Maybe you’ve had the same experience. You’re reading a book, enjoying it, and it’s like you can see the movie version in your mind’s eye. That’s where I’m coming from with Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans by Charles Hersch (University of Chicago Press, 2007). It’s the stuff of an HBO series. Think Treme but set exactly one hundred years earlier. Treme meets Boardwalk Empire meets Deadwood.

Instead of writing a straight-up review of Hersch’s fine book, I would rather do something that more closely mirrors my reading experience. I’ve created a collage out of paraphrases and excerpts from his book, rearranging the pieces to highlight the cinematic and dramatic possibilities.

Now, much of what I’ll be highlighting is simple historical fact that Hersch didn’t by any means unearth, but he draws from an eclectic range of sources, Michel Foucault to Danny Barker. He’s thankfully judicious with the high theory—he makes his point and moves on (Foucault’s “heterotopias” comes up four times; Bakhtin’s “carnivalesque” comes up much more frequently but it only serves to illuminate, not distract). His highest achievement is probably his analysis of how the forces of Jim Crow influenced the formation of the unique American art form that came to be known as jazz. He’s refreshingly level headed about race—eminently fair, I would even say.

Okay, that’s it with book review patter—let me get back to my letter in a bottle to HBO:

Setting: New Orleans, 1905

The new Louisiana state constitution in 1898 disenfranchised blacks through a grandfather clause. The Louisiana Governor crowed to the legislature: “The white supremacy for which we have so long struggled … is now crystallized into the Constitution” (p. 35).

The black voting share dropped from 44 to 4 percent.

The only groups in New Orleans possibly more despised than blacks, though not wholly disenfranchised, were the Italians and Sicilians. “In 1891, the mayor of New Orleans, Joseph A. Shakespeare, called southern Italian and Sicilian immigrants ‘the most idle, vicious, and worthless people among us. … They are without courage, honor, pride, religion or any quality that goes to make the good citizen.’ Even the progressive-minded Lafcadio Hearn spoke of ‘something viperine in this sultry Sicilian blood.’

“This hatred was due partly to New Orleans Sicilians’ willingness to associate with blacks as equals” (p. 128)

By 1910 the black voting share dropped to essentially zero: 0.6% (p. 35).  In 1917, the city council segregated downtown from uptown. According to the legislation’s author: “‘The appearance of a white man in the negro district will cause his arrest’ and ‘a negro woman evening stroll[ing] in the white district … will be jailed’” (p. 92). Later that year, Storyville was abolished.

At the turn of the century cocaine use was common among prostitutes and poor residents of the Storyville District as well as roustabouts. During the early days of jazz, the music could only be played in disreputable places. “It was not accepted elsewhere” (p. 43). Not surprisingly, musicians played many different styles, primarily determined by location and audience–and personal inclination.

The first generation of jazz musicians were greatly influenced by the black church. Buddy Bolden, for example, “attended St. John Baptist Church on First Street, a house of worship known for its musicality; according to Kid Ory, ‘Bolden got most of his tunes from the ‘Holy Roller Church,’ attending strictly for the music, not the religion” (p. 107).

Bluesy cornetist Chris Kelly, most popular with the downtrodden and ratty, “always ended his performances with the hymn ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ played, contrary to modern practice, as a ‘sacred song’—slowly” (p. 169).

Mahalia Jackson grew up in the Black Pearl neighborhood of uptown. She “described what she heard at the Sanctified Church near her home in the late 1910s and early 1920s: ‘These people had no choir and no organ. They used the drum, the cymbal, the tambourine, and the street triangle. Everybody in there sang and they clapped and stomped their feet and sang with their whole bodies. They had a beat, a powerful beat, a rhythm we held on to from slavery days, and their music was so strong and expressive it used to bring tears to my eyes’” (p. 168-169).

