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An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans – Chapter 1

An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans

With an introduction by Nat Hentoff

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Featuring the complete text of chapters 1 – 5 from Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By the Men Who Made It, a 1955 book by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff

(Published with the consent of Nat Hentoff)

Chapter

1  2   3   4  5

   

Nat Hentoff’s Introduction

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Chapter 1

It was always a musical town – especially The District – Storyville

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Among those featured in Chapter 1:

Louis Armstrong

Jelly Roll Morton

Bunk Johnson

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Storyville

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Canal Street Blues , by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band

  DANNY BARKER

One of my pleasantest memories as a kid growing up in New Orleans was how
a bunch of us kids, playing, would suddenly hear sounds. It was like a
phenomenon, like the Aurora Borealis – maybe. The sounds of men playing
would be so clear, but we wouldn’t be sure where they were coming from. So
we’d start trotting, start running – “It’s this way!”  “It’s that
way!” – And, sometimes, after running for a while, you’d find you’d
be nowhere near that music. But that music could come on you any time like
that. The city was full of the sounds of music…

  CLARENCE WILLIAMS

Yes, New Orleans was always a musical town – a happy town. Why, on Mardi
Gras and Christmas all the houses were open and there were dances all over.
It was “open house” everywhere, and you could walk in almost any door and
have a drink and eat and join the party.

photo by John N. Teunisson

Canal and Rampart Streets

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King Porter Stomp , by Jelly Roll Morton

  DANNY BARKER

There were countless places of enjoyment that employed musicians, not including
private affairs, balls, soirees, banquets, marriages, deaths, christenings,
Catholic communions, confirmations, picnics at the lake front, country hay
rides, and advertisements of business concerns. During the carnival season
(Mardi Gras) any little insignificant affair was sure to have some kind of
music and each section would engage their neighborhood favorite. It might
be Joe Oliver, who lived around the corner; or Cheeky Sherman, on somebody’s
piano; or Sandpaper George; or Hudson, on toilet pipe, now called the bazooka;
or Picou, on the kazoo, a kazoo inserted into an old E-flat clarinet, which
he fingered as he blew.

 The colored and white bands battled (or bucked), frequently
from opposite lake-front camps. It was the custom to have picnics and family
outings on Sundays during the summer at places like Spanish Fort, West End,
Milenberg, Birch Town, and Seabrook.

 The city was split by Canal Street, with one part of
the people uptown and the Creoles downtown. When people would come into New
Orleans, like gamblers and workers from Memphis, and they’d say “Let’s go
down to Frenchtown,” that meant you went below Canal Street. Storyville was
below Canal Street on the outer part.

 But the people I knew called all that was in Storyville
“The District.”  I never heard it called Storyville. It got called that
when somebody up here in the North read about it. It was never Storyville
to me. It was always The District – the red light district.

photo George Francois Mugnier

Live oak, Audubon Park

  © Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander

Storyville prostitute, 1912

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New Orleans Stomp , by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band   

  LOUIS ARMSTRONG

There was so much good music that was played in Storyville — they talked
about it and its musicians so much until the word District being used so
much wouldn’t sound so good. . .Storyville has been discussed in colleges
and some of the largest universities in the world. . .If not all over the
world. . .I’ll bet right now most of the youngsters and hot club fans who
hear the name Storyville hasn’t the least idea that it consisted of some
of the biggest prostitutes in the world. . .Standing in their doorways nightly
in their fine and beautiful negligees – faintly calling to the boys
as they passed their cribs.

 Storyville was kind of divided – I’d say –
about middle ways of the City of New Orleans. . .Canal Street was the dividing
line between the uptown and the downtown section. . .And right behind Canal
Street was Storyville. . .And right off Canal Street was the famous Basin
Street which was also connected with Storyville. . .And somewhere in or near
Storyville was a famous gambling joint called Twenty-Five. . .That was the
place where all the big-time pimps and hustlers would congregate and play
“Cotch” (that’s a game they played with three cards shuffled and dealt from
the bottom of the deck). . .And you could win or lose a whole gang of money.
. .These pimps and hustlers, et cetera, would spend most of their time at
Twenty-Five until their girls would finish turning tricks in their cribs.
. .Then they would meet them and check up on the night’s take. . .Lot of
the prostitutes lived in different sections of the city and would come down
to Storyville just like they had a job. . .There were different shifts for
them. . .Sometime – two prostitutes would share the rent in the same
crib together. . .One would work in the day and the other would beat out
that night shift. . .And business was so good in those days with the fleet
of sailors and the crews from those big ships that come in the Mississippi
River from all over the world – kept them very very busy.

