I work for Dickie Brennan & Co. and we're always curious to find out more about the history of the former Werlein's building on Canal Street, where Palace Cafe now resides. We found a picture of a 1969 performance in front of the store to kick off a jazz festival. Since the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began in 1970, what was this event and what role did Werlein's play in it?
It's no surprise that Werlein's was a part of the event you ask about, since it held an important role in local music history for more than 150 years. The store, known for selling musical instruments and sheet music, opened at 605 Canal St. in 1905. In 1968, when an event known as Jazzfest ’68 (precursor to the current Jazz Fest) was staged, Werlein's was one of the box office locations selling tickets for the event.
In his 2004 autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music, festival impresario George Wein, who was hired to produce the third jazz festival in 1970, explains that the idea for such a festival here was first discussed in 1962. Wein, who helped launch the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, explained that the idea of a festival in New Orleans was shelved because of segregation, which still was in effect at the city's hotels and public venues. In 1968, plans were revived to coincide with the city's 250th birthday. Wein was considered as producer but says he was rejected when city officials learned that Wein, who is white, was married to an African-American woman.
"The consensus was that it might be a political embarrassment for Mayor (Victor) Schiro if I were given the job," Wein wrote. Instead, event chairman Durel Black, who was president of the New Orleans Jazz Club, hired Willis Conover to oversee the first two festivals. Wein was hired for the third in 1970, and together with Quint Davis, Allison Miner and others developed the event into what it is today.
As for Jazzfest ’68, the event in May of that year featured headliners Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Pete Fountain, Ronnie Kole and many local acts. The second festival in June 1969 featured performances by Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. Concerts were held at Municipal Auditorium and aboard the SS President riverboat. As a prelude to the Jazzfest events and to promote ticket sales, two free concerts were staged outside Werlein's. According to newspaper ads, on May 30, 1969, Phil Zito and his band played outside the store. Frank Federico's band performed there on May 31.