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Finding the History of Madams and Music in New Orleans

Williams-Piron Band; 1914; photograph probably by Arthur P. Bedou; The William Russell Jazz Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acquisition made possible by the Clarisse Claiborne Grima Fund, 92-48-L.205. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

Those attending the Organization of American Historians’ Annual Meeting in April will be able to visit the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) and the exhibit opening April 5 titled Storyville. Admission is free. We asked the HNOC to share a brief preview of the exhibit.

In 1917, following the United States’ entry into the First World War, the U.S. Department of the Navy forced the closure of red light districts across the nation, effectively ending the era’s fascination with segregating legalized vice as a means of control. In New Orleans, this precipitated the shuttering of the once-prosperous Storyville red light district which had been operating legally since 1898. In February of the same year, a group of five white musicians from New Orleans calling themselves The Original Dixieland Jazz Band held a recording session for the Victor Talking Machine Co. in New York City where they performed two songs “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” which were released that March and became one of the most popular records of the year. These are now considered the first-ever jazz recordings.

View of Basin Street; ca. 1908; The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Albert Louis, Lieutaud, 1957.101. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

The Historic New Orleans Collection focuses on the history and culture of the city and surrounding region. The combination of the closing of Storyville and the release of the first jazz record exactly one hundred years ago presented an interweaving of topics too rich to ignore. These subjects speak to the heart of New Orleans’s national identity as a port city brimming with immorality, good times and jazz music. And for many, Storyville and jazz are as interconnected as they are a part of New Orleans. These perceptions, of the city and the connection between a vice district and the origin of Jazz, are fraught with misconceptions and stereotypes which we set out to address in the exhibition. Discovering where these histories intersect and how best to share that with visitors became a primary challenge of curating “Storyville: Music and Madams.”

The first important decision we made as a curatorial team was to determine the nature and scope of the musical component of the show. The history of the Storyville District (operating between 1898 and 1917) has a built-in twenty year timeline and a fixed geographic location, which we used as a framework from which to build a discussion of music. In the exhibition, we focus on music as a component of the history of Storyville, and in so doing avoid building a narrative around the development of jazz within the district. This strategy provided the curatorial team freedom from issues of jazz’s origination, letting us focus instead on popular musical practice and how consumers experienced music during a period of dramatic stylistic change.

The musical component of the exhibition enabled us to focus our lens on Storyville towards its history as a tourism destination and entertainment district selling sex, music and alcohol. In this context, we examine the role of music as a soundtrack for dancing, entertainment in prostitution houses and a tool for increasing alcohol sales.

“Livery Stable Blues,” the first jazz record; by Original Dixieland Jass Band; New Orleans: Victor Records, 1917; The William Russell Jazz Collection at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acquisition made possible by the Clarisse Claiborne Grima Fund, 92-48-L.54. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

In the most expensive brothels, music was typically performed by a piano “professor” who acted as a sort of popular music jukebox. To be successful, these musicians had to be able to play whatever the customer wanted to hear, whether it was ragtime, opera overtures or Tin Pan Alley hits. Most of these musicians were also skilled readers. We explore this theme through the display of a collection of classical sheet music owned by Storyville Professor Manuel Manetta, contemporary photographs of brothel dance hall interiors and oral testimony and piano performance from other former Professors.

The Storyville district also included a number of music clubs, cabarets and honky tonks of one sort or another and we discuss the types of music and musicians that worked in these venues. Images of bands such as the Imperial and Superior accompany photographs of the remnants of a number of clubs from the 1930s. Portraits of Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong situate the role of trumpet player and band leader during the period. The instrumentation, size and arrangement of the various bands is apparent in these group photographs and provides visitors the opportunity to build their own ideas of how these ensembles may have sounded. Above this section are displayed reproductions of twenty different sheet music covers representing a popular song for each year from 1897–1917. This musical timeline illustrates the spectrum of popular music and dance, the pervasiveness of racial stereotyping and names the important publishers of popular music of the period through easily accessible imagery and text. It also provides an immediate window into the popular advertising tools of the era as well as the noticeable absence of the word “jazz” until the last year of the period.

Only as the exhibition veers towards its final chapter, discussing the end and afterlife of Storyville, do we provide visitors the opportunity to listen to the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s 1917 recordings. Placing these recordings at the conclusion of the musical component of the exhibition provides space for contextualization and, perhaps more importantly, properly situates their importance in the development of the genre. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band did not play in Storyville, and their role in the history of early jazz is primarily as the first band to record. We made a curatorial decision to use these recordings, whose centennial the exhibition in part commemorates, as a temporal marker. They provide a snapshot into popular musical styles in New Orleans during the mid-1910s thereby also referencing music performed in the District. Situated as they are in the exhibition, “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” present two examples of popular songs of the era in a similar manner to the sheet music hanging above.

Blue Book; [1900]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 94-092-RL. Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.

In conjunction with our examination of music in Storyville, a series of guidebooks to the district which contain directories of prostitutes and advertisements for brothels, liquor, beer, cigars, venereal disease cures, and other goods and services are also on display. Collectively called “Blue Books,” they marketed the district as an entertainment destination within New Orleans, and include references to musical performances. This portion of the exhibition complements The Historic New Orleans Collection’s newest book, Guidebooks to Sin: The Blue Books of Storyville, New Orleans, the first thorough contemporary study of these prostitution guides.

In constructing this exhibition, determining a strategy for outlining a limited discussion on music that referenced the development of jazz without offering a disingenuous origin narrative became our primary guiding principle. Utilizing the geographic and temporal framework of the Storyville district, we were able to successfully focus our musical discussion within this defined context.