 

  ALPHONSE PICOU

Those were happy days, man, happy days. Buy a keg of beer for one dollar
and a bag full of food for another and have a cowein. These boys don’t
have fun nowadays. Talking ’bout wild and wooly! There were two thousand
registered girls and must have been ten thousand unregistered. And all crazy
about clarinet-blowers!

  DANNY BARKER

New Orleans, until the ‘twenties, was the safest haven in the Americas for
the world’s most vicious characters. There was a charge, that a person could
be arrested for, called “D and S” (dangerous and suspicious) whereby the
police had the power to arrest anyone who could not walk to the ‘phone booth
to call his or her employer and prove that they earned an honest livelihood,
or anyone who looked crafty, slick, or sinister.

 Most arrests were Negroes who frequented barrooms and
gambling joints during working hours.

 As for the big sporting houses in The District, they
were for whites. It was before my time, but they tell me that a mulatto passing
for white could get in. And there were farmers and sugar men and riverboat
men all through Louisiana who were mulattoes. So, if you looked white or
Spanish, you went in. Lulu White and the Countess Willie Piazza were themselves
reputed to be Creole.

Cornelius Durkee Photograph
Collection

St. Ann and Chartres Streets, 1901

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New Orleans was a Free and Easy Place, comments by Jelly Roll Morton

The townhouse brothels of Storyville

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The Stomping Grounds, comments by Jelly Roll Morton

Sobbin’
Blues , by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, with Jelly Roll Morton

  JELLY ROLL MORTON

So, in the year of 1902, when I was about seventeen years old, I happened
to invade one of the sections where the birth of jazz originated from.

 The Tenderloin District in New Orleans was considered
second to France, meaning the greatest in the world, with extensions for
blocks and blocks on the north side of Canal Street.

 Every place in New Orleans had a gambling house, and
I don’t know of any time that the racetracks were ever closed – a hundred
days of races at City Park, then they would be at the Fair Grounds for another
hundred days – and so they would go on continuously for three hundred
and sixty-five days a year.

 I’m telling you this Tenderloin District was like something
that nobody has ever seen before or since. The doors were taken off the saloons
there from one year to the next. Hundreds of men were passing through the
streets day and night. The chippies in their little-girl dresses were standing
in the crib doors singing the blues.

 The streets were crowded with men. Police were always
in sight, never less than two together, which guaranteed the safety of all
concerned. Lights of all colors were glittering and glaring. Music was pouring
into the streets from every house…

 Some very happy, some very sad, some with the desire
to end it all by poison, some planning a big outing, a dance, or some other
kind of enjoyment. Some were real ladies in spite of their downfall and some
were habitual drunkards and some were dope fiends as follows: opium, heroin,
cocaine, laudanum, morphine, et cetera. I was personally sent to Chinatown
many times with a sealed note and a small amount of money and would bring
back several cards of hop. There was no slipping and dodging. All you had
to do was walk in to be served.

 They had everything in The District from the highest
class to the lowest – creep joints where they’d put the feelers on a
guy’s clothes, cribs that rented for about five dollars a day and had just
about room enough for a bed, small-time houses where the price was from fifty
cents to a dollar and they put on naked dances, circuses, and jive. Then,
of course, we had the mansions where everything was of the highest class.
These houses were filled up with the most expensive furniture and paintings.
Three of them had mirror parlors where you couldn’t find the door for the
mirrors, the one at Lulu White’s costing thirty thousand dollars. Mirrors
stood at the foot and head of all the beds. It was in these mansions that
the best of the piano players worked.

 

     SPENCER WILLIAMS

All along this street of pleasure there were the dance halls, honky-tonks,
and cabarets, and each one had its music. My old friend, Tony Jackson, who
composed Pretty Baby and Some Sweet Day, used to play piano
at a house run by Miss Antonia Gonzales, who sang and played the cornet.
The largest of the cabarets on Basin Street was the Mahogany Hall, owned
by my aunt, Miss Lulu White, and when my mother died, I went to live with
her and became her adopted son. I’d go to sleep to the sound of the mechanical
piano playing ragtime tunes, and when I woke up in the morning it would still
be playing. The saloons in those days never had the doors closed, and the
hinges were all rusty and dusty. Little boys and grownups would walk along
the avenues, swaying and whistling jazz tunes.

  BUNK JOHNSON

That was the Crescent City in them days, full of bars, honky-tonks, and barrel
houses. A barrel house was just a piano in a hall. There was always a piano
player working. When I was a kid, I’d go into a barrel house and play ‘long
with them piano players ’til early in the mornin’. We used to play nuthin’
but the blues.

