American Hauntings Podcast

The Birth of Jazz and the Red Light District

Episode Summary

Today we discuss the birth of jazz music and its incorporation into the red-light district of early New Orleans, from Basin Street to Storyville.

Episode Notes

Today we discuss the birth of jazz music and its incorporation into the red-light district of early New Orleans, from Basin Street to Storyville.

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Jazz music is, without a doubt, an American invention. That’s about the only thing that we know for sure, other than it originated within the African-American communities of New Orleans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was not actually born in the red-light districts of New Orleans – it just seemed that way. It was in the city’s whorehouses that jazz became famous.

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Want to read ahead for this season? Check out the book Haunted New Orleans by Troy Taylor.

This episode was written by Troy Taylor. Produced and edited by Cody Beck.

Theme music by Charlie Brockus and Alan T Fagan.

Monologue Music by:

Episode Transcription

Welcome to the new episode of American Hauntings, the podcast dedicated to the history, hauntings, legends, and lore of America’s past. The show is hosted by Cody Beck and Troy Taylor and we are now deep into our fourth season, “Haunted New Orleans.”

If you are tuning into the podcast for the first time, we suggest you start listening to the “Haunted New Orleans” season with episode 53, which is where this season begins and where we set the stage for the many dark tales ahead. In each episode of the season, we’ll be revealing the history, mystery, spirits, scandals, and sins of New Orleans – a city that we believe is the most haunted in America.

So, put your money roll in your front pocket, shine your shoes, turn on some jazz records and get ready for the next episode of Haunted New Orleans.

Jazz music is, without a doubt, an American invention. That’s about the only thing that we know for sure, other than it originated within the African-American communities of New Orleans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Even though jazz has its roots in the blues, Ragtime, traditional African music, and spirituals, it’s unlike any other kind of music that exists. It is one of America’s original art forms, and, despite legends, it was not actually born in the red-light districts of New Orleans – it just seemed that way. It was in the city’s whorehouses that jazz became famous.

The new sound was truly born sometime in the middle 1890s, in the working-class black clubs and honky-tonks near the poor Uptown neighborhood. You could hear it in the venues in and around South Rampart Street – like Dago Tony’s and the Red Onion – and further away, in the dives on the other side of Canal Street. For a time, the music was only known to those who flocked to such places – the so-called “ratty people.” But before long, the new sound was being heard in parks, on street corners, in dance halls, and well beyond the confines of the black neighborhoods.

And, of course, that’s when the trouble started.

It’s believed to have been a young cornet player from Uptown named Buddy Bolden who first played the music later known as jazz. Certainly, many others – black, mixed-race, and even white – would later lay claim to the distinction, but many of his contemporaries believe that it was Bolden who started it all. To hear them tell the story, he was extraordinary. The Bolden sound, to hear witnesses describe it, was hot, wide-open, low-down and – like his most ardent fans – “ratty.” It was bluesy and folksy and made you want to dance. You won’t find any recordings of Buddy today, but you can get an idea of his sound by searching out the Buddy Bolden Legacy Band. Give them a listen and you’ll understand how groundbreaking this sound was for the time.

Soon, Buddy was attracting a lot of attention – and a lot of imitators. Even some of the older musicians took notice. There were plenty of bandleaders in the city already making innovative music, but Buddy took things in a whole new direction. It wasn’t just for coronet players either. It quickly became popular with clarinetists, trombone and bass players, drummers, and guitarists. Young musicians were taking old tunes -- and making up new ones – and putting their own personalities to them. It was new music created by untrained musicians who were doing whatever they wanted.

Eventually, though, the new sound played by Buddy and his imitators became so popular – among working-class audiences both black and white – that it started drawing unwanted attention.. The police would show up at so-called cutting contests – where two bands would meet and try and outplay each other – and start cracking heads to “restore order.” City reformers also started to take notice, and they didn’t like what they heard. To their ears, the new sound was dangerous, an affront to their notions of respectability, restraint, temperance, and civil order. The new black music represented excess and sexuality, a direct violation of traditional moral values. Worst of all, it promoted contact – much of it the most scandalous type – across the color line. This was intolerable to most southern whites of the era.

