By Gary Krist, Broadway Books, October 28, 2014, 0770437087
New Orleans is a fascinating city. I love jazz so the history of the city is important to me. Gary Krist sprinkles the history of jazz in the wider context of Jim Crow, Prohibition, and immigration. The elite hated jazz, because it was coupled with African American independence.
I started reading this book before the George Floyd Protests began. We are now in the third week of protests and unrest around the world. The Empire of Sin shows provides important historical context for today’s protests. New Orleans was becoming more integrated during the Reformation, and Jim Crow laws were passed to prevent the loss of power and control by whites.
The book presses home this point through the history of Storyville, the differences between Uptown and Downtown Blacks, law enforcement, and even the differences in the way jazz was played by white and black musicians.
Gary Krist’s book is thorough and engaging.
[k846] ELEVEN men in all were killed at the Orleans Parish Prison that day. Three of the slain had been tried and acquitted; a jury had failed to agree on three others; five more belonged to the second group of defendants that had not even been tried yet. Asked later whether he regretted what had happened in the prison, Parkerson was adamant. “Of course, it is not a courageous thing to attack a man who is not armed,” he admitted. “But we looked upon these [men] as so many reptiles…. This was a great emergency, greater than has ever happened in New York, Cincinnati, or Chicago … Hennessy’s killing struck at the very root of American institutions.
[k854] The local newspapers also came to the mob’s defense: “Government powers are delegated by the people,” the Daily Picayune opined, “and [the people] can reclaim them if they feel that the power is not being executed properly.” The Item agreed: “When the ordinary means of justice fail, extraordinary means are resorted to. This is a characteristic of the American people, and has today been illustrated once more in a most impressive fashion.”
[k873] In fact, the incident–regarded as the largest mass lynching in American history–caused something of a political crisis between Italy and the United States, at one point bringing the two countries dangerously close to a declaration of war.
[k900] Some said Tom Anderson was extraordinarily lucky. But luck, as he well knew, was something that had to be made; luck was hard work and handshakes; it was cultivating influential friends from all walks of life, both high and low, and making sure they were happy.
[k1129] Buddy and his sister Cora moved around with their mother, Alice, for the next few years, probably staying with relatives and friends, then finally settling in a small shotgun cottage at 385 First Street. This was a tough but integrated area (not unusual in the New Orleans of the time), populated mostly by German and Irish laborers who seemed to have little trouble getting along with their black neighbors.
[k1179] Many who heard him claimed that Bolden actually wasn’t a very skilled player technically. “He wasn’t really a musician,” trombonist Kid Ory once said of him. “He didn’t study. I mean, he was gifted, playing with effect, but no tone. He just played loud.” But that loud, piercing horn helped him break the music free from the more reined-in style of his predecessors, bringing the soloist–that is, himself–to the fore.
[k1187] Eventually, though, the new sound played by Bolden and his emulators became so popular–among working-class audiences both black and white–that it began to draw attention from some unwanted quarters as well. Police would show up at so-called cutting contests (where two bands would meet and try to outplay each other) and begin “whipping heads” to restore order. And eventually the city’s reformers began to take notice, and they did not like what they heard. To their ears, the new sound was dangerous, an affront to their notions of respectability, restraint, temperance, and civil order. This new black music represented excess and licentiousness, a direct flouting of traditional moral values. Perhaps most perniciously, it promoted contact–much of it of the most scandalous type–across the color line, and in a context of social equality that was simply intolerable to most Southern whites.
[k1203] In the Louisiana of the early 1870s, black citizens could vote and serve on juries. Schools were desegregated, and interracial marriage was legal. Blacks and whites rode on the same streetcars, frequented the same parks and lakeside beaches, and often lived side by side in the same neighborhoods.
[k1226] A new state constitution in 1879 removed many of the equal-rights provisions put in place right after the war. But even so, the Redeemers (many of whom eventually wound up on the Committee of Fifty that played such an important role in the Hennessy affair) were reluctant to do too much too soon.
[k1239] But by the summer of 1890, Act 111 had been passed by the legislature, becoming the state’s first official Jim Crow law. Unfortunately, it would not be the last.
[k1251] And now, in the late ‘s, the self-styled forces of white supremacy began to target yet another arena of black aspiration–the new music being played by Buddy Bolden and the other proto-jazzmen.
[k1259] But with the opening of the two Storyvilles in 1898, it was hoped that the black jazz culture could similarly be segregated and contained, moved out of the sight of respectable New Orleanians.
[k1262] But jazz, like prostitution, would not be so easy to control.
[k1417] Again “justice” was going to be served–only this time the victims were to be innocent blacks rather than innocent Italians.
