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An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans – Chapter 5

An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans

With an introduction by Nat Hentoff

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Featuring the complete text of chapters 1 – 5 from Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By the Men Who Made It, a 1955 book by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff

(Published with the consent of Nat Hentoff)

Chapter

1  2   3   4   5

   

Nat Hentoff’s Introduction

*

Chapter 5

Then the Navy closed Storyville down. But jazz went on in New Orleans
and it’s still going on.

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Among those featured in Chapter 5:

Louis Armstrong

Bunk Johnson

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The French Opera House on Bourbon Street, c. 1905-1910

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Basin Street Blues , by Louis Armstrong

 
 
 
 
 
 
   

OFFICIAL STATEMENT BY MAYOR MARTIN BEHRMAN OF NEW ORLEANS

 Preterpermitting the pros and cons of legislative
recognition of prostitution as a necessary evil in a seaport the size of
New Orleans, our city government has believed that the situation could be
administered more easily and satisfactorily by confining it within a prescribed
area. Our experience has taught us that the reasons for this are unanswerable,
but the Navy Department of the Federal Government has decided otherwise.

  JOHN A. PROVENZANO

Then, in 1917, came the death march of the famous Red Light District, played
by the order of the Secretary of the Navy, Daniels.

 The scene was pitiful. Basin Street, Franklin, Iberville,
Bienville, and St. Louis became a veritable shambles of Negro and white
prostitutes moving out. With all they had in the world reposing in two-wheel
carts or on wheelbarrows, pushed by Negro boys or old men, the once Red Light
Queens were making their way out of Storyville to the strains of Nearer
My God to Thee
, played by a massed combination of all the Negro jazzmen
of the Red Light dance halls.

 By nightfall, the once notorious Red Light District was
only a ghost – mere rows of empty cribs. Ugly little Chippy, who could
beg more dimes for her Sweet Lucy, was gone; beautiful blonde Helen Smith,
from the Storm, would be missed by many an admirer. The saloons and the old
familiar wagons, with their weiners and hot hamburgers, remained for a time.
Now and then a Negro organ-grinder came out to give one of Old Man Giorlando’s
untuned organs an airing, but the green shutters were closed forever. The
old Red Light District of New Orleans became history.

© Estate of E. J. Bellocq/Lee Friedlander

Storyville prostitute, 1913

  LOUIS ARMSTRONG

Before they clamped down on Storyville there were an awful lot of killings
going on. . .Mysterious ones too. . . Several sailors were all messed up
– robbed and killed. . .That’s one of the mains reasons for the closing
of Storyville. . .Those prostitutes commenced to having their pimps –
hide somewheres around and either rob – or bash their brains in –
anything to get that money – That’s when the United States Navy
commenced to getting warm. . . And brother when they became warm – that
meant trouble and more trouble. Not only for the vice displayers but for
all the poor working people who made their living in Storyville such as cooks
– waiters – maids – musicians – butlers –
dishwasher – and lots of people whom were in different vocations. .
.I’m telling you – it was a sad situation for anybody to witness. .
.I was only fifteen years old. . .But at that age – being around from
a real young age delivering stone coal in those cribs – hanging around
the pimps, Cotch players, et cetera, I really knew what it was all about.
. .So I had to feel sorry just like the rest of them. . .The law commenced
to arresting all the prostitutes they caught standing in the doors. . .And
send them over to Isolation Hospital to be examined. . .And if they had the
least thing wrong with them – or they’re blood-bad – they’d be
sent away for a long long time. . .And believe me, they were lots of the
prostitutes who had to be sent away for treatment. . .And of course reports
from those cases help the Navy to have a strong alibi to close her down.
. Teh Teh. . .

Louis Armstrong

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West End Blues

Mohogany Hall Stomp

King of the Zulus

Basin Street Blues

 Ever since I was a little boy selling newspapers –
my mother and father (when they were living together) would tell me lots
about Storyville. . .Of course, that was to kind of frighten me from spending
my few newspaper nickles down there.