Jazz represented everything the self-styled white supremacists hated. They wanted order, racial purity, and respectability, and that meant it had to be suppressed. Many whites in the city believed that the music literally challenged the Jim Crow laws of the time, by bringing black and white audiences together. Jazz was, in a very real sense, an expression of defiance, rebelling against the increasing efforts to marginalize and suppress the African-American race. Because of this, it was viewed as a threat to the entire social order that was being reasserted in the post-Reconstruction era South.

Organized efforts to quash the growth of jazz were still a few years away. In the meantime, there were just sporadic acts of intimidation – a band at a party broken up here, a racially mixed street party raided by the police there. In 1896, during one of the city’s occasional smallpox outbreaks, an effort was made to close the notorious “Negro dives” of Franklin Street. It was allegedly for health reasons, but it was really to shut down the jazz bands. Regardless, the effort failed.

And then came Storyville, where it was hoped that jazz music could be as easily segregated and contained as prostitution would be. It was the first phase of the city’s efforts to reform. By putting everything disrespectable and disruptive in one place, it would make it easier to control.

Or so they thought.

Prostitution had been part of New Orleans since the very beginning. In fact, the first women who were shipped over from France when the colony began were prostitutes and criminals who were recruited from the prisons. Sporting houses did big business in the city and because of this politicians and police officers – always happy for a pay-off – turned a blind eye to vice. They saw prostitution as a necessary evil that should be regulated, not suppressed.

Vice was then confined during this time to a few districts near the river, except for a couple of high-class brothels that were secreted on Royal and Chartres Streets in the French Quarter. It began to boom in the 1840s and started to spread throughout the city. Aside from a few futile gestures from reform groups, nothing was done to attempt to curb the spread of the brothels and sporting houses. The politicians were useless, having already been bribed into submission, and they had no interest in the ruinous effects on the real estate in the neighborhood of the complaints of hundreds of property owners who were forced by the proximity of the bawdy houses to abandon their homes. The movement was encouraged rather than hampered by the Union soldiers during the Civil War and by 1870, there were more than 119,000 bordellos in the city, from expensive parlor houses to 15-cent cribs. New Orleans was a wide-open town and there was scarcely a block in the city that did not contain at least one brothel.

For nearly five decades, starting in the middle 1800s, brothels operated with little or no concealment in New Orleans and they paid tribute to local politicians, the police, and to various city and state governments. The payments were divided according to the size of the brothel and how much business was being carried out. During some occasions, like Mardi Gras, when the city was filled with free-spending strangers, graft payments would increase. During times of depression, quick-thinking politicians not only omitted their regular collections, but frequently advanced money to the brothels to pay their running expenses until business improved, when they shared heavily in the gross income.

While there were other sections of New Orleans that gained sordid reputations as abodes of vice, none of them reached the notoriety of Basin Street, which began at St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, ran southward to Canal, and in the same general direction through the American section to Toledano Street. Although long vanished from any map of New Orleans, the memory of Basin Street still lives on in stories, old photographs, and blues songs.

For almost a half century, Basin Street was the main artery of the red light district. Both sides of the street were lined with the most ostentatious, luxurious ,and expensive brothels in America. They were three-story mansions of brick and brownstone, filled with hand-carved mahogany woodwork, Oriental rugs, silver doorknobs, grand pianos, marble fireplaces, copies of famous paintings and statuary, lavish furnishings and all the finest things that could be purchased or imported. Only wine and champagne were served in these places. The ladies wore evening gowns and in many places, could not be seen without an appointment. When not entertaining in the luxurious bedrooms, the ladies escorted their gentleman callers into rooms where musicians, dancers, and singers performed nightly.