Jim Crow caused Creoles to lose their special classification above blacks. This is the moment the meaning of Creole in New Orleans shifted: “The hardening of racial categories created a whole class of cultural impersonators, Creoles taking on the identity of black and, occasionally, white. The very hybridity that Jim Crow laws were attempting to destroy made it possible for some Creoles to evade those laws … Americanization destroyed the basis of Creole identity, as race rather than place now defined them: to become Americans, Creoles had to become black” (p. 118).

“Although of African ancestry, most Creoles did not see themselves as black; drummer Paul Barbarin said, ‘I didn’t know I was colored until … later years.’ According to some, Creoles were more racist than many whites, and many of them spoke French exclusively. Blacks and Creoles of Color lived fairly separately, the Creoles living ‘downtown’ and the blacks ‘uptown’” (p. 79).

Categories of race remained distinct yet fluid. A dark skinned Creole may be considered white while a light skinned Creole might be thought of as black, as in the case of the brothers Eugene and George Moret (p. 131).

“Although white musicians could not openly play with blacks and Creoles, ‘bucking contests’ brought them together. Such contests began when bands advertised upcoming performances or other events by riding around town in the back of a furniture wagon driven by three mules, yelling to onlookers and passing out handbills. The musicians sat in the back on folding chairs, and when the wagon stopped at a corner, the band played, drawing dancing crowds. ‘Bucking’ took place when two such bands met and, someone locking the wagons’ wheels together to prevent a premature retreat, dueled until one was declared the winner” (p. 132).

Above all, it was a rough port town. More than a quarter of a million people lived in New Orleans in 1900.

“At one club in Treme, customers periodically became intoxicated and shot out the lights, leading the policeman on duty to panic and sound an alarm summoning several officers to round up troublemakers (and sometimes others as well)” (p. 66).

“A second liner once threw a brick at George Lewis’ head, scarring him” (p. 68).

“The Irish Channel … was a kind of lawless zone where, according to one musician, ‘they used to shoot cops in the feet and make them dance.’ Local whites fought wars with tough kids from Basin Street, so at times it was dangerous for blacks to set foot in the neighborhood” (p. 100).

Forget the melting pot metaphor. Think: “polyphony, in which each new voice changes the whole” (p. 151).


At his peak they called him King. Buddy Bolden’s career was brief, from roughly 1897 to 1906, when he went crazy. Never recorded—or at least no recordings survive (everyone agrees he was loud). “Bolden attended St. John Baptist Church on First Street, a house of worship known for its musicality; according to Kid Ory, ‘Bolden got most of his tunes from the ‘Holy Roller Church,’ attending strictly for the music, not the religion” (p. 107). He was “a ‘neat fellow’ who ‘dressed in rich white man’s clothes’ and ‘always had a coat and tie on.’ Interestingly, his band members dressed sloppily and were rather ill mannered, entering people’s houses with their ‘high roller’ hats and neglecting to take them off” (p. 113).  “Ratty jazz musicians took a melody of Bolden’s and wrote lyrics referring to one of his favorite venues:

Thought I heard Buddy Bolden say,

Funky Butt, funky butt, take it away …

Thought I heard Buddy Bolden say,

Dirty, nasty stinky butt, take it away,

Dirty, nasty stinky butt, take it away,

And let Mister Bolden play …” (p. 59-60)

Cornetist Chris Kelly stuck with his bluesy sound and played for the most disreputable crowds; famous for his performances of “Careless Love,” which would prompt women to call out, “Oh, preach, preacher, preach, preacher, play that Careless Love” (p. 170). Never recorded, no photos remain. Since his audience was ratty, “Kelly could dress in a haphazard fashion; musicians laughed when they saw him walking down the street with clothes that were frayed at the elbows and knees. According to Danny Barker, Kelly would come on the job with a tuxedo, a red-striped shirt, a black tie, a brown derby, and a tan shoe and a black shoe. Whatever he picked up in the house when he left, that’s what he wore” (p. 136). Frequently, when he played “DMF” (dirty motherfucker), a fight would break out (p. 67).

