As it turns out, although the Vieux Carre is rife with live music, the legality of those shows is complicated. Only two areas are actually zoned for live entertainment: Bourbon Street and the small area of upper Decatur where the House of Blues is located. Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny is an "arts and cultural overlay district," a zoning designation that also permits live entertainment. (Interestingly, that designation was the result of an amicable agreement between Marigny residents and club owners.) All other venues hosting live bands in the French Quarter would then seem to be doing so illegally.
The New Orleans Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, produced by the City Planning Commission (CZO), is a long, complicated and boring document that explains how land use in New Orleans is regulated. It says the French Quarter contains VCE (Bourbon Street) and VCE-1 (Upper Decatur) entertainment districts. Any business that hosts live music must have a mayoralty permit expressly allowing that. According to the CZO, live entertainment isn't outright prohibited -- as some land uses are -- in any district inside the Vieux Carre, although it's only expressly authorized in the VCE and VCE-1 areas. Many bars host and advertise live music outside those two districts. Are they violating the law?
In the end, a chat with a zoning administrator confirmed a few things. The CZO, though updated frequently, was written in 1970. Technically, one could promptly transfer music permits between businesses that have opened during the past 37 years at a given address. If those permits were kept up to date, it would be possible to hold a legal license permitting music in a part of the Quarter not zoned for music. Bars like King Bolden's would need to apply for a brand-new permit.
The first problem for King Bolden's was that neighbors Leo Watermeier, a former mayoral candidate; Brian Furness, the owner of the neighboring Gentry House bed and breakfast; and Carol Greve, head of a neighborhood advocacy group, objected, called police with noise complaints and eventually contacted the city attorney. Unfortunately for King Bolden's, besides not being zoned for live music, it also hadn't applied to transfer the liquor license from the Seventh Circle within the five days mandated by state law. Faced with a shutdown over the liquor license, Gersh signed a consent judgment in August 2006 agreeing not to book live bands or DJs at the bar. The city, in turn, allowed Gersh to remain open while he got his liquor license in order.
Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, several bars along lower Decatur Street began booking live bands. Vaughan's Pub in the Bywater, which had previously only hosted weekend shows and Kermit Ruffins' popular Thursday night gigs, also started filling out its calendar to include live shows during the rest of the week. In both cases, neighbors complained. Caf Angeli and the Abbey stopped booking bands, and Vaughan's went back to the entertainment schedule that its existing permits covered.
Zoning or no, the existence of live music in the Quarter seems to come down to tolerant neighbors. Besides the complications about licenses at King Bolden's, the issue seems to be about the development of the street.
"I don't have a problem with the need to promote jazz," Furness says. "To create another Frenchmen or Bourbon Street along North Rampart is the issue the public has seized on, and there's differing opinions about whether that'd be good or bad."
According to section 10.13.8 of the CZO, a new Arts and Cultural Overlay District may be initiated only by the City Council. District C Councilman James Carter says that he enjoys live jazz and often visits venues in his district, but he hasn't yet taken a position on Rampart Street. He's looking into the history of the street and listening to residents and business owners.
Meanwhile, Ben Gersh is getting ready for a hearing regarding his liquor license in front of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and although he's optimistic that King Bolden's will be able to remain open as a bar, he's not so confident about the music.
"We're planning to have a 'Day The Music Stopped' party, maybe between the Jazz Fest weekends," he says. "We'll charge people $20 to come in and listen to nothing, and give the money to the Tipitina's Foundation or NOCCA. Then maybe we'll just turn into a daiquiri shop with video poker."