A few of the larger brothels were staffed by as many as 30 women, each of whom paid her madam from $30 to $50 a week for food and lodging, and more for laundry and other incidentals. The fees paid by the customers ranged from $5 to $20 for a single experience and from $20 to $50 if he wished to spend the entire night. This included breakfast in the morning and, if needed, cab fare home. In later years, as Basin Street declined considerably in tone, the rates saw a drastic reduction. The wine changed to beer, the evening gowns to plain frocks or nothing at all, the performers to erotic exhibitions, and the string quartets became tin whistles or a piano. It was a drastic change, but not much different than the one that changed Basin Street from a quiet residential neighborhood to one of the most controversial thoroughfares in the city.

Basin Street’s evolution began in the 1830s, when New Orleans began experiencing its first significant growth in population. The street became one of the finest residential districts in the city, with handsome shade trees and imposing mansions occupied by wealthy American families. But it was not to last. By the end of the Civil War, Basin Street began to change. Unfortunately, it lay directly in the path of the prostitutes as they began moving north and east away from the earlier underworld areas, where brothels had been established before the war. A few sporting houses were apparently located on Basin Street as early as 1860, but the first of the large bordellos was established by Kate Townsend in 1866.

According to rumor, the house was built at the joint expense of a police department official, a parish recorder, and several members of the City Council. The names of the men were never made public, which made it merely sordid New Orleans gossip, but it was likely true. Kate Townsend was one of the most influential courtesans in the history of the city and for many years, her bordello was a favorite meeting place for politicians and city officials.

Kate occupied a large suite of rooms on the first floor of her bordello at No. 40 Basin Street and she spent more than $40,000 decorating them in fine style. The rest of the house was furnished in gaudy magnificence and every floor boasted an overabundance of gilt, plate glass, and velvet. The building and contents was said to be worth well over $200,000. Only a high-class trade was encouraged and lower persons who occasionally made it into the place were thrown out by Kate herself. The number of girls regularly on duty varied between 10 and 20. Each girl was given one day off each week and all of them were schooled in the art of being a lady. Evening dress was required, and bawdy talk and lewd behavior was not allowed. When a gentleman arrived, he was met at the door by a uniformed maid. If he was a steady client, many of whom had charge accounts, he was ushered into the drawing room, where he was expected to buy wine for the assembled company. If the man was a stranger, he was shown into an anteroom and questioned by Kate, who also drank a glass of wine with him, which he paid for, of course. If his credentials were in order, he was ushered into the drawing room and allowed to pick from the girls. Once he made his choice, they discreetly retired to the young woman’s boudoir for a price of usually $15. A few of the more popular girls earned $20. Kate Townsend herself was occasionally available for the entertainment of a particularly distinguished client at the going rate of $50 an hour. But he had to be a man of particular tastes since Kate tipped the scales at over 300 pounds.

The operation brought Kate great prosperity for the next half dozen years but as the power of the politicians upon whom she depended began to wane, she was compelled to abandon some of her stricter rules, lower her rates, and open the brothel to men of lesser wealth and importance. The new clients brought almost as much money into the house in the long run but the fact that Kate had to lower her standards in such a way weighed so heavily on her mind that she began to display a mean streak and a violent temper, which naturally drove away some of the trade.

When Kate was murdered in 1883, though, it was a scandal that shocked the city.

Early in her career, Kate had formed a relationship with Treville Egbert Sykes, who went by the name of “Bill.” He came from a good New Orleans family but by the late 1870s had run out of money and luck. Kate took pity on him, gave him a job keeping books, and allowed him to live in a room on the second floor of the brothel. He lived there for five years, during which time, according to his story, he led “a dog’s life”. Kate allegedly beat him, locked him in his room, refused to give him spending money, cut off one of his toes with a knife she always carried, and frequently threatened to kill him when he refused her orders. Kate, on the other hand, often complained that Bill was jealous and a thief and that he interfered with her business. A few months after he took up residence in her house, she had him arrested for forging her signature to five checks that totaled up to $7,000. She later refused to prosecute, and the charges were dropped.

Kate’s troubles with Bill hit their low point in October 1883 when she became infatuated with a young man named McLern, who often came to the house, borrowed money, and allowed Kate to lavish him with gifts. Bill tried to throw McLern out of the house, but he ended up being beaten by Kate and her new lover. Kate was still so angry the next day that she picked up a butcher’s knife in the kitchen and went looking for Bill so she could kill him.  Luckily, she didn’t find him.