 After Storyville closed down – the people of that
section spreaded out all over the city. . .So we turned out nice and reformed.
Some went into other neighborhoods kinda bootlegging the same thing (that
jive) savvy? Especially the neighborhoods which was lively and jumped just
a wee bit. . .In the Third Ward where I was raised – there were always
a lot of honky-tonks – gambling, prostitutes, pimps going on. . .But
all on a small scale. . .Very very small at that. . .A case of – from
sugar to (S) salt. . .Where it would cost you from three to five dollars
to see a woman in Storyville – it didn’t cost but fifty to seventy-five
cents to see and be with a woman in the Third Ward. . .There were no whites
up this way at all. They were all colored. Right amongst all this vice –
I still went to Fisk School right in the heart of it all. At Franklin and
Perdido Streets. . .Every corner had a saloon and honky-tonk in the rear.
. .They call them lounges up North. Of course, those honky-tonks weren’t
as elaborate either. . .But I’m just trying to give a fast picture of how
a lounge would look in the rough without all of that swell ta doo stuff they
put in nowadays. Decorately speaking –

 They weren’t any standing in the doors either. . .Because
after Storyville closed – that one situation wasn’t supposed to ever
happen in New Orleans again. . .And it didn’t. Now after Storyville shut
down, the girls couldn’t just call out the door for beer. But the wrinkle
was – they could catch a “john” (a sucker) and call down to whatever
saloon they’d like to trade with and say these words – “Oh Bell Boy
– Oh Bell Boy” – and when the bell boy from that particular saloon answers
– this Chic will say to him – “BRING ME A HALF A CAN”. . .Which
means a nickle of beer. . .And he’ll say O.K. and go into the saloon and
repeat the same thing – and less than a few minutes he’ll be on his
way over to this small-time whore’s house with this half a can (nickle of
beer). . .She meets him at the door with her buck or pitcher – he pours
it in and collects the “Tack” (I mean the nickle) and returns to the saloon
and sits outside on a beer barrel and waits for another order. . .He gets
a salary just delivering drinks. . .If they desire a whole can – that’s
a dime of beer. . .Quite naturally you get lots more. . .So if you have more
than two in the party – it’s very wise to order a whole can. . .It wasn’t
anywhere near as handy for the girls as it was in the old days.

 

  DANNY BARKER

This is what it was like in New Orleans around 1925. It is not true that
nothing happened after Storyville closed. There were always, in New Orleans,
both before and after Storyville closed, there were always so many musicians,
so many great cats all the way down the line. Part of it was due to the fact
that in New Orleans we had more access to instruments where other parts of
the South didn’t. After the Spanish-American War, most of the Army bands
disbanded in New Orleans, and so the pawnshops were loaded with instruments.
For any occasion in New Orleans, you had music. There were cats like Buddy
Petit, Kid Rena, Sidney Desvigne, Sam Morgan, Hippolyte Charles, Punch Miller,
Walter Blue, Maurice Durand, Leslie Dimes, and all these guys were playing
in the ‘twenties. A lot of them would play roadhouses and vaudeville shows
and circuses and riverboats and lakeboats, like at Lake Pontchartrain. And
also – this was during the ‘twenties, too, as well as before –
there were so many halls in New Orleans, fifteen or twenty. And each one
would have some kind of an affair going on. There was also always some kind
of lawn party or parades going on.

 So you never had to figure on getting work in The District,
so it wasn’t so important when it closed. Piron had some of the best jobs
on the lake front. His first name was Armand. And there were other good bands
on the lake front. So those tonks in Storyville weren’t too important. And,
as a matter of fact, some of the clubs were going in the ‘twenties. They
would have a closing and then a quick opening, under cover, in The District.
Also, bands like Lee Collins’ would be based in New Orleans but would be
on the road for a while and play towns outside of New Orleans. Little towns
in states like Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. Men
like Buddy Petit, Sam Morgan, Leslie Dimes, Baptiste Brown, and Victor Spencer
were some of the New Orleans musicians who would take these road trips. New
Orleans, you see, was the center of bands, and, as way back as I can remember,
people in that area would get their bands from New Orleans, and, in fact,
they still do. They would go out on the road a week or two weeks, and people
in these small towns would keep you on option, according to the business
you did and according to how you acted. New Orleans had always been looked
on as a city for musicians and New Orleans’ being an entertainment center
– all the great shows played in that city, like in the Lyric Theatre.
And all the big circuses would come through New Orleans. And if they needed
a musician, they knew they could pick one up in New Orleans.

