by Red Cotton
This Labor Day weekend marks a very special anniversary in the jazz culture community. Sweet Lorraines turns a mature lady of 10 years this weekend. And the club is having a two-day festival culminating with a second line parade on Sunday to mark the celebration.
If you havent been to Sweet Lorraines Jazz Club at 1931 Saint Claude Street, you are really missing a slice of real New Orleans. Its a club in the truest sense of the word. Well-dressed regulars fall off in there, backslap their boys, and order a round for all their friends and the two new lady visitors sitting at the table near the entrance. Artists, political figures and city-wide movers and shakers are on the scene each evening talking shop, sipping top shelf cocktails, listening to live jazz music, and eating some of the best gumbo, stuffed peppers, and macaroni and cheese in the city. Once inside, you get the immediate sense youve stepped into a close-knit community of people that have known each other the majority of their lives - but theres always room for visiting guests and you will be made to feel at home. Its the consummate New Orleans experience.
And then theres club owner Paul Sylvester, always sitting at a side table in the middle of the club or attending to the needs of his extended family and visiting guests with his trademark laid back nature and easy-going smile. The once reluctant club owner who sought to avoid the family business, Paul started out after college in the 70s working as a professional photographer with his own studio. But when his mother, club owner Lorraine Sylvester, took ill with cancer back in 1983, Paul stepped in to help the family business. Six months later, the family matriarch who ran some of the citys most popular nightclubs passed away and Paul was from that point forward permanently ensconced in the family business.
For three generations going back as far as the 1940s, Paul Sylvesters family has owned an assortment of restaurants and clubs around the 7th ward including Melvina's & Lorraine's Garden of Joy, Sylvester's Seafood & Restaurant, The Circle Bar, Lorraine's Lounge, and Lorraines Dugout which is the current location of Sweet Lorraines. Paul and his sister were basically raised in his parents business as each club location always had a house attached where the family lived. He grew up listening to the jazz greats on his mothers jukebox: Ramsey Lewis, Annette Coleman, Miles Davis, Shirley Horn, Coltrane, Ray Charles. He developed a deep appreciation for these artists and, once settled in as heir apparent to the familys nightclub legacy, began to manifest a vision for a different style of club that would honor the needs of jazz musicians.
I used to worry that Black musicians felt slighted by not having a proper stage to play on, Paul explained. I wanted to give musicians a place to showcase their talents. Sweet Lorraines is designed with musicians in mind. The stage has a piano and drum set, full PA system. This helps make them feel better about themselves and they give a good show cause theyre having fun.
Sweet Lorraines is Pauls love letter to jazz culture and to his mother Lorraine, whose portrait hangs above the bar. Hes worked diligently to honor her legacy of creating social environments that are at once both homey and upscale, a place where you can be served a delicious meal, listen to live jazz and visit with your friends. Since the clubs rechristening and grand opening in September of 1999, Sweet Lorraines has come to be known as New Orleans quintessential jazz nightclub, hosting musicians from the local, national, and international jazz scene. Its also the clubhouse of one of the most notable social aid and pleasure clubs in the city, 'The Black Men of Labor'.
Founded in 1993, the Black Men of Labor is a social club that pays tribute to jazz great Danny Barker and his dedication to the maintenance of the old traditions of New Orleans music and second line culture. The club parades every Labor Day Sunday wearing traditional African-themed costumes and dancing to traditional hymns and jazz tunes. There are no contemporary R&B cuts being played, no ropes separating crowd from the club, and no musicians wearing t-shirts and jeans - they're all dressed in traditional black and white attire. In the second line community, the BMOL parade is considered 'old school'.
I believe in what theyre doing, says Paul. They put the traditional second line procession on the street. Many of the groups today arent following the traditions. When asked to elaborate, he explains: The music dictates how second lines go. We stay with traditional hymns. I can remember when second lines, if they had a funeral procession, second liners would be on the sidewalk. They had that much respect. They would never be in the street with first line like they are today. If you ever look at (the movie) Imitation of Life, thats what a real jazz funeral looks like.
Dancing on cars, jumping on stuff, dancing in the middle of the parade . We didnt do that, he says shaking his head. Hopefully, we can make some little change people can see this is what it used to be. Maybe we can go back to it. If you dont know where you came from, how do you know where youre going?
Although Paul is a BMOL member and one of their strongest supporters, you wont see him parading with the club except for that one time back in 07. That was the first time. Theyd been bugging me for years. Im not going to this year, he smiled.
Paul will, however, be presiding over the clubs 10th year anniversary festival complete with live music, arts and crafts, food vendors and culminating with the 16th Annual Black Men of Labor Second Line Parade which begins Sunday at 3pm sharp in front of the club.
1931 Saint Claude Street (504) 948-9864