With the passage of time the legend of Storyville—New Orleans’ notorious red light district—has taken on an almost mythic quality. It shines in the collective memory as a kind of Camelot of the underworld, a splendid semi-legal citadel of sin where all the normal civic virtues were turned topsy-turvy.
In reality the place was probably at least as common and sordid as it was splendid. And just below the heady atmosphere of ragtime and rye whiskey, of hot music and cold cash, was a jungle just as predatory and potentially deadly as any other.
Yet it did possess a certain perhaps sinister charm and significance, and possibly even romance of a sort: for Storyville was many things to many people, a chapter in the lives of the thousands who participated in its reign of nearly 20 years. Beyond its original public purpose, the district yielded a number of surprising results both in private lives and in cultural destinies—not the least among these was the birth of the American art form: jazz music.
It may seem ironic that an urban planning experiment designed to curb the spread of whorehouses throughout New Orleans neighborhoods could yield such a positive effect on the arts. But history is filled with irony and one history of art and music is more ironic than most. In order to unravel the riddle, it may be revealing to have a look at the lives of the players. One of these, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, is more illuminating than most.
Born to a family of French Creole mulattoes, Morton began moonlighting in the district when he was a teenager and soon got a stead y job there as a “professor” – a whorehouse pianist. He described the district with some nostalgia to musicologist Alan Lomax in his anecdotal biography, Mr. Jelly Roll.
“Music was pouring into the street from every house. Women were standing in doorways, singing or chanting some kind of blues – some very happy, some very sad, some with the desire to end it all by poison, some planning a big outing, a dance or some kind of enjoyment. Some were real ladies in spite of their downfall and some were habitual drunkards and some were dope fiends as follows, opium, heroin, cocaine, laudanum, morphine, et cetera. I was personally sent to Chinatown many times with a sealed note and a small amount of money and would bring back several cards of hop …All you had to do was walk in to be served.”
Young Jelly Roll made more money working in Storyville than he had dreamed possible. But when his good Catholic Creole family discovered what he was doing at night, he was at age 15 forever banished from the home and security of his youth. (He took refuge with his godmother in Biloxi, but continued his career as a professor in a sporting house there.)
Storyville had come into existence beginning January 1, 1898, as a technically legal red light district in an attempt to control the proliferation of whorehouses that seemed to be sprouting up in every part of town. As the police were too oblivious or corrupt to do anything about the problem, respectable citizens had vented their moral outrage and pressured the city for a solution. After all, the opening of a whorehouse next to your home could do serious damage to property values, what with the constant foot traffic and piano music all night long. And of course one’s children might fall victim to the white slave trade. (There was a constant demand for virgins it seems, and in New Orleans this usually meant young children.) Few in the city actually contemplated eliminating prostitution, which most seemed to regard as a necessary evil, but the matter of zoning became a civic crusade.
This led to another of the ironies surrounding Storyville – its name. Alderman Sidney Story had very carefully prepared the legislation authorizing the district – he had even done personal research on the subject in Europe. When the district became a legal reality, it was thus dubbed “Storyville” in his honor, by the popular press. He was not amused.
The area encompassed some 20 square blocks adjacent to the French Quarter, approximately where the Iberville housing project is located today. It was racially divided into a white and colored section, but octoroons and other racial or ethnic strains were quite popular at the best houses in the “white” section of the district. Typical prices ranged from as much as $50 dollars at the most ornate mansions to as little as 50 cents or less at the “cribs” on the outskirts. Cribs were small rooms with a window and a door on the street, both suitable for posing and sales talk.
The” district,” as it was known to its denizens, also featured numerous cabarets, honky-tonks, gambling dens and dance halls, all of which created a large demand for musical entertainers. In addition, each whorehouse of any consequence employed a “professor,” the house piano player, and there were said to be at least 30 of these.
Storyville had evolved into the biggest and probably the most famous red light district in the country. It was a little self-contained vice and entertainment kingdom, complete with its own leadership hierarchy. Its congenial monarch was Tom Anderson, who was both its leading pimp and simultaneously a state legislator. Flanking Anderson was a matriarchy of prominent madams.
And what sort of houses did these prominent ladies keep? In the case of Emma Johnson’s Studio presided over by the notorious Amazon exhibitionist of that name, the words of Morton are once again instructive. “They did a lot of things there that probably couldn’t be mentioned, and the irony part of it is that they always picked the youngest and most beautiful girls to do them right before the eyes of everybody …A screen was put up between me and the tricks they were doing for the guest, but I cut a slit in the screen, as I had come to be a sport now myself, and wanted to see what everybody else was seeing.” (Johnson had earlier gained notoriety at her parlor on Cleveland Street when she attempted to sell a child virgin to an investigative reporter for a local paper.) While Emma Johnson was perhaps the most scandalous of Storyville’ s leading ladies- “Anything Goes” was her motto, and if the price was right she would do it herself before an audience – the scene alluded to by Morton was not notably unusual.