 All the minstrel shows, like the Rabbit Foot Minstrels
and Silas Green and the Georgia Minstrels, used New Orleans musicians year
in and year out. You would see a cat disappear, you would wonder where he
was, and finally somebody would say that he’d left for one of the show, that
they had sent for him. During the ‘twenties, as before, the town had so much
night life. Even now, the bars stay open twenty-four hours a day. And then
there are musicians who didn’t want to leave New Orleans to go up North.
Even though they had offers. Some cat would meet a pretty Creole girl, and
she’d say she didn’t want him to go on the road. So, he’d settle down in
New Orleans because there were enough gigs. A lot of out-of-town musicians
settled there, too, because there was always some kind of work, good food,
and a carefree life.

 When department stores had openings or sales, they would
always use a band, and that too went on in the ‘twenties. Anything in New
Orleans pertaining to drawing a crowd, you would use somebody’s band, and
they still do. We in New Orleans, in the ‘twenties, were aware of what was
happening in jazz. We’d hear records by other bands and folks would buy them.
We’d pass a house and hear a piano roll and things like that. But the records
didn’t particularly have the best of the music you heard around New Orleans.
Then, when the King Oliver and Clarence Williams records started coming out
and those terrific Louis Armstrong Okehs, those other records that had come
before seemed like there was something in them empty. They didn’t have that
kind of beat, and they didn’t have all the improvisation that was going on
in Oliver’s and Louis’. And we would hear blues records by Bessie or Clara
Smith, Ma Rainey, Sara Martin, et cetera. But the backgrounds on most of
those records didn’t do them justice. They should have had more of the musicians
like Oliver and Louis behind them.

CLARENCE WILLIAMS

Do you remember back before the war, about 1938 or 1939, when those record
collectors wrote those letters to Bunk Johnson? Well, it was me that told
them where he was working and living – down in New Iberia, Louisiana.

Danny Barker

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Pontchartrain Beach, 1941

*

Lee Collins

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Astoria Strut , by Jones and Collins Astoria Hot Eight

*

Sam Morgan Jazz Band

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Careless
Love
, by the Sam Morgan Jazz Band

 

 

LETTERS FROM BUNK JOHNSON TO FREDERICK RAMSEY, JR., 1939, 1940

© Louisiana State Museum

Fred Ramsey, Jr. and Percy Humphrey

Dear Friend,

 I am here, only making out now. For work, we have work
only when rice harvest is in, and, that over, things go real dead until cane
harvest. I drive a truck and trailer and that only pays me $1.75 a day and
that do not last very long. So you all know for sure how much money that
I make now. I made up my mind to work hard until I die as I have no one to
tell my troubles to, and my children cannot help me out in this case. I have
been read down for about five years. My teeth went bad in 1934, so that was
my finish playing music. I am just about to give it up. Now I haven’t got
no other way to go but put my shoulder to the wheel and my nose to the grinding
stone and put my music down.

 Now for the taking of the picture of mine, you can have
one or six. Now six will cost five dollars, and if you care to pay for the
six, I will be glad because Armstrong wants one. I would like to give Williams
one, Foster one, Bechet one, and I would like to keep one, which would be
the six. Now, if you only want me to take one, I will do so. So, you can
send me what you think about it, for one or six. Now, if there is some things
you would want to know about music, please let me know when you answer.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
Willie
Bunk Johnson

My dear kind friends,

 Only a few words I want to say to you about my delay
in sending you these pictures and these letters. Now, I’m pretty sure that
you all know just how everything is down South with the poor colored man.
The service here is really poor for colored people. We have no colored studios.
This is a Cajun town and, in these little country towns, you don’t have a
chance like the white man, so you just have to stand back and wait until
your turn come. That is just the way here. So please do not think hard of
me. You think hard of the other fellow.