 I knew Mamie Desdoumes real well. Played many a concert
with her singing those same blues. She was pretty good looking, quite fair,
with a nice head of hair. She was a hustlin’ woman. A blues-singing poor
gal. Used to play pretty passable piano around them dance halls on Perdido
Street.

 When Hattie Rogers or Lulu White would put it out that
Mamie was going to be singing in their place, the white men would turn out
in bunches and them whores would clean up.

Tony Jackson

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Jelly Roll Morton talks about Tony Jackson, part one

Pretty Baby , written by Tony Jackson and performed by Jelly Roll
Morton

 

   

  LOUIS ARMSTRONG

Lulu White was a famous woman of the sporting world in Storyville. . .She
had a big house on Basin Street called Mahogany Hall. . .The song was written
after her house had gotten so famous. . .Rich men came there from all parts
of the world to dig those beautiful Creole prostitutes. . .And pay big money.
. .Lulu White was colored. . .Around the corner from Lulu White was the famous
Cabaret of Tom Anderson. . .All the race-horse men went there during their
stay and the racing season in New Orleans. . .In those days a band who played
for those places didn’t need to worry about salaries. . .Their tips were
so great until they did not even have to touch their nightly gappings. .
.Most of the places paid off the musicians every night after the job was
over instead of the weekly deal. . .That was because those places were threatened
to be closed any minute. So the musicians and the performers didn’t take
any chances.

The parlor of Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall

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Tiger Rag , by Jelly Roll Morton

MAHOGANY HALL

 “SOUVENIR” BOOKLET

The NEW Mahogany Hall

A picture of which appears on the cover of this souvenir was erected
specifically for Miss Lulu White at a cost of $40,000. The house is built
of marble and is four story; containing five parlors, all handsomely furnished,
and fifteen bedrooms. Each room has a bath with hot and cold water and extension
closets.

The elevator, which was built for two, is of the latest style. The entire
house is steam heated and is the handsomest house of its kind. It is the
only one where you can get three shots for your money –

The shot upstairs,

The shot downstairs,

And the shot in the room. . .

This famous West Indian octoroon first saw the light of day thirty-one years
ago. Arriving in this country at a rather tender age, and having been fortunately
gifted with a good education it did not take long for her to find out what
the other sex was in search of.

In describing Miss Lulu, as she is most familiarly called, it would not be
amiss to say that besides possessing an elegant form she has beautiful black
hair and blue eyes, which have justly gained for her the title of the “Queen
of the Demi-Monde.”

Her establishment, which is situated in the central part of the city, is
unquestionably the most elaborately furnished house in the city of New Orleans,
and without a doubt one of the most elegant places in this or any other country.

She has made a feature of boarding none but the fairest of girls – those
gifted with nature’s best charms, and would, under no circumstances, have
any but that class in her house.

As an entertainer Miss Lulu stands foremost, having made a life-long study
of music and literature. She is well read and one that can interest anybody
and make a visit to her place a continued round of pleasure.

ADVERTISEMENT

NEW ORLEANS BLUE BOOK

COUNTESS WILLIE PIAZZA

Is one place in the Tenderloin District you can’t very well afford to miss.
The Countess Piazza has made it a study to try to make everyone jovial who
visits her house. If you have the “blues,” the Countess and her girls can
cure them. She has, without a doubt, the most handsome and intelligent octoroons
in the United States. You should see them; they are all entertainers.

If there is anything new in the singing and dancing line that you would like
to see while in Storyville, Piazza’s is the place to visit, especially when
one is out hopping with friends – the women in particular.

The Countess wishes it to be known that while her mansion is peerless in
every respect, she only serves the “amber fluid.”

“Just ask for Willie Piazza.”

PHONE 4832 MAIN

317 N. Basin

 

© Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander

© Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander

  DANNY BARKER

There were all kinds of characters and all kinds of places in The District.
I’ve been keeping a scrapbook, based on what I remember and on what other
musicians have told me. Here are some of the things from my book:

  Definitions of Different Types of
Joints

  Whore house – managed by a
larceny-hearted landlady, strictly business

  Brothel – juice joint with rooms,
and a bunk or a cot near.

  Sporting house – lots of stimulants,
women, music. An old queer or cripple serves

  Crib – Two or three stars venture
for themselves, future landladies.

  House of assignation – women pull
shifts and report where they are needed.

  Clip joint – While one jives you,
another creeps or crawls in and rifles your pockets.

