Tipitina’s employees met Monday for the first time with their new bosses — bosses they already knew in a different context: as musicians.
The five members of the local funk band Galactic, who have performed at Tipitina’s for more than 20 years, closed Friday on a deal to purchase the famed Uptown music club from local businessman and real estate developer Roland Von Kurnatowski and his wife, Mary.
Before they carried the banner of New Orleans music around the globe, Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, bassist Robert Mercurio, guitarist Jeff Raines, keyboardist Rich Vogel and saxophonist Ben Ellman were fans in the crowd at Tipitina’s.
That dual perspective should serve them well in their new endeavor.
“We’re in a unique position to understand it from both sides,” Moore said. “We want to make sure that everybody’s experience, from patrons to musicians, makes them want to come back.
“We don’t want to change Tipitina’s. We want to make it better.”
Tipitina’s was founded in 1977 by 14 music fans as a home base for Professor Longhair — the club is named for one of his songs — and other local music legends.
The Meters, the Radiators, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Trombone Shorty and just about every other noteworthy New Orleans musical act, as well as countless touring artists, have played deep into the night at the corner of Tchoupitoulas Street and Napoleon Avenue.
Moore — Galactic’s only New Orleans native — was a Brother Martin High School sophomore when he first stood on the Tipitina’s stage for the Young People’s Jazz Forum, a weekly Sunday afternoon student workshop. “I literally learned how to play there,” he said.
His bandmates found their way to Tipitina’s soon after arriving in New Orleans.
Mercurio and Raines, high school friends in the Washington, D.C., area, enrolled in college in New Orleans because of the city’s musical history; their musical education began in earnest at Tipitina’s.
Ellman’s first job after moving to New Orleans was as a cook in Tipitina’s now-shuttered kitchen.
As Galactic, they put their own contemporary spin on New Orleans music, incorporating hip-hop and other influences. They toured extensively and built a national fan base.
But they’ve always maintained close ties with the local music community. Their New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras and Halloween shows at Tipitina’s are annual traditions.
In 2015, Galactic hosted a music festival, the Landing, at the South Shore Harbor site near Lakefront Airport that Von Kurnatowski has tried to develop as an entertainment district. Galactic’s Denver-based manager, Alex Brahl, mentioned to Von Kurnatowski that if he ever thought about selling Tipitina’s, the band would be interested.
At the time, Moore and his bandmates considered the prospect of owning Tipitina’s unlikely.
“I thought it would never happen,” Moore said. “But Alex’s attitude was, ‘Why not?’ I thought, ‘I guess you’re right. If not us, who else?’ ”
By early 2018, Von Kurnatowski was ready to sell the club he's owned since 1997.
In recent months, he has faced multiple lawsuits related to his other business ventures, and accusations that he’s run an illegal Ponzi scheme.
Several prominent bands, including the Revivalists, the Rebirth Brass Band and the Radiators, have faced weeks or months of delays in getting paid for shows at Tipitina’s and the Orpheum Theater, which Von Kurnatowski and a business partner, Eric George, bought in 2014 and spent $13 million to restore.
The Revivalists initiated legal action against Von Kurnatowski before finally being paid in August for a series of sold-out New Year’s Eve shows at the Orpheum. Von Kurnatowski transferred his stake in the Orpheum to George in October.
Against that backdrop, the complex negotiations over the Tipitina’s sale dragged on for seven months. The name of the limited liability corporation through which the musicians eventually made the purchase, Tchoupy Waters Society LLC, references Tchoupitoulas Street. The “choppy” pun, Moore said, was also inspired by his realization that “this was going to be a wild ride.”
And it was. The deal nearly fell apart multiple times.
“It was without a doubt the most emotional process I’ve ever been a part of,” Moore said.
Tipitina’s, one of New Orleans’ flagship music clubs, has new owners: the five members of the local funk band Galactic.
To make the financing work, the musicians invested their own money from savings and retirement accounts. “Angel investors” also contributed, though they have no equity stake in the business. The band also secured loans through the Small Business Administration and Capital One bank.
Much to their relief, the deal finally closed Friday afternoon.
“We are beyond excited, but at the same time humbled and honored to have been given the opportunity to be the stewards of this cultural landmark for the foreseeable future,” Moore said. “It’s overwhelming.”
The purchase includes the building at 501 Napoleon, the Tipitina’s business and its related trademarks, including the iconic banana-in-hand logo.
“We received multiple attractive offers for Tipitina’s,” Von Kurnatowski said in a press release. “It was really important to us to ensure that this club, the icon that is Tipitina’s, end up in the right hands. ... We’re confident that Galactic is the right fit, that they will cherish Tipitina’s and take it to the next level while protecting all that makes Tip’s such an authentic American cultural venue.”
The purchase price was not disclosed.
The sale did not include the Tipitina’s Foundation, which the Von Kurnatowskis founded and control. The foundation has provided millions of dollars' worth of instruments to school marching bands and mentored scores of young musicians, but it now faces questions about its financial dealings and oversight.
For 15 years, the New Orleans-based nonprofit Tipitina’s Foundation has donated thousands of instruments to school band programs and provided …
As news of the Tipitina’s sale spread, musicians, managers and fans offered encouragement and optimism about the club’s future under Galactic's guidance.
“Like most musicians in the city, they have a vested interest in it,” Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan said. “It will be great to get it back in the hands of people who understand music in general and appreciate what the club has given to the city and its music culture.”
Galactic’s primary business is still being Galactic. The band will release its 10th studio album, “Already Ready Already,” on Feb. 8, and spend much of February and March on tour.
Galactic will headline Tipitina's on New Year’s Eve. And on Saturday, Moore and Mercurio will perform at Tipitina’s with their side project, Dragon Smoke.
To ensure continuity with the club’s day-to-day operations, they intend to keep much of the current staff in place.
And they plan to start a new nonprofit foundation to benefit the next generation of New Orleans musicians.
Within hours of Friday’s closing, they’d already made moves to signal a new era for Tipitina’s. They removed signage related to the Tipitina’s Foundation from the club’s exterior. And Ellman personally went to a bank and withdrew enough cash to pay Cyril Neville for Neville’s Friday night performance at Tipitina’s.
Now that they’ve taken ownership, Moore and his bandmates know the hard work has just begun.
“This is not like we’ve won the lottery and can retire,” he said. “We’ve taken on the biggest responsibility of our lives. We’re rolling up our sleeves and getting ready to go to work on behalf of the music and culture of our hometown.
“Tipitina’s has been our home away from home for years. Now we actually own it."