The mob was, if anything, even more indiscriminate than the one of 1891. “Unable to vent its vindictiveness and bloodthirsty vengeance upon Charles,” journalist Ida B. Wells later wrote, “the mob turned its attention to other colored men who happened to get in the path of its fury.” Streetcars were stopped and overturned; black passengers were taken out and beaten or shot.
[k1556] “Robert Charles was the boldest, most desperate and dangerous Negro ever known in Louisiana,” the Picayune wrote. Even Henry Hearsey of the States seemed impressed. “Never before was such a display of desperate courage on the part of one man witnessed,” he wrote. “[I] cannot help feeling for him a sort of admiration, prompted by his wild and ferocious courage.” But all of the papers made sure that the proper lesson was drawn from the Robert Charles affair–namely, that any future challenge to white supremacy in Louisiana would be met with the harshest retribution. The days of even moderate racial tolerance in New Orleans were officially over.
[k1581] Robert Charles did live on–in a song about his exploits, composed by an unknown hand in the days after his apotheosis. It was played in private all-black gatherings for years thereafter, though rarely in public.
[k1730] By the time Tom Anderson’s Annex opened in 1901, there were already an estimated 1,500 prostitutes of all kinds operating in the District, with perhaps 500 more imported seasonally for the high tourist traffic in winter.
[k1738] From the perspective of those who did business in the District, on the other hand, the experiment was a smashing success.
[k2021] The entire culture of jazz seemed an affront to decency for many people in New Orleans, including many middle-class blacks.
[k2664] Vice and hydrocarbons had proved to be the twin engines of New Orleans’ prosperity, and Tom Anderson had a hand in both.
[k2754] Black men had never been allowed to come to Storyville proper as brothel customers (even the black crib prostitutes were available to whites only), but they had always been able to work, dance, and drink there.
[k2879] Police efforts to maintain order at parades and other public events often amounted to arresting many of the black males present. And the arrests often included those who were busy providing the entertainment.
[k2882] Louis Armstrong, still a young boy at this time, was no stranger to the volatile racial atmosphere of New Orleans in the early teens. Born on August 4, 1901, to a fifteen-year-old mother in a tough area of the city known as the Battlefield, he grew up among the “pimps, thieves, [and] prostitutes” of a neighborhood frequently targeted by police in their peacekeeping efforts.
[k2936] The next day, he was brought before a judge in the juvenile court. The verdict: incarceration in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys for an indefinite term. It would prove to be the best piece of luck in Louis Armstrong’s entire life.
[k2941] To state that “the Mafia moved in on Storyville” would be inaccurate; most serious crime historians doubt that the Italian crime syndicates in New Orleans at this time were organized enough to justify the Mafia title, no matter what the local newspapers might think.
[k2945] Italian criminals and black musicians were, in a sense, finding refuge in the bastion of the vice lords–that is, in Storyville.
[k3059] IN THE MONTHS FOLLOWING THE KILLINGS AT THE Tuxedo, the shuttering of the Storyville dance halls created a detrimental ripple effect that was felt throughout the District.
[k3169] That Little Louis had Benny as a protector was fortunate, since New Orleans in the teens had become a very dangerous place, particularly for black musicians playing in low-down dives and on the increasingly perilous streets.
[k3186] For the city’s black jazzmen, the situation in New Orleans–despite the growing popularity of their music among young whites–was becoming untenable, and the possibilities elsewhere ever more tempting.
[k3329] (Kate once refused an invitation to the White House because Booker T. Washington was also invited–“and I declined … to attend any function where I would be placed on equal terms with Negroes”),
[k3444] Even customers would be segregated under the plan. “The appearance of a white man in the Negro district will cause his arrest,” Newman decreed, and “should a Negro woman even stroll in the white district, she will be jailed.” As for the famous octoroon houses of Basin Street, they would either move or be closed, since the word “Negro” in New Orleans now meant any person with even a trace of African blood, whether self-described as black, Creole, or octoroon.
This was, needless to say, an extreme measure. Until now, Storyville had been more or less an oasis of relative racial tolerance. Granted, the District had not been entirely immune to the prevailing mood of racial regimentation; by 1908, for instance, the listings in the Blue Books, formerly separating prostitutes into “white,” “colored,” and “octoroon” categories, had begun describing the women only as “white” or “colored.” But the attraction of the mixed-race brothels had apparently not diminished significantly. This lingering appeal, in fact, was the source of much of the wrath against Storyville from reformers like Philip Werlein, for whom the idea of interracial contact seemed far more objectionable than that of legalized prostitution.
