The Noise Goes on Forever: A History of New Orleans Noise Ordinances

History of New Orleans Noise Ordinances: New Orleans Picayune Clipping

The August 2, 1838 issue of the New Orleans Picayune is only four pages long. Much of that length is taken up by advertisements extolling the virtues of anti-venereal disease tonics, and/ or promising rewards for the return of runaway slaves.

Nestled in the left column of page two is a one-paragraph editorial, the author of which is evidently distressed at a scourge that has descended upon New Orleans. “There is a real mania in this city for horn and trumpet playing,” it begins. “You can hardly turn a corner that you do not hear some amateur attempting, in a perfect agony, to perform his devotions to the god of music.”

Was that anonymous editor a lone voice, crying in the wilderness? Or was a conflict simmering beneath the surface, obscured now by the passage of time? In 1856, the New Orleans city council passed an ordinance declaring it unlawful “to beat a drum, or blow a horn, or sound a trumpet in any street or public place within the limits of the city,” excepting military bands and processions.

One wonders what sorts of tunes those amateur trumpeters might have been attempting. Perhaps the latest imported English hymn, or snippets of a military march. It certainly would have been a far cry from the funk-driven brass numbers that echo through the French Quarter today.

Last year, police chief Ronal Serpas, appointed by incoming mayor Mitch Landrieu, announced that his department would resume enforcement of an ordinance requiring street performers to retire by 8 p.m. The announcement sparked a heated debate as musicians and their allies battled with residents and club owners over the right to perform. In September, the ordinance was put on hold while the city council held meetings to discuss a compromise.

The debate over the musicians’ curfew involves issues basic to the cultural character of New Orleans: the proper role of noise regulation in a musical city and the fundamental identity of the French Quarter. These are not new questions. They are at least as old as the first bands that trudged through the Vieux Carré some two hundred years ago.

Even in the early 19th Century, New Orleanians had a prodigious appetite for brass music. In his history New Orleans Music: The Formative Years, Henry H. Kmen surveys the newspapers and notes that “on a random Sunday in 1833 one can find notices for at least ten different companies to march.” In those days, the bands had yet to stray far from their military origins, but they could be counted on to lend pomp to just about any occasion. “Good weather on a Sunday,” notes Kmen, “was the only excuse needed to turn out the bands of the militia companies.”

Yet what may be New Orleans’ earliest piece of noise legislation did not concern music at all. In 1842, the city council approved a measure restricting the blowing of horns by carriage drivers. What effect this had is hard to know, but apparently the nuisance of carriage noise continued. In 1856, the New Orleans Picayune published an editorial complaining of the racket produced by carriages with “iron boxes upon the axles”. The previous month, the first district recorder’s office had been relocated so as to “get clear of the annoying noise kept up constantly” by vehicles in the street.

“The ambient environment was so different then,” says Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University. “It would have consisted of steamboats, lots of ambient noise coming from the river, as well as street criers.” The criers were a ubiquitous presence in those days, when it was the custom for street merchants to call out their wares to passersby, often in song. Lafcadio Hearn transcribed one such song, delivered in a mixture of French and English by a man selling charcoal from a horse-drawn wagon: “Chaah- ahr-coal! Coaly-Coaly! Charbon! Du charbon, Madame?”

The 1856 anti-music law is just one part of a 57-section ordinance, which also contained a law requiring the owners of private exotic menageries to hire aroundthe- clock armed guards. How much attention law enforcement would have devoted to rogue horn players is difficult to know. Police reports from the period list arrests for crimes ranging from arson to bigamy to poisoning, but musical criminals, if there were any, appear to have been lumped under the catch-all heading “disturbing the peace”.

If nothing else, the law tells us that there were enough musicians on the street to justify its existence, and enough influential malcontents to push it through. Contemporary accounts suggest that mid-19th Century New Orleans was, if it is possible, even brassier than it is today. An editor of the New Orleans Item in 1853 describes his neighborhood as “favored frequently with ten street bands, passing one after the other, some in tune and some not, all playing different airs, and frequently all playing together.”

