Ever wondered what it would be like to walk a mile in the shoes of Satchmo, Fats Domino, or Ernie K-Doe? A new interactive music map called A Closer Walk is here to help, offering curated walking tours and audiophile pilgrimage points across New Orleans.
A Closer Walk was created by local radio station WWOZ, the Ponderosa Stomp Foundation, arts philanthropist Randy Fertel, and tech experts from Bent Media and ePrime Media. Described as a “gift to New Orleans and to music lovers everywhere,” according to a statement from Fertel, the map highlights historic spots in the Crescent City including artists residences, music venues, recording studios, and culturally significant locations like Congo Square, Storyville, Magnolia Projects, and Holt Cemetery.
As WWOZ Chief Operating Officer Arthur Cohen told NoDef, the music map stands out because it offers "a physical experience” to NOLA’s music history, "as opposed to radio, which is so ephemeral.”
Although the free music map isn’t technically a real app, it’s fully functional on an iPhone or Android. Cohen and A Closer Walk’s team of developers seem to have designs on further developing the program. “From a product point of view, we do not think that this is by any means at its deepest potential yet,” explained Cohen. “We think it’s useful and useable, but the potential for it is much, much bigger than where it’s at right now.”
The map’s list of highlights is extensive, including 79 sites as well as curated tours ranging from walking tours themed around Harold Battiste and Louis Armstrong’s lives to tours highlighting Bourbon Street parades, 1940-1970s R&B, and rag time music. Each listing on A Closer Walk includes multimedia links and photos that give users more than enough information to feel like they standing in the beleaguered footsteps of everyone from New Orleans’s jazz giants to the women of Storyville. A lagniappe section offers breakdowns on dance trends like the Charleston, Tango, and Lindy Hop, as well as further historical context for the project.
In a city that appears at times to be worryingly defined by sites that Ain’t Dere No More, it is heartening to see so many gems across the Big Easy preserved and commemorated in a comprehensive project like A Closer Walk.
Of course, many sites documented on A Closer Walk have been lost to annals of history. For example, take the 400 Block of Rampart Street — about which John Hasse, curator of American Music at the Smithsonian Institution, once declared, “There is probably no other block in America with buildings bearing so much significance to the history of our country’s great art form, jazz.” That single stretch was once home to both the Eagle Saloon and the Karnofksy Shop and Residence, but nowadays is essentially just a parking lot with a few dilapidated buildings peeking out through the asphalt and graffiti. The Karnofsky Shop was where the Jewish family, the Karnofksy’s, helped a young boy by the name of Louis Armstrong get on his feet, lending him money to buy his first coronet after he was picked up by the cops for firing a .38 on New Year’s Eve right around the corner near where he was born on Perdido Street.
Not surprising given his work with the WWOZ, Cohen finds particular purpose in communicating the history contained in these unassuming, blighted locations that provided refuge for one of America’s greatest gifts to the world. “I think it’s really interesting because the idea is so many of the places are not there anymore,” he said. "It’s not just finding the places that exist, but to find the context for what is happening. So maybe you’re standing in front of an empty lot, but you’re learning something about that empty lot. […] The idea here is to give people the ability to imagine the experience that was there at another time and give a greater dimension.”
One afternoon with time to spare and knowledge to gain, I opened up the music app on my phone and clicked on the first link that looked interesting to me: Back o’ Town Blues: Louis Armstrong in New Orleans Tour.
Embarking on the curated tour, I first stopped by Frank Early’s Saloon, which is right around the corner from Lulu White’s famous Mahogany Hall, now the location of a modern building housing New Orleans Electric Cars and Scooters. With the backdrop of the old Iberville Housing Projects, the dynamics in which parts of New Orleans have simply been neglected and forgotten really sinks in. Imagining the women of Storyville leaning out their balconies over the sounds of Jelly Roll Morton’s piano is a stark contrast to the current state of this historic neighborhood — but the history is no less real.
After making my way past the famed 400 block of Rampart St., I continued up to the former location of the Red Onion, a saloon for which the Clarence Williams tune “Red Onion Blues” was named. The chic entryway is a stark contrast to the spacious front yard and Creole cottage that housed so many of New Orleans’s great musicians.
Just before sunset, I settled at the Dew Drop Inn, a one time hotel, restaurant, club, venue, and barbershop. Back in the day, the Dew Drop hosted an especially eclectic array of late night performances, as most musicians that were in-the-know such as Ray Charles would stay at this bohemian outpost when they made their way through the Big Easy. The large hotel and music hall are now falling into disrepair, but rumors circulate that the owner has plans to redevelop this piece of holy ground.
I joked with Cohen that this music map was going to run the tour guide industry out of business, as now everyone can give themselves a musical tour of New Orleans. But on the contrary, he explained, as this can also be a tool for the city’s guides to utilize to enhance the capabilities of their tours. According to Cohen, “the great thing is that it can be used physically for walking, but it’s an education tool at the same time. As a non-profit our understanding is to make knowledge more ubiquitous.”
That marriage of historical and cultural preservation is what makes A Closer Walk an invaluable new addition to the understanding of New Orleans’ vast landscape. Not only is it a great way for tourists and locals alike to learn about— and physically experience — the Crescent City culture of yesteryear, it’s a great gateway for anyone looking to get into the weeds of NOLA’s diverse and wholly influential impact on the arts.