Sara A. Lewis: Welcome to Points South. I’m your host Sara A. Lewis of the Oxford American. In today’s episode, we’re heading back to New Orleans to visit Storyville, the red light district that made the city infamous in the early 20th century. You might know it as the setting of Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby, or as the so-called birthplace of jazz. Let’s join producer Christian Leus as she explores the history of Storyville and disentangles its complicated legacy.
Jelly Roll Morton: As I mentioned before, my name was LaMothe. LaMothe was really my name. But father wanted me to be a hardworking boy.
Christian Leus: In 1938, folklorist Alan Lomax interviewed jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton.
JRMl: He wanted me to work in the bricklayer trade. He wanted to pay me two dollars a day as a foreman. I decided, after I learned to play music, that I could make more money.
CL: Lomax asked Morton to talk about his life as a musician in New Orleans in the early 1900s. Morton had started his career playing piano in Storyville, the city’s vice district. Lomax’s interviews, and the folklore biography of Morton he published in 1950, became foundational to how people understood Storyville—filled with exotic women in elaborate brothels that played host to the earliest jazz virtuosos.
JRM: And ten or fifteen or twenty or a hundred dollars didn’t mean very much to us during those days. I’d really like to see those days back again, I’m telling you the truth! They were wonderful days!
CL: Morton painted a picture of Storyville as glamorous, lavish, and seductive. He told Lomax that wealthy brothel proprietors would replace the doors on their mansions every year, and fill the houses with the most expensive furniture and paintings they could buy. “Three of them had mirror parlors where you couldn’t find the door for the mirrors,” he said. “It was in these mansions that the best of the piano players worked.” Stories like Morton’s created a vivid picture of the district for readers and listeners across the world. Films like 1978’s Pretty Baby imagined Storyville the way Morton had described it—filled with desire, money, and, of course, jazz.
Alecia P. Long: Yeah. So I do think in the 20th century, Storyville is, um, both romanticized and mythologized as sort of the birthplace of jazz.
CL: That’s Alecia P. Long, a professor of history at Louisiana State University.
APL: In the 20th century when people wrote about Storyville—and it was mostly men who wrote about Storyville—they wrote about the Vice District in a way that really put the music and musical performance in the foreground. And a lot of that writing really ignored the women who worked in the Vice district as sort of just accessory to the musical environment that was emerging in those places and in those years.
CL: Storyville was formed by the New Orleans city government in 1897, and was the last in a long line of reform attempts to corral gambling and sex work into a confined district. As a port city, New Orleans was a hub for sailors and other transient workers in the river trades.
APL: And so prostitution becomes an enterprise that goes hand in hand with that arising level of river commerce. And sometime in the 1830s, there start to be complaints about the way that prostitution is moving into all the city's neighborhoods. And so there starts to be a push on the part of the small number, but very vocal reformers in New Orleans to try to sort of further squeeze those vice district boundaries. And although there's a democratic machine that controls New Orleans in 1896, there is a reform victory. They wanna move all the prostitution and vice and gambling into a single district where those people can be better controlled and observed.
CL: The district got its name from city councilman Sidney Story. “Storyville” was meant to be derisive—like “Hooverville” would be in the 1930s. Councilman Story wrote the 1896 legislation to confine all sex work, gambling, and vice to an area between Basin Street and St. Louis Cemetery number 2.
APL: Their plan is if they put this set of vice district boundaries together, they can sort of, uh, better control prostitution in the city and cut into the city's reputation for prostitution. And what ends up happening is exactly the opposite because this vice district is so concentrated with sex works businesses and other kinds of gambling and entertainment venues like concert halls, and music halls, It becomes a really regional attraction and then a national attraction.
JRM: Of course, there were many houses in New Orleans, and the district there was considered the second to France, meaning the second greatest in the world.
CL: As Storyville’s reputation and profitability grew, so did opportunities for musicians to make money playing in its brothels.
JRM: New Orleans was the stomping grounds, we'll say, for all the greatest pianists in the country because there were more jobs in that section of the world for pianists than any other ten places in the world. The reason for that, they had so many mansions, sporting houses...
APL: And so, for instance, in the very high tone brothels, you had piano players, and they might be playing music that we would recognize as ragtime, or they might be playing more what we consider sort of serious music depending on the venue and the customers. So, uh, Ferdinand Lamothe, who comes to perform under the name Jelly Roll Morton is playing piano in a brothel in Storyville.