A few days later, on November 1, Kate and McLern went out drinking with friends. They got into an argument and Kate was son angry – and so drunk – that she told a friend that she needed to stab someone. Since she didn’t want to stab McLern, she said that she’d “go home and open Sykes’s belly.”

When she got there, one of the girls warned Bill that he was in danger and he locked himself in his room and bolted the door. But Kate passed out before she could do any damage. She slept through the next day and woke on November 3 with a terrible hangover. Around 9:30 that morning, the maid heard screams, breaking glass, and a wild commotion coming from Kate’s room. A few minutes later, Bill opened the door. His clothing was in shreds and he was covered with blood.

Kate Townsend was dead.

She had been stabbed 11 times. Bill told the police that he had gone to her room that morning and she pulled a knife from under her pillow and attacked him. He managed to get the knife away from her, he said, and she attacked him with a pair of scissors. He had to kill her then – it was self-defense.

Kate’s body was dressed in a $600 white silk gown and laid out in the drawing room. Those who came to pay their respects were served champagne. Her body was followed to the cemetery by a procession of 20 carriages – there was not a man in any of them. The Public Administrator took charge of the brothel and soon afterwards leased it to another madam, who operated it until her death in 1889. After that, the house was closed, and the contents were auctioned off. It later became an Elks lodge.

Bill Sykes was tried for murder but was acquitted. No one could prove that his claims of self-defense were not true. He then sued to try and claim Kate’s estate and by the time it made it through the court system, it was settled in 1888 with about $33,000 left. After the state took its taxes and the lawyers took their fees, Bill ended up with just $34.

Basin Street was, of course, not the only home to brothels and bordellos in New Orleans. By the 1890s, they had become scattered throughout the city, especially in the French Quarter, and city finally came to the realization that unless some sort of suppressive or regulatory measures were carried out, the city would eventually be transformed into one large vice district. Several regulatory ordinances were proposed, but all failed, including one that provided for a segregated vice district and the issuing of licenses to prostitutes. The measure fell before the united opposition of clergymen and women’s groups, who advanced the argument that such a law would recognize the existence of vice in New Orleans – which, at this point, was very hard to miss.

Nothing further was done about the matter until January 26, 1897, when the City Council adopted the now famous ordinance introduced by Alderman Sidney Story that would set aside an area where prostitution would not only permitted, but would be legal. The ordinance was changed and adapted several times before it was finally determined that this red-light district would comprise a total of 38 blocks that would be occupied solely by brothels, saloons, cabarets and other enterprises that depended on vice for their prosperity.

The new vice district was dubbed “Storyville” – much to the embarrassment of Alderman Sidney Story, who had proposed its creation in the first place.

Within a few years, Storyville became the most celebrated red-light district in the United States and tourists came from all over to both see and experience it. The gateway to Storyville was the property of Thomas C. Anderson, saloon-keeper, political boss of the Fourth Ward, member of the legislature for two terms, owner of at least one of the most prosperous sporting houses in the district, and the unofficial “mayor” of Storyville. Anderson owned a restaurant and cabaret on Rampart Street, he called the Annex. It was the district’s unofficial town hall.

Storyville boomed during Anderson’s years as leader. The area along North Basin Street was the site of the new district’s swankiest brothels. The imposing three- and four-story mansions were bordellos where business was conducted with considerable elegance and ceremony. Rudeness and lewd behavior on the part of the customers was frowned upon and drunken gentlemen were tossed out. When a man entered the parlor, he was expected to buy a drink – incidentally, at great profit to the house – but the girls were not brought out for inspection unless he requested it. All the sporting houses were more or less expensively furnished and equipped, with as much gilt and velvet as the madams and their financial backers could afford. Many of them had one or more rooms with mirrored walls and ceilings, which were available at special rates; ballrooms with hardwood floors for dancing; and curtained stages for erotic performances that were given whenever sufficient money was offered.

