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Red Lights and Hot Nights: The Last Days of Storyville

Storyville Girl, early 1900s. Photo by E.J. Belloq.

In 1897 the city council of New Orleans, Louisiana passed a unique ordinance that confined and regulated prostitution within a specified district of the city. Nicknamed "Storyville" after Alderman Sidney Story who proposed the ordinance, this district was home to legalized vice and gambling from January 1, 1898 until November 12, 1917 when it was shut down by the U.S. Navy.

 

In this mix of seduction, corruption and non-stop revelry, the roots of early jazz took hold. The area provided employment for jazz bands playing in dance halls and dives throughout the district—Funky Butt Hall, Come Clean Dance Hall and Mahogany Hall. 'Sporting houses' typically employed a solo piano player, referred to as the "Professor." A teenaged Jelly Roll Morton earned his chops playing in the gilt parlors of these Storyville brothels.

 

Danny Barker described New Orleans' Storyville as "a wide open area of pleasure palaces, cat houses and honky-tonks, twenty-four hours round the clock—all in the direct center of the commercial business district."

 

Vernel Bagneris. Photo courtesy Riverwalk Jazz.

The District produced its own cast of characters and many rarely ventured into other parts of the city.  Barker once made a list of these local celebrities:  "There was Black Bess, Miss Thing and Lotsa Mama. The men had names like Low Gravy and Black Satin. Bang Zang was a guy with knock-knees that made him walk crooked. Butterfoot was a bad man, so was Red Cap. And Sweet Honey was a real rough character."

 

This week, Riverwalk Jazz presents Red Lights and Hot Nights: The Last Days of Storyville.New Orleans native Vernel Bagneris brings to life scenes of the red light district, based on stories collected by Danny Barker in Buddy Bolden and The Last Days of Storyville. The Jim Cullum Jazz Band performs classics of the period:

 

"Black Rag," from the playing of Papa Celestin's Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, the rarely-heard "Peculiar Rag," and "Mama's Gone, Goodbye," composed by Vernel's great uncle Armand J. Piron.

 

Piron_redhotjazz

Armand Piron's Novelty Orchestra. Photo courtesy Red Hot Jazz Archive.

After Storyville was shut down in 1917 Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams wrote their 1925 song of wistful remembrance, "Farewell to Storyville," also known as "Good Time Flat Blues." The song was recorded by Kid Ory and Louis Armstrong and sung by Billie Holiday in the 1947 film New Orleans.

 

Arlington Café Bandstand, 1919. Photo in the public domain.

All you whorehouse queens,
From New Orleans,
Who live in Storyville,
You sang the blues,
Tried to amuse,
That's how you paid the bill.

 

The law stepped in
And called it sin,
Just to have a little fun,
The police cop
Has made a stop,
And Storyville is done!

 

No use complaining,
Blue skies follow rain,
Just say farewell now
And get your one last thrill,
Just say farewell now,
Farewell to Storyville!

 

Photo credit for home page teaser image: Vernel Bagneris. Photo courtesy Riverwalk Jazz.

 

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