JRM: The big places guaranteed five dollars a night. If you didn't make five dollars, they would pay you five dollars. But that was never the case because when you didn't make a hundred dollars, you had a bad night. It was very often men would come into the houses and hand you a twenty, or hand you forty, or a fifty dollar note. Wine flowed much more than water did during those periods. Well the girls would start, “Play me something there, boy. Play me some blues.” So they’d start playing in this way.
Sherrie Tucker: In the romantic vision, it's sort of a Black man, Creole of Color man who is playing the music. And you see in the background, there's all of these women, light-skinned women in flowy, nightie, uh, outfits, who are sort of writhing and kind of like, not really people, they're kind of more like props, but they are part of the ambiance.
CL: Sherrie Tucker is a professor of American Studies at the University of Kansas, and has done extensive research on the women who lived and worked in Storyville.
ST: Everybody knows, in New Orleans for example, everybody knows things that are left outta that story. Women instrumentalists are left out of the story. Many of those early jazz pianists at the moment that the piano becomes part of the jazz band, many of those band pianists are women. There are as many women as there are men playing in those early, early bands. And the reason there are so many women is that piano had been a sign of respectability for Black women, for white women, for Creole of Color women. It was like, it was one of those things, it was pretty common that if you could afford piano lessons, uh, you got piano lessons. So a lot of the pianists who were trained in reading and could take a stock arrangement, for example, and play the chords so everybody else could improvise. A lot of them were women. They have the knowledge of everything that's going on in the structure of the music and what needs to happen. And what's totally forgotten is they were literally among the earliest jazz musicians.
CL: Some of these musicians, like Dolly Adams, Sweet Emma Barrett, and Jeanette Kimball, had long and well-documented careers that overshadowed their early work in Storyville. Others are harder to find in the historical record.
Ben Barson: Yeah, Mamie Desdunes is a fascinating figure. She's a pianist. We don't know that much about her.
CL: Benjamin Barson is a professor at Bucknell University. His studies focus on the intersection of jazz and social movements at the end of the 19th century.
BB: She died several decades before recording became streamlined and normalized. There's contradictory statements about her amongst musicians. Bunk Johnson, the trumpet player, he says that she was a madam. Others say that she was a sex worker, and so it's hard to get a sense of exactly how she fit into the Storyville economy or which places she played in.
CL: Even though there’s little hard and fast information about Mamie Desdunes in the archives, she has an outsized presence in the legacy of Storyville.
BB: According to Bunk Johnson, uh, she was very much an attraction. He says that, when they hired her, uh, the white men would come and they'd really clean up, meaning that the brothel owners would make a lot of money on the purchase of alcohol and sex.
ST: She shows up in everybody's oral history. Everybody talks about her, and they focus on her music. They talk about her as a musician. That's why she's important.
CL: Mamie’s playing was a direct influence on Jelly Roll Morton.
BB: Morton made a point to study with Mamie Desdunes.
JRM: This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdunes, this is her favorite blues. She hardly could play anything else more, but she really could play this number. Of course, to get in on it, to try to learn it, I made myself the can rusher.
BB: As a teenager, he actually starts delivering big kegs of beer as the can rusher to these brothels in Storyville in order to gain proximity to this blues pianist.
CL: Morton played the blues he learned from Mamie Desdunes when he recorded with Alan Lomax in 1938. This recording gives us a unique glimpse into the kinds of innovations that women musicians were making at the time.
BB: And when he plays this blues, Mamie's blues, he plays it with a habanera baseline in the left hand. So the Habanera sounds like boom doo do doo this kind of rhythm. And it's really associated with, uh, the French contra dance tradition, which becomes Creolized and Afro Haitianized in Haiti, as well as other Caribbean countries. It's interesting because you have this blues tonality and this blues chord structure superimposed against a Afro-Caribbean rhythmic pattern. But at that time, it wasn't considered superimposition. It was actually a natural outgrowth of different converging histories of the Black Atlantic that were coalescing in New Orleans.
CL: Mamie’s family had migrated to New Orleans from Haiti after the Haitian Revolution.