Of particular concern to New Orleanians of virtue was the intrusion of brass music into the silence of the Sabbath. A Picayune editorial from May 8, 1839 expresses this opinion while providing an early inkling of the racial dynamic that would come to characterize much of the noise debate. “We cannot see any necessity,” it insists, “in those 3 or 4 negroes attached to the uptown companies going about the city early on Sunday mornings, squeaking and rattle-te-banging away on their fifes and drums, and waking every body up… we suppose this is rare fun to them; but a large portion of the citizens see no fun in it.”

A northern bishop by the name of Henry Whipple visited New Orleans in 1844 and recorded his impressions in his Southern Diary. He noted disapprovingly that “Sunday in New Orleans loses the quiet stillness which hallows the day in New England … the military delight in parading in front of the churches and it is but a few sabbaths since that the Rev. Mr. Wheaton of the Epis. Church was obliged to quit preaching & dismiss his congregation on a/c of the noise & confusion of the military!” Whipple wondered why these sounds could not be reserved for “some other day than that which should be “holy.”

James Creecy gives a similar account of a New Orleans Sunday in Scenes in the South. “While the holy mass is being presented to the pious worshipper,” he observes, “the words of command, clash of arms, rolling of drums, the fife’s shrill whistle, and the crock of rifles, are heard above all!” In spite of this omnipresent sacrilege, it was not until 1886 that an ordinance was passed banning “hand organs or any other musical instrument” from being played within 300 feet of a place of worship.

It seems that by the middle of the 19th Century, street musicians were required to procure a license if they wished to perform unmolested. A remarkable incident is chronicled in the January 3, 1849 issue of the Picayune; it seems that a hapless Italian organ grinder had the misfortune to be hauled before a judge, monkey and all, for performing without a license. Speaking neither French nor English, the poor grinder would have been out of luck if not for the impassioned supplications of his monkey, who “[took] off his cap to his honor … twenty times in so many seconds,” and “favor[ed] him with a tune upon the tambourine.” This “excited the risibles of his honor to such an extent that he let the itinerants depart in peace.”

The saga of the organ grinders occupies its own peculiar place in the history of New Orleans street music. Editorial opinion on this early form of mechanical music was decidedly mixed. The New Orleans Times called at one point for its suppression, while the Item asked, “where is the man with soul so dead as not to be moved by the music of the organ grinder well ground out?” As late as 1920, as grinders disappeared from the streets, a poem printed in the Picayune admitted, “though no soul-stuff they express with their discordant strings / though low and vulgar I confess I sort of like the things.”

In the decades before and after the turn of the last century, a new resource becomes available: the first-hand accounts of early jazzmen. In his autobiography, Treat It Gentle, Sidney Bechet (born 1897) tells of the peculiar behavior of law enforcement toward the second lines during his youth. “The police,” he explains, “used to beat up the people and break them up and get them moving … but somehow they never did touch the musicianers; I never did see that happen.”

Historian Charles B. Hersch explains the seemingly fickle attitudes of law enforcement towards jazz at the turn of the century. “Most of the ordinances were not enforced if the noise was in black neighborhoods,” he says. “It was only if it ‘invaded’ ‘respectable’ white neighborhoods that it became a problem.” In his history Subversive Sounds, Hersch describes how “as early as 1892, police received citizen complaints over loud late-night partying and ragtime music in ‘respectable’ neighborhoods,” and how inspectors “granted, withheld, or revoked permits for live music to control vice.” Responding to the “perceived social dangers of jazz,” he writes, “opponents of the new music tried to contain it temporally and spatially.”

In those days, jazz and ragtime music remained inextricably wrapped up in the consciousness of polite society with the myriad evils of gambling, drunkenness and prostitution. But mounting public enthusiasm for jazz put serious obstacles in the way of those who sought to contain it. Several publications from 1918 mention the brief existence of a college organization called the Society for the Suppression of Ragtime, but suggest that it quickly disbanded in the face of overwhelming popular enthusiasm for the music. That same year, the editors of the Picayune made their opinion on “jass” clear. “We should make it a point of civic honor,” they wrote, “to suppress it.”

