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.