We almost lost live music at Vaughan’s

Amid all the news about the recent crackdown on live music at venues around town, it’s important to note that the renewed emphasis on live music permits is nothing new.

The front page of the Times-Picayune this morning featured a story that has been burbling up in the blogs for over a week now. Two clubs, the venerable Circle Bar on Lee Circle and the newbie metal and punk-devoted Siberia in the burgeoning St. Claude Avenue arts district, were forced to cease live music performances by the city. There are others as well that are being pressured by the city; they just haven’t hit the news yet.

Back in 1996, about two years into Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers’s long run of Thursday night gigs at the ramshackle Bywater dive, the city started putting pressure on the Cindy Wood, the business owner, about her lack of a live music permit.

This was long before Vaughan’s became the international icon and symbol of New Orleans that it is today. The crackdown happened in the early days of Ruffins’s solo career, but not long after the bar got a brief mention in Rolling Stone magazine.

For those out of the loop, Ruffins is now one of the most recognized musicians from New Orleans and Vaughan’s has made appearances in numerous films and television shows, most notably the HBO series Tremé. Though the clientele has shifted from hipsters to tourists, the vibe has remained unique and the bar is on every visitor’s must-see list.

The story of how Wood is still able to present live music on Thursday nights is filled with intrigue and unintentional humor. In a recent interview she described her first interaction with the city. The following is excerpted from my upcoming book about Ruffins and Vaughan’s.

“Billy Geary, a lawyer and regular at the lounge, approached Cindy and said, “You know this is really getting to be a big thing, you really should start paying the amusement tax.” This tax is just one of the many onerous financial constraints that are forced on bars that present live entertainment. It’s an added percentage on top of sales tax, which must be paid for money generated while a band is playing. The bar also needed a permit for live entertainment and Vaughan’s did not have the permit.

Cindy said Billy told me, “(You should) try to get under the wire and get grandfathered in by just paying the amusement tax.” The law states that if you pay for two years without the city intervening, then the business is grandfathered in and you can continue to present live music. Billy warned her that there’s a chance that they will just bust her right then and there. But he said that if the city starts taking the money and they do that for two years then you’re good. Her other option was not to pay the amusement tax and hope to get away with having the band for five years without the city taking any action against the business.

“Cindy started paying the amusement tax about two years after the weekly gigs began. It was a negligible amount of money because the band was only playing for two hours on one night a week. Here’s where the story gets interesting.

One year and eleven months after she started paying the amusement tax, a tall Creole man wearing the white shirt and silver badge of a city hall police officer (not to be confused with an officer from the New Orleans Police Department, a Civil or Criminal Sheriff’s deputy, a dock board officer, a levee cop or any of the numerous other jurisdictions that have their own uniforms and badges) parked across the street from the bar in the early evening. The block was as quiet as a Sunday morning during Lent. Just a few regulars were sipping drinks in the bar. As he got out of his city-owned vehicle with the languid movements of a civil servant with time on his hands, Cindy pulled up in her car. He strolled across the street and asked, “Do they have live music here tonight?” Cindy recounts the exchange:

“They do.”

“What time does it begin?”

“Around 11. Why?”

“I’m here to give them a ticket.”

“I’m the owner and whether you’re here to give me the ticket or not, I’m still going to have the live music.”

“I don’t want to wait that long.”

As Cindy relates the story, her voice rises in incredulous glee. She’s practically laughing as the tale reaches its inevitable conclusion, “So I said, ‘just give me the ticket (now).’ And he did! As he left, I walked straight in (in the bar) and threw the ticket in the trash. How the hell can you give a ticket to somebody for something you didn’t see them do? I mean the ticket’s dated 7:30 PM!”

It took Wood three years and countless appearances before various judges and city agencies before the matter was resolved. As the city begins its crackdown anew, it’s important to note that the way that the world looks at New Orleans might be very different without Ruffins’s Thursday night shows at Vaughan’s.

Excerpt © Jay Mazza 2012 All Rights Reserved

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