Helen Arlt, a longtime jazz aficionadio who, as president of the New Orleans Jazz Club hosted Louis Armstrong during one of last performances here, died Sunday. She was 94.
Arlt was an early member of the New Orleans Jazz Club, formed in 1948 by a group of music fans who in the 1960s also operated a jazz museum. She served as secretary of the club for nearly two decades and president of the organization for five years.
“Helen and those early leaders of the club really played an important role in solidifying jazz’s presence in the city at a time when many of the early musicians were still active,” said Dr. Jack Stewart, a jazz historian.
Stewart said Arlt had a lifelong passion for the music. He said he interviewed Arlt about a decade ago for an oral history project. “It was one of the longest interviews I ever did – four and a half hours.”
Arlt was president of the Jazz Club in 1965 when Louis Armstrong returned to the city, at the club’s invitation, for a homecoming tour. Armstrong had publicly boycotted the city since its banning of integrated bands in 1956. It took the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to undo the law and ease his feelings toward performing here. In October 1965, just six years before his death, he and his All-Stars performed a benefit concert for the Jazz Museum at the Loyola Field House.
"It had been so long since he'd been here, his manager was concerned about accommodations and how he'd be treated. Well, everybody wanted Louis to have only the best,” Arlt said in a 1998 Times-Picayune interview. “The Royal Orleans was the new hotel at the time, so that's where he stayed. The black funeral homes supplied the limousines for the motorcade from the airport. He went straight to the museum and (longtime club member) Myra Menville and I hosted the visit. You live for moments like that, and when you experience it, it's just fantastic," said Arlt.
Armstrong’s visit was a proud achievement for the Jazz Club. In the 1950s, its early club meetings were transformed into concerts and jam sessions which were eventually heard all across North America via WWL Radio. In 1961, the club opened a jazz museum in the city. Originally located on Dumaine Street, it later moved to the Royal Sonesta Hotel and then a building on Conti Street. Its collection, which included Armstrong’s first cornet as well as thousands of recordings, photographs and memorabilia, was donated to the Louisiana State Museum in 1977.
“When the club started in 1948, there were no jazz bands in the city,” Arlt said at the time. “Now jazz is back, jazz musicians are working and there’s a worldwide interest in New Orleans jazz."
Arlt remained a fan of the music well into her 90s and could often be seen second lining in the Economy Hall tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and enjoying jazz concerts at the Palm Court Jazz Café and other traditional jazz venues.
She is survived by a brother, John, and several nieces and nephews.
Relatives and friends are invited to attend a funeral Mass Thursday at 1 p.m. at Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd. Visitation will begin at 10 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, 3700 St. Charles Ave, New Orleans, LA 70115.