[k3580] The first wave of the Great Migration of African Americans had begun, and its pull would be felt by blacks across the South for decades to come.
[k3595] And 1917 was the turning point. As one historian put it: “By 1917 jazz, the Southern folk music, had emerged as jazz, the profitable commodity.”
[k3622] “Keeping Fit to Fight,” a pamphlet written by the American Social Hygiene Association and distributed to all soldiers, put the matter in no uncertain terms: “The greatest menace to the vitality and fighting vigor of any army is venereal diseases (clap and syphilis)…[and] the escape from this danger is up to the patriotism and good sense of soldiers like yourself … WOMEN WHO SOLICIT SOLDIERS FOR IMMORAL PURPOSES ARE USUALLY DISEASE SPREADERS AND FRIENDS OF THE ENEMY.”
[k3687] Louis Armstrong was there to witness the exodus. “It sure was a sad scene to watch the law run all those people out of Storyville,” he wrote years later. “They reminded me of refugees. Some of them had spent the best part of their lives there. Others had never known any other kind of life.” And thus did Storyville become history.
[k3720] Even Mardi Gras that year proved to be a decidedly subdued affair. Because of the war, the traditional Carnival parades and balls were discontinued. Even masking was forbidden, because Mayor Behrman thought that “it might give the nation’s enemies an opportunity to work mischief while disguised.” The Spanish flu epidemic just made matters worse, closing down theaters and other places of congregation. Then, in the summer of 1918, Louisiana became the fourteenth state to pass the Prohibition Amendment to the Constitution.
[k3725] Piling on in a time of difficulty, the Times-Picayune took the opportunity to perpetrate an assault on the city’s own homegrown style of music. In a now-legendary editorial entitled “Jass and Jassism,” published on June 20, 1918, the paper finally took notice of the phenomenon that had been thriving in its ghettos and entertainment districts for almost two decades now. “Why is the jass music?” the editorial (somewhat awkwardly) asked. “As well ask why is the dime novel, or the grease-dripping doughnut? All are manifestations of a low streak in man’s tastes that has not yet come out in civilization’s wash.”
The editorial went on to pontificate on the differences between “truly great music” and its lesser, rhythm-based illegitimate cousins–to wit, “the hum of the Indian dance, the throb of the Oriental tambourines and kettledrums, the clatter of the clogs, the click of Slavic heels, the thumpty-tumpty of the Negro banjo …” (Translation: music not created by privileged white people of Northern European heritage.) “On certain natures,” the writer continued, “loud and meaningless sound has an exciting, almost an intoxicating effect, like crude colors and strong perfumes, the sight of flesh, or the sadic [sic] pleasure in blood. To such as those the jass music is a delight.”
[k3741] But the editorial’s reference to the new music as “musical vice” was telling. For the city’s privileged white elite, jazz and vice were of a piece, along with blackness generally and, for that matter, Italianness, too. All were forms of contamination–blots on the city’s escutcheon that found expression in crime, depravity, drunkenness, lewdness, corruption, and disease.
[k4069] Thanks to heavy-handed War Department strictures and the cresting of the Spanish flu epidemic, which at times required the closing of many public spaces, nightlife in the city remained relatively subdued.
[k4224] And indeed, when Tuesday night arrived–the eve of St. Joseph’s Day, a major holiday for the city’s Italians–New Orleans made sure to mollify its axman.
[k4316] Superintendent of Police Frank Mooney, under continuing criticism for his inability to solve the murders, was eventually forced to resign in late 1920. He went back to the job he did best–running a railroad, which he did in the wilds of Honduras until his death after a heart attack in August 1923. But the axman ordeal did have a final chapter.
[k4527] AND so the city of New Orleans entered the new decade of the 1920s a very different–and, in many ways, a much less colorful–place than it had been just thirty years earlier. The city’s unique atmosphere of open, legally sanctioned vice was now a thing of the past, eviscerated not just by local reform efforts but by national measures as well. Prohibition and female suffrage–both of which, according to moral crusaders like Jean Gordon, would usher in a time of greater virtue and political accountability–were the law of the land by 1920. Jim Crow, now as firmly established in New Orleans as in the rest of the South, would ensure the maintenance of white privilege for decades to come. And while crime would remain a problem in the city, the old days of the Black Hand and the so-called Mafia vendettas were definitely past.
The age of Tom Anderson, in other words, was over, symbolized by the decline of Anderson himself.
[k4607] “With the nightmare of constant raids staring in my face,” Ory later wrote, explaining his departure for Los Angeles in August of 1919, “I knew I’d never make it and decided not to operate [in New Orleans] anymore.”