Beyond Bordellos: Race, Sex, and Jazz in Turn-of-the-Century New Orleans

AHA Session 249
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 9
Sunday, January 6, 2013: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
La Galerie 5 (New Orleans Marriott)
Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Tulane University
New Orleans and the Wider World
Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Tulane University

Session Abstract

Ah, New Orleans: the City that Care Forgot, the Big Easy, the Birthplace of Jazz.  This panel will explore the history and myth of the Crescent City’s part in the creation and dissemination of jazz music.  The papers situate New Orleans appropriately in the historical context of the progressive era, the imposition of Jim Crow, the tightening straight-jacket of racial dualism, and the sexual double standards that characterized the period.  The aim is a deeper knowledge and appreciation of the diversity of jazz in the city, and, simultaneously, a shattering of the longstanding myths surrounding the music and its proliferation.

Emily Landau’s paper takes us to Storyville, New Orleans’s notorious red-light district.  Landau argues that the promotion of New Orleans as the “birthplace of jazz,” has, in effect, erased the real business of Storyville, a commercial sex district where poor women turned tricks for change and many of the musicians were also pimps.  Further, the representation of Storyville as an exception to both the prudish morality of progressivism and the racial stipulations of Jim Crow, has removed the district from the circumstances that brought it into being and sustained it for twenty years.  Landau puts Storyville back in its place within the normalizing sexual morality and strict racial dualism of early twentieth-century America.

Storyville was not the only area of the Crescent City where jazz was performed and appreciated.  Beyond the bordellos and honky-tonks, jazz musicians played at lawn parties and picnics, for neighborhood clubs and Catholic Church socials.  Moreover, men were not the only practitioners of early jazz!  Sherrie Tucker reorients the history and challenges cultural memories of jazz through an exploration of women jazz musicians in various venues in and around the city.  Her counter-narrative both exposes and complicates the myth that jazz was born and bred in brothels.  In doing so she opens up the study of jazz to complexities of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, mobility, and class that are largely mystified in the presentation of Storyville as jazz’s natal home.

Court Carney continues to challenge the inherited narrative of jazz history.  Rather than following the migration of jazz out of New Orleans in the nineteen-twenties, Carney finds a variant of the New Orleans style in the center of the city, in the nightclub at the Roosevelt Hotel, and broadcast throughout over the radio waves.  His paper focuses on groups who stayed behind when others fled to Chicago and elsewhere in the late 1910s.  Among these were the white jazz ensembles, the New Orleans Owls and the Boswell Sisters.  Carney explores the relationship between the city’s coalescing Jim Crow order, and the development of a style that would shape in yet different ways the cultural memory of an “authentic” New Orleans jazz.

Individually and together, the papers in this panel complicate the story of early jazz,  revealing a richer history that is much more deeply implicated in the development of racial segregation and sexual morality in the early twentieth century than is understood.  Bruce Raeburn will comment.

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