Jelly Roll Morton had made his comeback in Storyville at the age of17, under the auspices of a voodoo priest named Papa Sona. Morton had returned from Mississippi after a bout with typhoid fever, and Papa Sona found him unemployed and still unwell at “25’s,” a musicians’ haunt in the district. After a three-week spiritualist ritual cure, Papa Sona told Morton that he would cast a spell that would cause him to be hired by the whorehouse of his choice in order that he would be able to pay the old man for his efforts. Within three days, a cured Jelly Roll Morton was hired at Hilma Burt’s, one of the fanciest houses in the district. But he neglected to pay Papa Sona, an error that he blames for his bad luck later in life. In Storyville, a voodoo priest was just another face in the crowd. (The cult was generally viewed as the dominant religion in the district.)
Equally bizarre but not just another face was the more or less” official” photographer of the district, E.J. Bellocq. Unlike his romanticized image in Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby, the real Bellocq was very short, a five foot gnome of a man with an oddly-shaped almost pointed head, and a high-pitched voice with a vaguely French accent. Despite his odd appearance, Bellocq inspired the calm confidence of his subjects- the girls of the district- and his portraits of them are incisive and as hauntingly real as the view through a window. Having survived time and neglect, they provide documentary insight of the rarest sort. (Unfortunately his photos of the secrets of the city’s Chinatown appear to have been lost forever.)
During the early years of the Twentieth Century Jelly Roll Morton became recognized as one of the two best piano players in the Storyville district, and as an accomplished pimp and formidable pool shark as well. His pianistic rival and the only musician Morton ever acknowledged as his better was Tony Jackson, composer of the tune “Pretty Baby.” Jackson himself was wildly effeminate, the kind of homosexual that blacks called a “gal boy” and it is yet another bizarre irony that in Jackson’s rendition, Pretty Baby was a reference to another man. Around Storyville this sort of thing raised few if any eyebrows, all things being relative.
How jazz came to be born in this gaudy and rather freakish environment is a matter of some speculation. Morton, never at a loss for self-promotion, claims to have “invented” it himself in 1902. While there may be a kernel of truth in that, a fairer estimation might be that the elements of jazz emerged simultaneously among different people in different places, and that Storyville was the place where the greatest concentration of jazz talents came together and influenced each other.
When researching his biography of Morton in the Forties, Alan Lomax discovered that prior to Storyville there had been little contact between the Creole mulattoes of downtown and the more American blacks “from the country” who lived uptown. The Creoles had preserved a French heritage of classical and “polite” music, while the poorer uptown blacks were immersed in the more lowdown music of the blues.
Then increased segregation and hard economic times took a toll on both groups. Music emerged as the only growth industry, and in Storyville the demand for musical entertainment was seemingly insatiable. The district employed legions of musicians of every shade, white, black and tan, and they all, perhaps grudgingly, learned from each other. Within the ferment of this ethnic gumbo the essential ingredients necessary to jazz came together. Money was the magnet and music was the common denominator that surmounted the barriers of caste and race until critical mass was achieved. Jelly Roll said: “Jazz music came from New Orleans and New Orleans was inhabited with maybe every race on the face of the globe, and of course, plenty of French people …I’m telling you when they started playing this little thing they would really whoop it up – everybody got hot and threw their hats away …”
King Oliver, Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson, Louis Armstrong Freddie Keppard, Johnny St. Cyr, and many others along with Morton were the prime movers of early jazz in the city. New Orleans gave jazz to America and America presented it to the world. The jazz age had begun. In 1917 the Secretary of the Navy decreed that StoryvilIe constituted a threat to America’s military forces and that it should be summarily and irrevocably closed down. Mayor Behrman protested this decision, and Secretary Daniels replied with a threat to take the district by military force. By the time Storyville was officially closed on November 12 of that year, most of the girls, madams and pimps had already moved, once again operating wherever they might, in various places about town. Mayor Behrman wryly commented, “You can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.”
A prime destination of this movement was the French Quarter, between Rampart and Dauphine streets. During the Twenties and Thirties vice activity was so intense there that the Quarter developed a reputation it has yet to outlive.
Many of the jazz musicians moved north to Chicago and New York, a migration that began even before Storyville was officially closed. In Chicago the bosses of the mob replaced the vice lords as jazz’s principal patrons, and a new generation of northern musicians (including Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke and Gene Krupa) learned directly from these New Orleans veterans. Jelly Roll Morton himself emerged as one of the preeminent American recording artists of the 1920s, with his band, the Red Hot Peppers.
With the closure of the district in 1917, many of the older and more successful madams simply retired, changed their identities and moved to other cities. Emma Johnson died in St. Louis in 1927. Tom Anderson, the vice king married his former business partner, Gertrude Dix, at age seventy-one. He became actively religious at that time, and when he died in 1931 his Picayune obituary pictured him as an honored church worker.
E.J. Bellocq died on the corner of Carondelet and Common around 1941, a few years after he retired, never knowing that his pictures would one day grace art books and museums around the world, or that his life would ever be the subject of a motion picture.
Thus ended a legend. Rich, colorful, complex, as well a tawdry, sinister and dangerous. Storyville was truly a world unto itself. Vivid descriptions are available in books such as Lomax’s Mister Jelly Roll, and AI Rose’s colorful compendium, Storyville, New Orleans. Yet, despite all descriptions and explanations, the place remains as mysterious as a dream; all accounts come across as incredibly subjective, sometimes conflicting, occasionally astounding.
Perhaps because it was a legally sanctioned city within a city devoted to all that was pagan, sensational and irrational, it seems fitting that Storyville’s legacy often ranges from the poetic to the surreal- music, songs and pictures of the most whimsical sort.