- The Storyville Exodus Revisited, or Why Louis Armstrong Didn’t Leave in November 1917, Like the Movie Said He Did
In the United Artists film New Orleans (1947), directed by Arthur Lubin and starring Arturo de Cordova and Dorothy Patrick (or, in retrospect, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday), there is a dramatic rendering of the closing of the Storyville red-light district in November 1917 that conforms to two persistent mythologies in jazz history: that Storyville was where jazz was “born” and that its closing forced jazz musicians out of the city. In the film, which was merely acknowledging the conventional wisdom of its time, assisted by New Orleans’s own National Jazz Foundation,1 Armstrong’s nostalgic invocation of the District’s role as a seminal jazz site is followed by a tearful group rendition of Spencer Williams’s song “Goodbye to Storyville”; then everybody clears out in one last “second line” before migrating to Chicago, where jazz attains redemption as the great American art music, thanks to Louis Armstrong. Jazz scholars have analyzed this film for various reasons: Krin Gabbard to interrogate the expropriation of black jazz and its representation as art in the American cinema in the late 1940s to promote white big bands, which were in decline; Sherrie Tucker to reveal the gendered appropriation of jazz by whites, evident in what she sees as Dorothy Patrick’s oscillation between “Jazz Virgin” and “Jazz Whore” in the film (Gabbard 121; Tucker 13-14).
As Gabbard and Tucker affirm, sex and race provide the subtext for the film, just as they have defined the parameters of the historical literature dealing with Storyville. My intention in this essay follows a somewhat different path, in that I am more interested in tracking the movements of the African American and Creole of color jazz musicians who worked in the District and [End Page 10] departed New Orleans from 1902 through 1917 in order to discover why they made the choices they did and to retire the exodus myth, which is far too simplistic an explanation for their leaving and chronologically inaccurate. Yet the jazz musicians who worked in Storyville were affected by the gender ideologies and racial strictures that defined that terrain, and when they traveled, the “sporting life” mannerisms they adopted in the District went with them. So before we can “do the math” pertaining to musician egress, a brief review of the historiography pertaining to Storyville is needed to set the stage for investigating the circumstances leading to their departure.
Storyville (or the District, as it was known among musicians) was an experiment in non-conforming zoning dating from January 1, 1898, through November 12, 1917, when it was terminated by fiat from the Secretary of the Department of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, despite the protests of Mayor Martin Behrman. Alderman Sidney Story’s Ordinance No. 13,032 approved by the City Council on January 29, 1897, attempted to rationalize and regulate prostitution in New Orleans by confining sex workers to a specific geographical area, a non-enforcement zone (a ghetto) which required prostitutes to domicile and work only there. In the 1960s and 70s, Stephen Longstreet and Al Rose produced histories of Storyville that were inflected with more than a little male chauvinism and romanticism, apparent in Longstreet’s comment that
New Orleans was proud of its vice district: it was sanitary and protected the respectable town girls from indecent offers. It kept husband, father, and son from seducing the hired help. “Going down the line” on a Saturday night to the sporting houses was often a ritual for the southern male and his guests, more interesting than seeing the waterworks or Mr. Edison’s electric lights on Canal Street.(17)
Rose’s characterization was more firmly grounded in historical research but was still intentionally impressionistic and “nostalgic,” stressing the positive aspects of the experiment by concluding that “legal recognition of the ‘evils’ incorporated therein could reduce both their incidence and their virulence to the point at which sensible city officials could keep them from becoming a moral and financial drain on the community” (Rose ix, 39). Rose provides the best coverage of musicians...