BB: She was the daughter of a very prominent creole of color author and historian and activist named Rodolphe Desdunes. He was active during Reconstruction. He served in the integrated Metropolitan Police, which was a Black and white police force that defended the gains of Reconstruction against white supremacist militants that he actually combated actively in the streets of New Orleans. He also was an organizer of a successful desegregation sit-in that his son, Daniel Desdunes, who was also a musician, a cornettist and violinist associated with early jazz participated in. So Mamie Desdunes was the daughter of Rodolphe Desdunes and a African American woman named Clementine Walker. She was born out of wedlock, meaning that Rodolphe was not married to Clementine Walker. This was essentially an affair that he had, but she did learn how to play piano, which indicates that she had some level of middle class upbringing, because learning piano was considered an important part of musical education of a certain kind of femininity. But at some point, she becomes associated with Storyville and sex work. And that's an interesting transition that also Jelly Roll Morton participates in. When Jelly Roll Morton begins playing piano in the district, his grandmother actually disowns him, says, you know, you can't come back to our house. So this was a very status, class associated activity that was perceived to have brought a certain amount of stigma to the families that were associated with those who participated in this field, both as musicians and as sex workers.
APL: I think it's important to remember that there's very little industry in New Orleans at this period of time. And so if you were a woman who needed to work and many women needed to work, you were pretty much stuck with domestic labor, or you could be a seamstress or do other people's laundry or help take care of their children, but it's really kind of domestic work that you would have available to you. And in a lot of cases, women were very vulnerable to sexual predation when they were domestic workers. And so making that decision to become a sex worker, I think particularly part-time when it was very profitable, uh, during a season like Carnival makes a lot of sense given the larger economic environment.
CL: In addition to its musical impact, Mamie’s Blues also gives us a glimpse into the lives of Black sex workers in the district.
BB: Mamie's blues is, let's say somewhere around 1905 is when most musicologists believe that this song begins to be performed. Women's bodies were increasingly becoming commodities in a marketplace transaction that sought to reproduce male pleasure rooted in a kind of plantation ideal of white dominance over Black bodies.
ST: The paying customer is a white moneyed man. He's the only one allowed in there. He's the only customer. We have to look at that critically. they're pleasing a white man at the time, very moment, the rise of Jim Crow and the resistance movements that are going on at the same time.
BB: And this song really narrated the perils of the sex work industry as well as narrating the potentialities for pleasure for women and Black women in particular, away from this kind of neo-plantation.
JRM: I’ve got a husband and I got a kid man too.
BB: The song simulates an orgasm that's had with a side piece, someone outside of marriage.
JRM: I’ve got a husband and I got a kid man too.
BB: And all of these male jazz musicians are essentially performing a song that's imagining an emancipated female's orgasm.
JRM: My husband can’t do what my kid man can do.
BB: She actively celebrates the idea of women putting themselves before the conventions of hetero patriarchal family structures and seeking pleasure on their own terms, which was a very political act at this time.
CL: The song’s second verse also tells a political story.
JRM: 219 done took my baby away…
CL: In later recordings, the song is known as “219 Blues,” a reference to the 219 train that headed west from New Orleans in the early 20th century.
JRM: 219 took my baby away…
BB: This train potentially signaled a circuit of sex trafficking in the Gulf Coast, that there were, uh, sex workers that were destined for oil boom towns in Galveston and other cities, which were popping up around the discovery of oil in Texas. And so it's interesting to think that this song alerts us to the existence of a sex trafficking ring that was regional, and which women participated in voluntarily or involuntarily, we don't really know. But this song was sort of paying homage to these disappeared individuals, and we wouldn't really know that New Orleans women were being transported or migrating to these Texas oil boom towns as sex workers if it weren't for Mamie's blues, that it's kind of a piece of oral history that gives us a sense of the geography of suffering and relocation and dislocation that was happening.
JRM: 217 bring her back someday…
BB: And it's a very sophisticated analysis of their working conditions. And this was like their counter narrative. This was their newspaper. And that's why this blues was so popular. I mean, at least as far as I can tell, in addition to its harmonic and musical and rhythmic aspects. It really was the voice of thousands, if not tens of thousands of people who worked in and toiled and had family members in these spaces.
ST: The period of time that jazz is coming up is an incredibly violent time. It's a new music at a violent time, and it's a music that was significant for all kinds of people, for all kinds of reasons, both detractors and proponents and people earning their livings and people who are audiences
BB: I mean, we're talking about the fall of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, which was accompanied by huge amounts of violence. The end of Reconstruction isn't something that just happened overnight. And so to think that these folks wouldn't be political in some way is absurd. It's just that their venues for expressing that politics was very limited because they were living essentially in a police state that was censoring their consciousness and their expression with the threat of lynch law and other means. So the Blues was one of the few forms available to them to express that dissident consciousness. And it seems like they did take advantage of it.
CL: Ben, Sherrie, and Alecia are part of a growing wave of thinkers who are reevaluating Storyville’s legacy.