And here are some sporting women and the nicknames of a few well-known Crescent
City characters:

Albertine McKay, former sweetheart of Lee Collins. She marched him around
with a .38 special loaded with dum-dum bullets.

Daisy Parker, Louis Armstrong’s moll, who greeted him with a brickbat.

Kidneyfoot Rella, who is said to have spit in Black Benny’s face as he lay
dead in his coffin.

Also — Flamin’ Mamie, Crying Emma, Bucktown Bessie, Dirty Dog, Stell Arm
Johnny, Mary Meathouse, Gold Tooth Gussie, Big Butt Annie, Naked Mouf Mattie,
Bird Leg Nora, Bang Zang, Boxcar Shorty, Sneaky Pete, Titanic, Coke Eye Laura,
Yellow Gal, Black Sis, Boar Hog, Yard Dog, Bodidily, Roody Doody, Big Bull
Cora, Piggy, Big Piggy, Stingaree, Bull Frog Sonny, Toot Nan, Knock on the
Wall, Sore Dick, Sugar Pie, Cherry Red, Buck Tooth Rena, Bad Blood, Copper
Wire, Snaggle Mouf Mary, Linker-Top, Topsy, Scratch, Joe the Pimp, Onery
Bob, Tee Tee, Tee Nome, Tee Share, Tee Boy, Raw Head, Smoke Stack, Stack
O Dollars, Pupsy, Boogers, Copper Cent, Street Rabbit, Boo Boo, Big Boo Boo,
Fast Black, Eight Ball, Lily the Crip, Tenderloin Thelma, Three Finger Annie,
Charlie Bow Wow, Good Lord the Lifter, Peachanno, Cold Blooded Carrie, Miss
Thing, Jack the Bear.

© Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander

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© Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander

  CLARENCE WILLIAMS

Those places were really something to see – those sportin’ houses. They
had the most beautiful parlors, with cut glass, and draperies, and
rugs, and expensive furniture. They were just like millionaires’ houses.
And the girls would come down dressed in the finest of evening gowns, just
like they were going to the opera. They were just beautiful. Their hair-dos
were just so, and I’m telling you that Ziegfeld didn’t have any more beautiful
women than those. Some of them looked Spanish, and some were Creoles, some
brown-skins, some chocolate-brown. But they all had to have that figure.

 Places like that were for rich people, mostly white.
On, once in a while a sailor might come, but generally only the wealthiest
would come. Why, do you know that a bottle of beer was a dollar? The customers
would buy champagne mostly and would always get tired, there would be a player
piano that you put a quarter in and we’d make money then too. Those houses
hired nothing but the best, but only piano players, and maybe a girl to sing.
And there was no loud playin’ either. It was sweet, just like a hotel.

 Of course, those houses were so impressive that lots
of people would be scared to go in. But, in the other part of the section,
there were cabarets and dance halls and lots of hustlers. There were places
like the Red Onion, the Keystone, and Spanola’s, which was one of the roughest.
Spanola’s was on Basin Street, a place where the roustabouts and the lowest
of people went. There a man could meet a gal, then do his business without
any fuss at all.

 Talk about those jam sessions you have today! Why, you
should have seen the sessions we had then. ‘Round about four A.M., the girls
would get through work and would meet their P.I.’s (that’s what we called
pimps) at the wine rooms. Pete Lala’s was the headquarters, the place where
all the bands would come when they got off work, and where the girls would
come to meet their main man. It was a place where they would come to drink
and play and have breakfast and then go home to bed.

 Most of the P.I.’s were gamblers and pianists. The reason
so many of them were pianists was because whenever they were down on their
luck, they could always get a job and be close to their girls – play
while the girls worked.

 Some of the P.I.’s would wear diamonds the size of dimes.
And do you know that you could buy all of the cocaine, morphine, heroin,
and hop you wanted in the section, almost right out in the open? But I never
knew hardly any musicians that took dope. It was mostly the girls who were
out to destroy themselves if their man left them or something like that.
And in those days there were no teen-agers or anything like that takin’ dope.
Of course, there were lots of young girls workin’ in the sportin’ houses,
but that was different. Another thing about the section, there was never
a holdup or robbery that I could remember. You could drinnk and never be
afraid that anybody’d take your money.

 Well, at Pete Lala’s, everybody would gather every night
and there’d be singin’ and playin’ all night long. The piano players from
all over the South would be there, in for the races, and everybody would
take a turn until daylight.

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An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans

Chapter

1  2   3   4   5

   

Nat Hentoff’s Introduction