But the world was becoming a noisier place, and jazz was not the only culprit. The sudden encroachment of car horns, radios and other mechanical noises into city life led to an explosion of noise laws in the early 20th Century. This regulatory fervor would not have gone unnoticed by those who sought to suppress immoral forms of music.

On March 20th, 1917, the New Orleans Commission Council adopted a resolution requiring the owners of restaurants and barrooms to obtain mayoral permission before presenting musical entertainment. The targets of the law were the so-called cabarets, loosely defined by Superintendent Mooney as establishments combining music, dancing and “women of questionable character.”

The atmosphere of fear and suspicion that permeated the war years was fertile ground for opponents of vice; pressure from the Navy—concerned about the effect of loose morality on enlisted men— would soon result in the closure of New Orleans’ Storyville District. By the time US troops appeared on the European battlefield in 1918, the Picayune was writing the obituary of cabaret life in dramatic fashion: “In every cabaret within the city limits the snare drum rolled forth its last note,” it mourned. “The sliding trombone gave vent to its last moan. The pianist touched the last key, and the voice of the singer was silenced—for the lid had descended on cabarets and for the duration of the war it will remain clamped down.”

This assessment was a trifle melodramatic, for the silencing of the cabarets was neither instant nor complete. Within days of the law’s passage, a legal battle was heating up with several prominent cabaret owners at its center. The fight would continue to bounce between the courts until war fever had subsided. By 1920, it seemed clear that Mayor Martin Behrman had used his sweeping powers under the law to grant a virtual monopoly to the well-connected Thomas C. Anderson, proprietor of the Arlington Cabaret.

Twenty years after the cabaret battle, James Cooper, owner of the Court of the Two Sisters in the French Quarter, found himself in a legal battle with neighborhood residents for the right to present music late at night. An appellate judge, in describing the case, gave a neat summation of the fundamental disagreement that even today seems to lie at the center of the noise debate. Cooper, he explained, “employs certain persons who, by means of musical instruments, produce what he terms music, but which, apparently, is thought by the petitioners in this proceeding to be a concatenation of loud, unusual and disturbing noises.”

Legal attempts to deal with “noise” have continued to the present day, but their enforcement comes in cycles. Many remember police in the 1970s standing outside of clubs with “noise-o-meters”—or the infamous 1996 incident in which a 10-year-old Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his cousin Glen David were among those arrested in Jackson Square for violating noise laws. In January 1997, this magazine printed an article about the incident and the ensuing debate, in which a resident of Jackson Square’s upscale Pontalba apartment building gave his thoughts. “Musicians would have us think it has always been this way,” he said. “And it has not.”

But it has, and the conflict shows no signs of abating. One night last June, Quality of Life Officer Roger Jones of the NOPD approached the TBC Brass Band at the corner of Bourbon and Canal, where the group has held court for nearly a decade. He informed them that effective immediately they would be required to vacate the sidewalk at 8 p.m. The following night, a crowd turned out to support TBC as they began a campaign of musical brinkmanship that forced the city to back down for the time being.

The crackdown was not limited to one block. Other street musicians were told to pack it up, and the Young Fellaz Brass Band, which plays many nights at the corner of Frenchmen and Chartres, also received a notice. While obscured by the countless changes that have overtaken New Orleans in the last century and a half, the spiritual connection between the old laws and the new is not difficult to discern. How we choose to treat musicians will have far-reaching effects on the cultural future of this city, as will the extent to which authorities are empowered to decide what kinds of music are and are not acceptable on our streets.

In May of 1918, Joe “King” Oliver was performing with the Ory band at the Winter Garden club at the corner of Rampart and Gravier when the establishment was raided by the police. A rival club owner had reported the Winter Garden to be in violation of prohibition laws, and the musicians, carted off along with the customers, were booked on trumped-up charges of “disturbing the peace”. Oliver had previously refused offers for work outside of New Orleans, but he was so disgusted that he left for Chicago the very next month.

We should by no means assume that music in New Orleans today is safe from this type of short-sighted political meddling. The jazz that so frightened polite society 100 years ago now enjoys hard-won respectability, but its modern descendants are still greeted with suspicion. There remain plenty of Chicagos that would be more than happy to take these musicians off our hands.