By Katherine Hart, Mid-City Messenger
The stage is almost set for a jazz club on the corner of North Broad and Toulouse in Mid-City.
The building’s owner, Sam Smith Jr., built that stage himself. Piece by piece, he has been steadily pursuing his dream of operating a jazz club in New Orleans.
He wants to expand the city’s live music offerings outside of the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street. “I want my building to be a place for musicians, young and old, to play,” said Smith, a New Orleans native. “I want to give that to the city.”
For now, however, construction has stopped on the club that he plans to call Dodie’s for his sister Doratha “Dodie” Smith Simmons, a civil rights pioneer who also worked as a road manager for the Preservation Hall band and as a founding staff member with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Smith was close to finishing construction on Dodie’s Jazz Club when he went to get a permit for the electrical and other work. At that point, he learned that zoning laws require conditional use approval to operate a bar, with live entertainment as a secondary use, in the Historic Urban Mixed-Use District.
The project got a bureaucratic boost last week when the conditional use received a unanimous round of “yeas” from the City Planning Commission — followed by discussion of who would buy the first round of drinks when the commissioners visit the club.
Nonetheless, Smith seems worn down by his City Hall experience. Developers often hire attorneys or other professionals to guide them through the city’s approval labyrinth. Smith has stumbled through on his own; city records show applications resubmitted multiple times as staff members asked for more information.
“I don’t know anybody. I’m not connected to anyone,” Smith said. “I’m kind of old school, and stubborn that way.”
Banks won’t give out loans for a bar, he said, so he spent his 401(k) on achieving his dream. A retired union electrician, he has saved on construction costs by doing the carpentry and electrical work himself.
“Everything I’ve accumulated, I’ve dumped into this building here,” he said, learning against what would be the bar at Dodie’s. “I’ve been at it for the past 10 years.”
Smith purchased the property at 601-15 N. Broad St.— which takes up the entire block on the lakeside of Broad between Lafitte and Toulouse streets — in 2001 with his son. They bought it for the large space on the Toulouse side that held a carburetor shop, where his son then ran an auto body shop.
That’s the area that is now being transformed into a music club. It has a spot for a sound booth, a stage, a dance floor, 14 tables, a bar and an adjoining patio. But the ceiling is open where the wiring has yet to be installed as construction was halted for want of a permit.
The Lafitte Street corner, over on the other side of the building’s first floor, once held a bar called the Step Down Lounge. And Smith plans to reopen it and keep the name “Step Down Lounge” — in part because the lounge’s former patrons keep asking him when it’s going to reopen.
The liquor bottles and a row of stools are already lined at the bar. Except for the permits, the Step Down Lounge is ready for customers.
Between the music club and the bar is a full kitchen that Smith plans to lease to a restaurateur, who will serve food to the bar and music club patrons. And there’s a space with a window opening to the sidewalk for a sno-ball stand called the Arctic Zone.
Smith had proposed 24 parking spaces in a lot behind the building, but zoning regulations cap the off-street parking at 12, city planner Stephen Kroll told him at the CPC meeting.
There’s currently no direct access to the Lafitte Greenway — it’s across the street, but you can’t see the linear park from building — but that could change. Kroll said the city has long-term plans to expand and improve the Greenway, plans that involve moving the municipal sign-making shop that’s now between Smith’s property and the Greenway.
The section of North Broad at the Lafitte Greenway is slowly becoming an entertainment center, starting with the Broad Theater and Broadside caddy corner from Smith’s property. “This is a great location,” Smith noted, “other than the water.”
Like the Broad, Smith’s building is low (that’s why the bar was called the Step Down) and prone to flooding. So he ripped out sheetrock and replaced it with cement board topped by ceramic tile wainscoting. It doesn’t stop the flooding, but it makes cleanup a breeze.
While caught up in the details of opening a club, Smith hasn’t lost sight of the basics. “Chairs, a table and a glass of alcohol — that’s all people want,” he said. “They want to get buzzed and listen to music.”
Smith, who grew up in the Upper 9th Ward, always loved jazz, he said. He played clarinet in high school — and his family includes two professional trumpet players: his brother Will Smith and brother-in-law John “Kid” Simmons.
He has tapped his brother to be the musical director for the club. The trumpeter is a band leader with Preservation Hall and plays with brass bands including the Storyville Stompers and Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. Simmons, too, plays in the traditional style and has worked with Preservation Hall and brass bands, as well leading his own group.
Dodie Smith Simmons, who met her husband through music, helped create the Economy Hall tent at Jazz Fest. It’s because of her that the Fest’s traditional jazz tent has a designated dance floor and an unparalleled sense of community, especially among the devoted regulars.
Although he is steeped in traditional, Smith said his club’s lineup will include modern jazz. “It’s going to have everything,” he said. “Traditional jazz will be my base — that’s what the city is all about.”
Smith has lived in New York, Chicago and St. Louis. Wherever he lived, he frequented the jazz clubs — all the while harboring his dream of owning one in his hometown, the birthplace of jazz.
Live music will emanate from the Dodie’s Jazz Club stage five nights a week, he said. Plans now call for an open mic night on Wednesdays and bringing in a band from out of a town twice a month or so, if he can afford it. The rest of the time, local bands will take the stage.
“I want it to be a place where all kinds of musicians can come and make a buck,” Smith said.
Response to the club has generally been positive. Chris Blum, president of the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, expressed support at the Planning Commission hearing, while asking for controls on litter and on people spilling into the streets with drinks.
The proposal next goes to the City Council for a hearing and vote, and so far no one has spoken out against a new jazz club on Broad.
“Everyone keeps telling me I’ve got a winner,” Smith said, “but I’ve got to get it open first.”
Katherine Hart is the managing editor of NOLA Messenger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.