Just before the birth of jazz, a visit to a New Orleans music venue
James Karst, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune16 hours ago
A reporter for the New Orleans Item visited a music venue in September 1894. "Its dance houses graphically described."
It was around 1895 that the first notes of jazz are believed to have been blown in New Orleans, though the music wouldn't be given a name that stuck for more than a decade. Its early years remain somewhat obscure, though its birthplace is generally considered to have been in the neighborhood where City Hall stands.
Just across Canal Street was the city's red-light district, remembered as Storyville. Musicians played there, too, but the district's role in the development of jazz was long overstated, most historians agree today. But some of the brothels did employ individual piano players, and the nearby saloons had small groups of musicians to entertain gamblers and other visitors.
Before Storyville was created by a municipal ordinance in 1897, though, that side of Canal Street was a rollicking entertainment district, with a new, hybrid music taking shape in businesses that were part gambling hall, part dance parlor and part saloon. In the late summer of 1894, a reporter for the Item newspaper visited to the area, providing a rare firsthand description of New Orleans music lovers as jazz was about to explode on the scene, at a time when the city's white newspapers rarely wrote about black people or culture unless crime was involved.
The reporter's description of the smell seems reminiscent of Buddy Bolden's signature song, sometimes called "Funky Butt." James Karst, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
"Franklin Street!" marveled the paper in its Sept. 26, 1894, issue, describing the area between Canal and Bienville streets. (Franklin Street was renamed Crozat Street in 1924.) "At the very mention of the word, little wonder is it that the bearer of that historic name would turn over in his grave, and could he arise and look down, scarcely would he consider it an honor or a compliment paid his memory."
At a time when the momentum of Jim Crow was strengthening, the writer spent a significant amount of time noting that black and white people mingled together on the street and in the dance halls, several years before a state law required bars to be racially segregated. "Here they are, from the blackest Ethiopian to the man or woman, who north of Mason and Dixon's line would be called white, so faint is the touch of negro blood discernable in their color," the reporter wrote. "But by no means is Franklin Street given over entirely to the colored race, for here may be seen white men of all conditions, from the diamond studded proprietor of a negro dance dive to the fallen Caucasian frequenters of the place."
Inside one saloon, the reporter found sparse decorations, a stocked bar and a small band of musicians -- three fiddlers who played two songs, "the one most in vogue resembling a cross between boom-dee-ay and the strain to which the can-can is danced." It wasn't jazz, but it wasn't something the writer had experienced before.
"The music strikes up, rows of darkeys, men and women, form sides like an array of opposing soldiers," the Item reported. "Fire is in their eyes and bad whiskey fills their brains, while the music works them up to a perfect frenzy. Of course, the details of the dance would not be fit for publication, but those persons who saw the celebrated dance du ventre, on the Midway Plaisance at Chicago's Fair, can form a faint idea of the evolutions gone through by the mass of black and white and yellow, squirming, laughing, talking, shrieking and fighting rum-soaked brutish human beings.
"Suddenly the music ceases, dusky arms clasp dusky forms, and some line up to the bar, treating their lily partners, some leave the hall for another dance house across the way, some retire to the rear room where they can stake their hard-earned wages or the profits of a successful thieving venture, at a game of craps, wheels of fortune and other games, too numerous to mention."
Even two decades later, the city's newspapers weren't ready for the entertainment that sprang forth from the city's black neighborhoods; The Times-Picayune famously editorialized against "jass" in 1918. ("Its musical value is nil, and its possibilities of harm are great," the paper wrote.) So it's little surprise that in September of 1894, the scene on Franklin Street was too much for the Item's reporter.
"With a shudder at what had just been seen and a sigh of relief at once more breathing the pure air of heaven, the reporter, with rapid footsteps, wended his way out of Franklin Street, a feeling of horror and loathing possessing him as in imagination he still saw the depravity and still heard the ribald curses which nightly reign over Franklin Street."