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May 11, 2005

Zenga Longmore on Jazz and the Red Light District

Posted by Zenga Longmore

Had you lived one hundred years ago in New Orleans, your mother would most definitely have wept if you told her you were about to play the new music called jazz - or jass as it was called in those days. "Unspeakable Jass" as everyone knew, was a corrupting, revolutionary musical innovation. As New Orleans's most popular newspaper, The Times-Picayune put it on 17th June 1917:

Jass is a manifestation of a low streak in man's tastes that has not yet come out in civilization's wash.. Its musical value is nil and its possibilities of harm are great.
The respectable mothers of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway begged their cherished sons not to turn their backs on godliness by entering the sinful world of jazz. In Alan Lomax's book, Mister Jelly Roll, Jelly Roll Morton described the fear he felt of his grandmother discovering he has become a jazz "piano professor":
If my folks found out [that he was a jazz pianist] they would deal with me drastically. Then my friends showed me how I could make $20 a night on tips in maybe an hours playing. So I thought, whatever happens in a family, all you have to do is take some money home and everything is all right.

A very American idea, but sadly for Jelly, his grandmother's French Creole principles were not to be bought. She gave him a withering look and said to him in French:

A jass player is nothing but a bum and a scallywag. I don't want you round your sisters. I reckon you had better move.
And with that she walked up the path to the white columns on the front porch of Jelly's New Orleans clapboard house, and closed the door on the fifteen year old Jelly forever.

What caused such an extreme reaction in Jelly Roll Morton's grandmother? Why was jazz considered so sinful?

Syncopated music had been going strong since the mid-nineteenth century. Every well to do household owned a mechanical piano which jangled ragtime strains to the delight of guests at parlour parties. Every parade, dance and town party sported a brass band. Large ballrooms where plantation folk cavorted on festive occasions would be enlivened by "coon bands" as they were disconcertingly termed.

To discover the reason for the horror in which jazz was held, we should revisit the midwives of jazz, the wealthy madams of Storyville who ran the brothels of New Orleans where jazz was spawned. Storyville was named after Alderman Sydney Story, a man who loathed jazz. It was his ordinance that provided a restricted red light district on January 1st, 1898. The fact that the most notorious area in America became known as Storyville "in his honour" was a bitter pill for him to swallow. In and amongst the whorehouses, in the dancehalls, bars and cabarets, ragtime music was quickly evolving into jazz.

Of course the brothels were legally segregated. Black and white women were not allowed to live or work in the same mansions, and black men were strictly forbidden from consorting with white women. Paradoxically, jazz music broke down the segregated barriers amongst the black groups of New Orleans. The Frenchified Creoles, such as Jelly Roll Morton and their darker-skinned fellow musicians were forced to mingle on an equal level for the first time. As Alan Lomax remarked:

There was fear and hate on both sides, but jazz demanded co-operation.

Many of Storyville's whorehouses, or mansions, were wildly extravagant affairs. The madams prided themselves on their flamboyant personalities and luxurious tastes.

Jelly Roll Morton, who styled himself "The Inventor of Jazz", claimed that the mirror parlour at Lulu White's mansion cost thirty thousand dollars. Madams such as Lulu White and Willie Piazza employed the finest architects, craftsmen, decorators and of course, musicians. The madams cannily realised that the brilliance of the music produced by the great New Orleans piano stars such as Morton and Tony Jackson was a huge draw for rich, discerning clients. The musicians were not paid, but worked for stupendously lavish tips.

Customers flocked to the whorehouses as much to listen and dance to the exhilarating new music as to sample the other delights on offer. The stimulating effect of jazz was employed to arouse the client's erotic appetites for the main event upstairs. Far away in Argentina, the Tango musicians were being employed for similar purposes in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Whilst the piano professors tickled the ivories, nightly "sex circuses" took place in the ballrooms, involving complex and frequently painful perversions.

Storyville has an undeservedly glamorous reputation. Most of the girls were hooked on opium and cocaine, and a large number of them committed suicide. Venereal disease was rampant and often fatal. Just like today, New Orleans was the murder capital of the world, with gunmen such as Aaron Harris and Robert Charles terrorizing the streets. Violent pimps and drug dealers controlled the area and frequently attacked the women. And most scary of all, the Voodoo women kept the population in a state of terror. Jelly Roll Morton was convinced black magic was the cause of his last fatal illness.

It took white intellectuals such as John Hammond and Leonard Feather to partially erase the memory of whorehouses and violence. But it is no wonder that jazz continues to be associated with the colourful vice-ridden sleaze of the area in which it was born.

Zenga Longmore writes for The Spectator, The Oldie, and The Daily Telegraph. She is an actress and blues singer and the author of Tap-taps To Trinidad. To read her previous pieces on jazz for the Social Affairs Unit, see Jazz.


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It is interesting to compare this article with last Saturday’s (7 May) BBC programme about Ray Charles, “The Birth of Soul”. The programme made light of the seamier aspects of the rapidly evolving black music scene, and was somewhat sniffy about the resistance of Conservative White America to the new music. Of the white contributors to the programme, some seemed to be more interested in the sexuality than the musicianship.

But is this not to be expected? Durkheim writes: “Morality … is the domain of action, and can only be grasped in relation to real phenomena: … This is why an exaggeratedly aesthetic culture, by turning us away from the real world, would relax the springs of moral action.” In this lies a warning against allowing artists of all kinds (and perhaps media people also) too much scope to propagate their lack of moral values in the world at large.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 13, 2005 03:06 PM
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I am no expert, but I understood, from a friend's conversation with Eubie Blake, as well as from reading, that the first ragtime piece was considered to be (Blake's) Charleston Rag circa 1895 rather than mid-19th century. Previously, I had thought there was no syncopation and that player-pianos and the like offered up renditions of ballads and occasionally rousing, barrel-house tunes such as The Man on the Flying Trapese, or Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-de-ay (great tunes but no syncopation there).

I suspect that because musicians worked in bars and brothels, it was there that much musical innovation occurred, and anything from such a provenance would be morally suspect. Indeed one etymology for 'jazz' treats it as a Storeyville synonym for sexual intercourse. Perhaps another reason for its bad reputation, and that of bars where it was played.

As late as the war years (WW2), when my mother and her sisters sang in a chaste trio performing light classical and popular music, one of my more formidable great aunts refused to listen because 'there is only one sort of woman who sings in establishments where alcohol is served!'

Posted by: s masty at May 14, 2005 04:59 PM
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