By day a public school teacher named John Wigginton Hyman, by night a jazz musician named Johnny Wiggs. He wouldn’t take up music full time until the 1940s. “His childhood recollections included some of the ambient sounds that influenced jazz, from a black washerwoman singing with a kind of beautiful roughness to the bottlemen who roamed the town playing three-feet-long tin horns, with a brass reed and a wooden mouthpiece. Wiggs remembered hearing them blocks away, and when they approached he ran to get bottles to trade them for children’s miniature dolls or candy” (p. 131).

Leda Chapman and Emma Thorton, prostitutes who worked the District and were part of Buddy Boldin’s “harem.” Both were 18 in 1900 and had been arrested for infractions ranging from disturbing the peace and using obscene language to fighting (Marquis, In Search of Buddy Bolden, p. 45).

Eugene and George Moret, Creole musician brothers—“Eugene was dark skinned with black hair but played only in white bands, whereas the lighter-skinned ‘briquette’ (redhaired) George performed with blacks” (p. 122).

Josie Arlington, a madam who “cultivated respectability, decorating brothels with classical images and sculptures to create a sense of ‘refinement, worldliness, wealth, and sophistication.'” Her “prostitutes were prohibited from smoking, becoming intoxicated, and cursing, which might threaten their image of refinement” (p. 71).

George Brunis (born in 1892) as a child would go to the District “wearing long pants and posing as a midget, with wrinkles drawn on his forehead, to hear black musicians” (p. 131).

Louis Armstrong (born in 1901) would be a little young to make an appearance in our depiction of 1905 New Orleans—so we’ll just have to fudge this one and give Pops a couple more years; he surely would approve. As a boy, Armstrong hauled coal to Storyville, where he would stand outside clubs to listen to the music.

Nick La Rocca, leader of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white band with the distinction of recording the first jazz record (in 1917). Sicilian parents settled in the Irish Channel, La Rocca is mostly known today for his racist attitudes about the origins of jazz. For instance, he “insisted that jazz was ‘the white man’s music and not colored’” (p. 196), yet he landed in legal trouble from lifting pieces of his work from black musicians, such as Joe Jordan (p. 197).

Opening series of shots …

A group of police officers canvas a neighborhood to see if anyone is bothered by the loud and ratty music coming from the corner music hall.  “The police interviewed twenty-six individuals, white and ‘colored,’ and ‘all claimed that they are not annoyed by the dances and all entertainments which have been conducted there in an orderly manner,” here, the camera closes in, “excepting an Italian’ who complained the music was played too late into the night” (p. 91).

Late at night, a group of prostitutes, including Leda Chapman and Emma Thorton, stop at a club just outside the District to listen to a string band and get something to eat. When they start dancing the police break everything up—eventually the club owner will have his license revoked. Chapman and Thorton cannot resist making snide comments to the police officers.

John Wigginton Hyman takes leaves of the public school where he teaches, saying good-bye to students and peers. Later, we see him in a music club and he answers to Johnny Wiggs.

Eugene and George Moret, the Creole musician brothers with the contrasting racial identities, Eugene black and George white, navigate the city on their way to gigs. Their respective journeys through the city provide a tour of of their contrasting worlds.

Josie Arlington pauses to dress down a young prostitute for cursing, then returns to directing a workman to re-position a knockoff of a neoclassical sculpture.

George Brunis, still a child, goes to the District and pretends to be a midget so he can hear black musicians play. A young Louis Armstrong hauls coal to the District to get in earshot of King Oliver.

An uptown bucking contest between a band led by Chris Kelly and another led by Buddy Bolden.

Look, HBO executive intern, I haven’t even gotten to Jelly Roll Morton yet. He left New Orleans in 1902, but if you don’t think we have enough to cook with yet, we can add Jelly Roll and his dirty self to the mix. If that’s what you want me to do, I’ll do it.

About the Author

Derek Bridges

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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