendors will be held in the immediate vicinity of the club (bordered by Saint Claude Avenue, Touro St, and Pauger St.). The Community Jazz Festival showcases and honors New Orleans music and musicians. Those stalwarts who are on the front lines in keeping the spirit of the music, first and foremost, in the hearts and minds of the world’s Jazz lovers! The line-up includes, recognizably, Kermit Ruffins, Charmaine Neville, Michael Ward, Germain Bazzle, Bob French, and the Treme Brass Band, just to name a few.

The weekend concludes on Sunday, September 6, 2009 with the 16th Annual Black Men of Labor Second Line Parade (BMOL) which begins at 3:00 p.m. out of the doors of Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz club.   This year’s BMOL "Parade in the Shade" with its ‘colorful and syncopated movements’ celebrates the contribution and gifts of legendary jazz musician Danny Barker; who would have turned 100 this year; Edwin Hampton, the legendary teacher and band director who founded the 'Marching 100' at St. Augustine High School; and Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. 

Fred Johnson, one of the founders of the BMOL said the parade pays tribute and respect to all hard working men and women who gave the Crescent City and the world the sweet sounds of Jazz in all its variations.

Founded in 1993 in tribute to the passing of Jazz great Mr. Danny Barker, "BMOL is committed to honoring and affirming the contributions of black men in the work place and beyond.  BMOL is helping to keep traditional Jazz music alive on the street and in the clubs.  By training young musicians, we are making sure Jazz remains at the forefront of our culture to be shared by people across the country," said Johnson.

Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club remains a mainstay of BMOL’s goal to educate, preserve and perpetuate the rich African and African American culture as it exited the "Door of No Return" to its arrival at Congo Square in New Orleans and have partnered with several local cultural organizations to make this extravaganza not only an event of entertainment but also one which includes giving back to the community that sustains them. Thus net proceeds from this event will be donated to the St Augustine High School Jazz Music Program. 

Toni Thorpe, Paul’s sister adds, "The spirit of mom and dad will be the first step out of the doors of club with the Black Men of Labor and we look forward to the community joining them."

Note: Sonja McCarthy and Toni Thorpe contributed to writing this article.  Permission to re-print is granted.



Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Stephanie Jordan
  • Press Release Date: September 4, 5 & 6, 2009
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