You will often hear it said that “jazz was the soundtrack to the Roaring 20s.” However, the birth of this musical genre took place nearly two decades earlier in the form of “New Orleans Jazz” and the bright, brassy sounds of the black brass marching bands in the streets of New Orleans. Usually, we think of jazz as a post-WWI phenomenon, but really it began before the war did. It was the Victrola, promoted and sold by the Victor Talking Machine Company, that literally broadcast the new sound across the country and made early jazz nearly synonymous with flapper dresses, the Charleston, and, later, Gatsby.
New Orleans jazz originated with the invention of the “Big Four” beat by Buddy “King” Bolden, a cornetist whose band, the Bolden Band, was popular in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Bolden has been dubbed the “father of jazz,” although he is far from alone in holding this title. The Bolden Band combined ragtime and blues in an innovative manner, using brass instruments to play both blues tones and gospel music. Because Bolden and his bandmates played mostly by ear, they were among the first to extemporaneously rearrange well-known tunes to better accommodate their own musical preferences and performances. The “Big Four” beat is a rhythmic variation on marching band beats that allows for more improvisational music than other traditional rhythms. Without the “Big Four,” embryonic jazz might not have become the improvisational art form it is today.
Bolden’s band was popular in New Orleans until 1907, when Bolden himself succumbed to a possibly alcohol-induced psychosis that ultimately led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He was institutionalized and spent the rest of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum. Jazz, however, was here to stay, and Bolden’s bold move of bringing brass to the blues would set the stage for the bands that would soon begin combining cornets, trumpets, clarinets, trombones, string instruments, drums, and piano to create the lush point-counterpoint of increasingly spontaneous, robust jazz sounds.
Jazz continued to evolve throughout the early 20thcentury, but it truly began to be broadcast across the air during and after WWI. This was due, in large part, to the popular phonograph, which had actually been invented more than 30 years earlier but only began to be mass-produced and -marketed in the 1920s. What better sound to play on your new Victor Talking Machine (Victrola) than the bright, brave sounds of jazz that had sustained hope throughout the war and personified everything bold, hopeful, and irreverent about the new decade? Jazz flourished as more people began listening to and modeling the sound in their own performances, ultimately leading to the evolution of the genre familiar to most of us in the mellow sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing.”
Unlike many musical genres that have evolved, boomed, and then faded, the creative, spontaneous elements of jazz mean that this music will likely never fade from the American consciousness. In fact, you still hear elements of the “greats” and the “grandfathers” of this music today in Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz, and even the “Fusion” of the 1990s. Of course, in the 21stcentury, we not only hear echoes of the classics and plenty of mimics of them, but also we hear jazz tones in hip-hop, rap, R&B, and the intriguing “jazz rap” that samples jazz from other eras.
As musicians, artists, and humans, we never stop “broadcasting.” This is particularly true in this day and age. And as long we’re broadcasting and our speakers are working, you can be sure jazz will remain in our music and on our stages — virtual, electronic, and otherwise.
Toward the end of the 19thcentury, fully two decades before the official dawn of the Jazz Age, a New Orleans Alderman proposed an ordinance that would change the face of music. That Alderman, Sidney Story, did not have music on his mind, however, when he proposed Ordinance No. 13,032. He was thinking of something a little “bluer,” so to speak.
Story’s ordinance actually targeted prostitution, not Stride pianists. In an effort to regulate local illicit activities, Story hoped that making red-light behavior illegal everywhere other than the area bounded by North Robertson, Iberville, Basin, and St. Louis streets would enable the city to more easily keep “sales activities under control.” The district almost immediately was dubbed “Storyville” and quickly became a hotbed of tourism, with local stores publishing “blue books” describing services, prices, and houses in titillating detail.
Story believed the move would be a positive one both ethically and economically for the area. In reality, he accomplished neither, although some of the more successful madams had a nice run of it before losing their fortunes in “investment schemes” when their establishments later became illegal. However, historians do give Storyville credit for one very significant cultural contribution: the origin of Jazz.
Beginning with the passage of Story’s ordinance in 1897 and ending in 1917 when the entire red light district was permanently shuttered to “protect” local Naval officers and enlisted men from illicit entertainment, Storyville was a mecca for established professional pianists and aspiring composers and musicians who hoped to make a splash in an entertainment arena dedicated to lively, rollicking fun 24/7.
Much like Las Vegas casinos decades later, Storyville’s establishments dedicated huge portions of their operational budgets to keeping the good times going all the time. Expensive mansions dedicated to luring wealthy customers into the area became not only locations for a good time in the colloquial sense of the word, but also for anyone who enjoyed the emerging strains of what would become what we recognize today as the origins of 1920s jazz.
While Storyville is not by any stretch the only place that jazz began to emerge as a powerful musical trend, it certainly was a cauldron of mixed musical styles. The creative juices flowed from stages throughout the area thanks in large part to desegregation of those stages. Although music labels in the early 20thcentury insisted bands signed remain fully segregated, Storyville’s stages were increasingly unsegregated, and jazz flourished and evolved as a result.
The End (and Beginning) of an Era
When Storyville was officially closed in 1917, the musicians on its stages headed north to Chicago, which would soon emerge as the next major urban center for jazz. Storyville fell victim to a World War I regulation prohibiting brothels from operating within five miles of a military base. However, the district’s legacy includes Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, Ann Cook, Joe “King” Oliver, and Pops Foster, among dozens of others.
Although proprietors of local establishments attempted to continue in business as dance halls, cabarets, and restaurants, repeated raids drove the most determined (and usually most profitable) entrepreneurs out of business. Those business owners tended to persistently operate speakeasies, gambling joints, and now-illegal brothels behind closed doors, so the entire area suffered under constant police raids.
When the National Prohibition Act followed quickly on the heels of the devastating 1917 regulation outlawing prostitution, Storyville began to sink figuratively into the past and literally into the ground. By the 1930s, the area had been leveled to create New Orleans’ Iberville Projects, which were closed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, demolished in 2013, and now stand, resurrected, as an affordable-housing, mixed-use development boasting one of the lowest crime rates for low-income housing in New Orleans.
Today, Storyville holds a place only in history and myth, but every time you hear “Potato Head Blues” or Pops Fosters’ distinct slap bass style, take a quick second to thank Alderman Story for his failed attempt to regulate human nature and his inadvertent success as a catalyst for jazz.