New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Monday, May 27, 2024
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From clarinetist Leon Roppolo's grave in Greenwood Cemetery, jazz fans
for years could spy the former Halfway House nightclub, a remnant from
one of the city's most musically influential eras.

But after a fire Saturday night, the City Park Avenue building, owned
by Orkin Exterminating Co., probably will have to be torn down. Damage
to the vacant building, visible from the Pontchartrain Expressway, appeared
extensive, although no one from the company was available for comment Sunday.

The Halfway House "was a popular spot with young people in the early
1920s," said Bruce Boyd Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at
Tulane University. "It was always a good place to dance to a band."

The club, which opened around 1915, earned its name from its location
along the New Basin Canal, halfway between the city and Lake Pontchartrain.

On Sunday afternoons, New Orleanians of the era often traveled to lakeside
camps and resorts such as West End, Bucktown and Milneburg, where they
would eat boiled seafood and listen to bands playing the latest musical
styles. The Halfway House capitalized on its location near the Shell Road,
catching young people stopping off for a drink or an evening dance.

The jazz club was best known for its house band, the Halfway House Orchestra.
Led by cornet player Alfred "Abbie" Brunies, the band made more than 20
recordings between 1925 and 1928.

"Not only did they record, but they were some of the best musicians
in the area," Raeburn said. "They are a good example of New Orleans jazz
in its indigenous context."

Brunies' brother, trombonist George Brunies, was one of the early members
of the band. But the orchestra hit its peak in the late 1920s when members
of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, a noted jazz band based in Chicago, returned
home to New Orleans and filtered into the orchestra, Raeburn said.

The band specialized in "hot" jazz, which relied heavily on improvisation
and dance rhythms, Raeburn said. "Some bands had a jazz flavor, but they
were less adventurous," he said. "At the Halfway House, it was always jazz."

The band's recordings featured noted musicians such as clarinetist Sidney
Arodin, clarinetist and saxophone player Charlie Cordella and Roppolo.

Roppolo, a pioneer of the jazz solo, was one of the first musicians
to make an interracial recording when he played with Jelly Roll Morton
in 1923. But shortly after the Halfway House Orchestra recorded "Barataria"
and "Pussy Cat Rag" in 1925, he was committed to a mental institution.

No one knows exactly why the orchestra broke up, Raeburn said. As with
many jazz bands in the 1920s, personalities may have clashed, or members
may have simply moved on to other gigs. "The half-life for jazz bands is
about five years," Raeburn said. "A story of any band is the story of the
personalities involved."

In addition, a more arranged type of music, the precursor to big band
and swing, started becoming popular, and many jazz musicians were unwilling
to adapt. "It became more of a big production-type sound that was not conducive
to small-band improvisation," Raeburn said. "The fashion took the sound
to a more conventional style."

The nightclub closed around 1930. But even without music, the building
remained a local favorite. With a prominent position on the streetcar line
out to West End, it made the transition from dance hall to ice cream parlor
sometime in the early 1930s.

New Orleans historian Mary Lou Widmer remembers stopping for ice cream
cones at the Halfway House during her lunch break at St. Anthony School
on Canal Street. "For a nickel, you could get two of the biggest scoops
imaginable," she wrote in her book, "New Orleans in the Thirties."

Times - Picayune, New Orleans, La. Jun 19, 2000
Author: Chris Gray Staff writer
Page: B01