Storyville became an important venue for jazz music. At first, the establishments of the district were reluctant to hire bands – if customers were busy dancing, after all, they wouldn’t be buying drinks or women. But eventually, the new music became too popular to ignore. Buddy Bolden’s band, as well as other hot ensembles, were soon playing regularly at Storyville clubs like Nancy Hank’s Saloon and the Big 25. Tom Anderson’s Annex began by hiring a string trio – piano, guitar, and violin – but eventually became a spot for larger bands, too. The brothels also wanted the new music. It was often in the form of a single piano “professor” playing in the parlor while clients chose their partners for the night, but it was something.

According to some reports, Countess Willie Piazza was the first madam to bring music into her sporting house, hiring a legendary pianist known as John the Baptist to play on her famous white grand. Other pianists like Tony Jackson, Clarence Williams, and Jerry Roll Morton eventually found their own regular gigs in the district.

Storyville may not be the birthplace of jazz, as has sometimes been claimed, but the various venues in the district did provide many early jazzmen with employment and helped to bring their music to a wider – and usually non-black – audience. Of course, this was what earned jazz its early reputation as “whorehouse music,” but the musicians that played it didn’t much care so long as they had an audience and they were getting paid.

The groundbreaking musicians soon reached a new audience, including reporters who were writing stories about the brothels of Storyville, thus connecting jazz and vice for their readers. Whether the connection was deserved or not, Storyville began the careers of many musicians who went on to great fame. It also provided a home to perhaps 200 or more other musicians who worked the mansions of the district but of whom little record remains today. They are only recalled as whispered legends from a time when music rolled out of brothel windows and echoed down the street.

Unlike jazz, though, Storyville didn’t last. It was doomed by America’s entrance into World War I in 1917. In August, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker issued an order forbidding open prostitution within five miles of an Army camp. A similar rule was made for naval bases and later that same month, Bascom Johnson, representing the War and Navy Departments, visited New Orleans, inspected Storyville, and informed Mayor Martin Behrman that it had to be shuttered. Mayor Behrman protested all the way to Washington, but it was no use. If the city didn’t close Storyville, the military would do it for them.

The deadline was November 12. After that, it would be illegal to operate a brothel anywhere in New Orleans. On Saturday night, November 10, two days before the new law went into effect, a large force of police officers was sent to Storyville to prevent the trouble that was expected to come from the closing. None developed and, in fact, the district was quieter than usual, as if in mourning. There were a few people in the streets but most of the saloons, cabarets, and brothels were empty. Many of them had already closed and the red lights had been removed from the windows of others.

On November 11, madam Gertrude Dix appealed to the civil courts for an injunction that would prevent the city from closing the district, but the request was refused. The exodus from Storyville had actually started two weeks earlier but most of the prostitutes had waited for the result of Gertrude Dix’s application for a restraining order. When the news of her failure spread, wagons and vans began hauling away whatever furniture remained that had not been sold to the second-hand dealers. As late as midnight on November 12, there was still a parade of women, laden with property, leaving the district. The next afternoon, police officers visited every house and informed the women that if they remained in Storyville, they had to take down their red lights and that they would be watched and arrested if they continued to operate.

On November 14, the New Orleans Item newspaper announced that the police planned to round up any of the men who came looking for prostitutes in what was once Storyville and send them out into the countryside to help the farmers. Needless to say, nothing came of this idea.

The next day, many leading church women, and members of the Louisiana Federation of Women’s Clubs, held a meeting and put together a committee to help the prostitutes that had been driven out. No one ever applied for the promised aid. Few of the women of Storyville needed it. They had simply moved on to new locations in various business and residential sections of New Orleans and continued plying their profession.

There is almost nothing left of Storyville today. Once located along Basin Street between Canal Street and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, most of the district was leveled as part of a slum clearance project in 1940. It was turned into the Iberville public housing project but then that was torn down in 2013 to make room for a new federal housing project. There are only three buildings from Storyville standing today and only one you can visit – Frank Early’s My Place Saloon, where you just might hear some of the music that was heard from the windows of the Storyville sporting houses.

Three buildings left – but one ghost story. It’s a story about one of the most infamous madams that owned a bordello in Storyville.

