New Orleans String Bands at the Turn of the Century

During the last two decades of the 19th Century, string bands with skilled Creole musicians were in high demand all around New Orleans. They performed at various functions, including picnics, parlor room parties and balls. Between 1884 and 1917 there were major changes in how the music was played, brought on by the changing demands of dancers and the changing attitudes in response to the implementation of the Black Codes (U.S. laws limiting civil liberties of blacks) in the late 1800s.

There were three main types of ensemble performing around New Orleans from the 1880s to 1917: brass bands (for funerals), society orchestras and string bands. Being smaller and in demand in more diverse settings, the string ensembles had more flexibility and were expected to entertain with up-to-date songs and dancing music.

New Orleans String Band. From Left: Youman Jacob, Coochie Martin, Unidentified, Wendell McNeil. Photo from University of Connecticut.

From Left: Youman Jacob, Coochie Martin, Unidentified, Wendell McNeil. Photo courtesy of Samuel and Ann Charters Archives, University of Connecticut.

In 1897, the Storyville District opened, and at Tom Anderson’s Annex on the corner of Basin Street and Canal there was a string band that played every night that, over the decades, featured musicians such as Wendell McNeil (pictured), Bill Johnson and, probably, Lorenzo Tio, Jr. The location of this venue, at the border of the uptown and downtown areas, is highly symbolic, as pioneers of the new musical concepts arose from the cultural interaction between uptown and downtown groups.

Wendell McNeil

Wendell McNeil was a Creole violinist who doubled on mandolin in John Robichaux’s society orchestra, a strictly reading ensemble. Yet, the string band he played in was not a reading ensemble but a group
of “routiners” or “raggers” performing “head arrangements” in a collective improvisation style of popular songs and blues. Also, McNeil taught music uptown at Fisk Elementary School between 1896 and 1900. Of the students who went to Fisk, Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong stand out.

Bill Johnson

In retrospect, Bill Johnson could be considered one of the most influential musicians of his time. He revolutionized the upright bass fiddle with his pizzicato and slapping techniques and led the groundbreaking Creole Jazz Band, which he worked with from its earliest days through the period in Chicago when it was led by King Oliver and featured Louis Armstrong. His innovative bass techniques were central to the emerging jazz ensemble styles.

Lorenzo Tio, Jr.

Lorenzo Tio, Jr. was a clarinetist, teacher and leader among the highly skilled Eurocentric Creole musicians. Like other string bands of this era, Tio’s popular Big-Four String Band (a.k.a. the Tio-Doublet String Band) had a repertoire rooted in European classics and was geared towards dancers, performing polkas, mazurkas, schottisches, quadrilles and waltzes. However, the changing tastes of the dancing audiences required the music to be ever new, exciting and entertaining. When ragtime came in they played that too, with the then-common minstrel approach that embraced a more active in-the-moment exchange between audience and musicians.

The string bands that performed at Anderson’s Annex potentially had some of the most important traits of the new music that would come to be called jazz: a swinging rhythm built on the bass’ harmonic foundation; sophisticated soloists mixing virtuoso technical ability; Eurocentric harmonies and forms (and probably a Latin lilt to boot), with syncopated rhythms (giving an element of surprise); personal expression; and individual and collective improvisation, within the repetitive forms of up-to- date pop songs, including blues.

This is the world Louis Armstrong would come of age in, selling papers and coal in the neighborhood and starting to play music. According to Armstrong: “There were many different kinds of people and instruments to inspire me to carry on with my music when I was a boy. I always loved music, and it did not matter what the instrument was or who played it so long as the playing was good.”

The concept of a swinging ensemble dominated by a rhythm section of strings was picked up in the 1920s by the Belgian gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and his peers. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Western Swing bands and Bill Monroe’s bluegrass groups followed suit in string bands tinged with New Orleans jazz. It isn’t until the late 1940s that we have recordings of a New Orleans string band, a quartet formed around 1910 and modeled after the bands the players had heard in Anderson’s Annex. This band, Edmond “Doc” Souchon’s 6 7/8 String Band, with rhythm guitar, mandolin, “Hawaiian” slide guitar and bass, may be the best surviving evidence of a string band in the style of collective improvisation on early ragtime, society, pop and novelty tunes played around the turn of the century.

Seva Venet is a New Orleans guitarist, banjoist and the leader of the Storyville Stringband.

  • Mike

    Great article but surely you skipped a step in jumping to Django and his friends. They were strongly influenced by the recordings of Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti, who made many fine guitar/violin based records starting in 1926 or so.

  • Seva Venet

    Hi Mike,
    Thank you for your interest.  And you are correct that Lang and Venuti preceded Django in recording jazz. Unfortunately, I was limited in space for the article and left out much more that was included (90% would be an under statement.)  The focus of the article was on New Orleans string bands around the turn of the century and their influence on the first generation of jazz musicians up to Louis Armstrong.  Django Reinhardt (who is a household name -at least among music lovers of whom are readers of Offbeat publications) was used in the closing paragraph for perspective.