 You all do your very best for me and try and get me on
my feet once more in life. Now, here is just what I mean when I say the word,
“on my feet.” I mean this: I wants to become able to play trumpet once more,
as I know I can really stomp trumpet yet. Now, here is what it takes to stomp
trumpet, that is a real good set of teeth. And that is just what I am in
deep need for. Teeth and a good trumpet and old Bunk can really go. Now,
my friends, the shape that I am in at the present time I cannot help myself,
so you all can judge that. Now, as I said before, that this town is very
dead and it is real tough on a poor man when he do get in the shape I am
in. Now, I have the very best of health and nothing but good clothes. Old
Bunk is only in need for a set of teeth and a good job. Now, I truly thank
you for the treat of the money. They come in need time. I did not have a
penny in my house or no place else. Do tell my dear old pal, Clarence Williams,
to write me and to send a few late numbers of his. Now, I cannot play them
but I can think them. O Boy, that will make me feel good anyway. If I have
not got no teeth I can have something to look at when I get to thinking about
the shape I am in and have no good way to go but work, just as I could get
it, some weeks nothing at all. Now, you tell Louis to please send me a trumpet,
as he told me that he would, and you all do your best for me. From a good
old, kind friend, as ever, and will always be so, so answer me at once.

 
 
 
 
 
Willie
Bunk Johnson

 

Bunk Johnson

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Walk Through the Streets , by Bunk Johnson

BUNK JOHNSON

When I came back to music and was out in San Francisco in 1943, Harry James
was playin’ at the Civics Auditorium. I knew his papa, a fine man, bandmaster
in the circus.

 Young Harry says to me, “Pops, I don’t have to tell you.
You and Louis, only men that can play this horn.” That was real nice of young
Harry, but he play real good trumpet himself. I told him so. Never catch
a real good musician knock a musician.

 Take my boy Louis. Anybody in this world knows any more
about playin’ that trumpet than Louis Armstrong — show him to me. And I’ll
show the doubter! I’ll run out! And if I can’t run ‘im – Man, I’ll sure
talk him down!

 You should see some of those old fellows down in New
Orleans I grew up with. My, they’re old! Shuffling along, can’t remember
nothin’. Couldn’t play a chorus to save their life. Whiskey got some of them.
Whisky heads are all dead! Bunk is still here!

 When I look back over the objects in my life, why I can
remember back to when there was no discrimination in Louisiana. When I was
a boy you got on a mule car in New Orleans and walk up and put your nickle
in the bandbox and sat down. Discrimination came in 1889. Too much prejudice
in the South since then. And I’ve played music for white people all over
the world and many of my best friends are white. But there’s always somebody
who’ll come up and say to you, “Hey, nigger, play this.”

  JOHN A. PROVENZANO

Today the spotlight in New Orleans night life is Bourbon Street, known as
the Vieux Carre section of old New Orleans. Casually strolling in a nightery
on Bourbon Street, with its elaborate front, well-stocked bar, and clean,
roomy dancing floors, one finds it difficult to understand the music. In
this particular outfit, the drummer appears to be the leader. He wants to
play a piece all by himself, and does. How the patrons of the place stand
the racket is more than I can explain. No one is able to understand what
the band is trying to play; but that doesn’t seem to worry the boys much;
they think Hollywood is their next port of call.

 Memories go back to the days of the loud jazz bands of
the early ‘nineties, when we were just starting out with patch-up cornets
and trombones, leaky valves on clarinets which were usually minus a key or
two, and homemade bass fiddles, and warped guitars. We must have sounded
just as lousy to the professional element, but by constant plugging night
and day for days, months, and even years, some went to fame and fortune (also
ruin).

 In another club on Bourbon, Oscar “Papa” Celestin, now
well on his way to his seventies, has the jazz world on its toes. Believe
it or not, but Papa Celestin today is just the same great trouper that he
was in the early ‘nineties, when jazz fans couldn’t agree as to which of
the two between himself and the immortal Manuel Perez produced the better
tone on the cornet. Perez has gone to his Maker, but the other representative
of the real New Orleans jazz music is fortunately still with us.

 Papa Celestin has set an example that the present young
generation of bottle-man tooters would do well to follow. The fact that he
and that illustrious master, Alphonse Picou, the dean of all clarinetists,
still have their flags flying high in the jazz world gives one hope for the
future.

___________________________________

Bunk Johnson, Jim Robinson and George Lewis (holding clarinet), New
Orleans, 1946

*

When the Saints Go Marching In , by Bunk Johnson

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An Online Story of Jazz in New Orleans

Chapter

1  2   3   4   5

   

Nat Hentoff’s Introduction