APL: You know, I just think that there's a body of scholarship now, much of it written by women about Storyville. That history has in turn, inspired a lot of other kind of creative work that doesn't just take music into account, but takes the lives of the women who worked into Storyville into account. I know there are, uh, two women who are working on a graphic novel about Lulu White.
CL: Nathalie Rech and Stephanie Cox are the authors of Diamond Queen, a graphic novel about Lulu White, the owner and proprietor of Mahogany Hall, one of Storyville’s most ostentatious brothels. She was one of the few sex workers in the district who owned her own property.
Nathalie Rech: This Madam Lulu White, who was a Black madam but one of the, uh, wealthiest, uh, madams of the district.
Stephanie Cox: What was fascinating with Lulu White is how she really carefully crafted her public image. And so there is a lot of ambiguity around her, and I think that that's where a lot of people, especially in New Orleans, cuz in New Orleans, people know her. And everybody has a story about her and musicians have a story about her. So I think the ambiguity around her identity that she crafted herself kind of allowed everyone to have their own version of who she was.
SC: There's not a lot of available information, not only about her, but about a lot of madams. They were not people that society thought was important to remember.
NR: So, you know, we're trying to have the most respectful approach to our subject as possible. I think we were trying to, yeah, to make people understand who she was, but also who she had to deal with and against. I think it's a way to acknowledge the strengths that she had as a Black woman entrepreneur at the time. She had to fight against, you know, uh, people who were really powerful, institutions that were really powerful.
CL: In 1917, new ordinances were passed to close down Storyville’s brothels and outlaw sex work across the city. Many of the district’s buildings were eventually demolished, including Mahogany Hall. Over the years, through the rose-colored memories of patrons and musicians, Storyville came to be remembered as a hedonistic Eden, a lost paradise full of sex and good times where jazz was born. But, as we’ve heard, there’s a lot that story leaves out.
APL: And so the idea that somehow this bounded area at the back of the French Quarter is sort of the birthplace of jazz is at best partially true, um, because it's really New Orleans, and it's New Orleans sort of mixing of people and cultures, whether they are of, you know, Latin American descent or African American descent, or Italians or Jewish, there's even a small China town on the edge of Storyville. And so, you know, it really has to do, I think with a mixing and mingling of people, and then a sort of, kind of extraordinary period of creativity that led to the creation of the music that becomes jazz. Reform often takes very funny turns and, you know, one of the turns it took is moving musicians, uh, into places where they could learn and benefit from each other, and then ultimately move that music into other places in the United States. So I think Storyville does have an important musical legacy, um, but that musical legacy is tied up in the complications of its location within New Orleans.
ST: I think to ignore the history would be to just let that be a false history. And it's not really a false history. It's a history that exerts a lot of power. We can't, it's too powerful to ignore, but we have to name it. And we also have to notice other things that are happening. So the point of view of that paying customer, it has to be one point of view among others. And the power needs to be recognized, but we also have to look at other ways that people are accessing the power that's available to them. How are people leveraging the situation in their own lives?
BB: For so long we've been submerged. We've been even assaulted with this idea of early jazz and jazz musicians and African-American musicians in this time period in New Orleans as apolitical, as pleasure seekers, as living for the moment, and not as active agents of building a new world through their music and through their cultural activity.
CL: In the stereotypical image of Storyville, we see women only in the background, as objects of desire. But by shifting our focus, we can see the vice district from their perspective—as a landscape of danger, of opportunity, of shifting power and volatile culture. As musicians and listeners, they soundtracked their own lives with music that reflected their experiences and challenged the systems that oppressed them. They worked towards change.
JRM: To start with, you can’t make crescendos and diminuendos when one is playing triple forte. You’ve got to be able to come down in order to go up. If a glass of water is full, you can’t fill it any more. But if you have a half a glass you have an opportunity to put more water in it. And jazz music is based on the same principles. [Begins to play.] Spoken [over playing]: I will play a little number now, of the slower type, to give you an idea of the the slower type of jazz music. Which you can apply to any type tune. That depends upon your ability for transformation.
SAL: This episode was produced by me and Christian Leus. Our Points South intern is Adam Forrester. Thank you to doctors Alecia P. Long, Ben Barson, and Sherrie Tucker. Thanks to Dr. Nathalie Rech and Dr. Stephanie Cox. Post-production and score thanks to Curtis Fye and Trey Pollard of Spacebomb. Visit Oxford American dot org slash Points South to see more archival material from Storyville. This episode is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.