Her name was Josie Arlington – or at least that’s the name she went by. Her real name was Mary Duebler. She was born in New Orleans around 1864 and was never married. In 1881, she fell in love with a gambler and pimp named Philip Lobrano and she was his mistress for nine years. During that time, she worked in various brothels in the city, using the name Josie Alton.

Around 1888, Josie began using the name Lobrano and opened a place of her own on Customhouse Street. It soon became known as one of the toughest houses in New Orleans, but Josie still made enough money to support several members of her family and Lobrano, who lived in the house with her. Lobrano hated her relatives and during a terrible fight in which Josie and all her girls were involved, Lobrano shot her brother, Peter Deubler. Lobrano was tried twice for murder and was acquitted at the second trial.

After the shooting, Josie ended things with Lobraon and changed her name to Arlington. She dismissed all of the cheap girls who worked for her, remodeled her house, and hired cultured women who she felt better appealed to the tastes of gentlemen of refinement. She re-opened her renovated bordello, which she called the Arlington, in Storyville and it became known as one of the grandest and gaudiest in the district.

Josie ran the place for 10 years and amassed a considerable fortune. The only thing that Josie still craved was social acceptance, which was something she could never have. She was shunned by the families of the city and even publicly ignored by the men she knew so well. Her money and charm meant nothing to the society circles of New Orleans.

But Josie Arlington would have her revenge. What she couldn’t have in life, she would have in death.

She purchased a plot of land in Metarie Cemetery, the city’s most fashionable burial ground, and built costly red marble tomb, topped by two pillars. On the steps was placed a bronze statue that ascended the staircase with a bouquet of roses in the crook of her arm. The tomb was an amazing piece of funerary art, designed by an eminent architect, and although it cost Josie a small fortune, it was worth every penny to her because of the scandal it created. Tongues wagged all over the city and the gossip only increased after Josie died in 1914.

A few months after her death, the city installed a traffic light on the road alongside the cemetery. At night, the glow of the light struck the marble tomb in such a way that it gave the perfect illusion of a red light shining at the door of the brothel-keeper’s tomb. The monument was soon dubbed “Josie Arlington’s Flaming Tomb.”

The word quickly spread, and people came in droves to witness the bizarre sight. The cemetery was overrun with people every evening, which shocked the cemetery caretakers and the families of those buried on the grounds.

Scandal followed Josie even to her death.

And that wasn’t the end of the story. Soon, an alarming number of sightseers began to report another weird event. Many swore they had actually seen the statue on the front steps move. Even two of the cemetery gravediggers swore they had witnessed the statue leave her post and move around the grounds. They claimed to follow her one night, only to see her suddenly disappear. Records say that on two occasions, the statue was found in other parts of the cemetery. Most blamed vandals, but the legends say otherwise.

People who lived near the cemetery claimed that the statue of the “Maiden on the steps,” as she was called, would sometimes become angry and begin pounding on the door of the crypt. This spectral pounding would create a din that could be heard for blocks. Anyone who asked about the noises would be told that it was the Maiden “trying to get in.” The story was that Josie had lived by a certain rule regarding her bordello in Storyville. The rule was that no virgins would ever be allowed to enter her establishment. The stories say that she placed the statue of the Maiden on the steps of the tomb to symbolize this lifelong code of honor.

Others say that the statue is Josie herself. As a young girl, she stayed out too late, the stories say, and her father locked her out of the house. Even though she pounded on the door and pleaded with him, he would never allow her to enter again. After that, she went away and began a career that eventually made her one of the richest women in New Orleans.

Still other say that while the statue may be Josie Arlington, they say it symbolizes Josie as an outsider to the society circles that she always wanted to be inside of. They say that no matter hard she “knocked,” the doors would never open for her.

The tradition of the flaming tomb has been kept alive for many years, although it was created by the nearby traffic light when it swayed in the wind, but no one has ever been able to provide an explanation for the eyewitness accounts of the tomb’s statue, which knocked on the door and moved around by itself.

It’s true that Josie was never accepted in life, but she is certainly still on the minds of many in New Orleans long after her death.