Red Light District


Birthplace of New Orleans piano sound

By Michael Richardson

The century old history of the distinctive New Orleans piano sound, a rolling, rollicking, incessant party rythym, begins in the brothels of Storyville in the late 1800's and grew out of ragtime styling.

Storyville, located at the edge of the French Quarter, was the nation's most infamous red light district for 20 years, In 1897 Sidney Story was able to persuade his colleagues on the City Council to approve prostitution in a regulated area which soon became nicknamed Storyville. Legalized prostitution was the main business of Storyville from January 1, 1898 to November 12, 1917.

Before the advent of recorded music many of the brothels featured pianos to entertain the patrons. While the prostitutes turned up the heat in the backrooms the piano player would keep things hot in the parlor. Often the pianos in the houses of ill repute would be out of tune and not infrequently in disrepair. To compensate for sticky keys, dead strings, and off-note sounds the piano players would pound at several keys instead of just one. They developed their own techniques that included using a fist, the side of the hand, and just about anything that would get the sound out of the battered pianos.

Many, if not most, of the Storyville piano players plied their trade in anonminity, never recording, never marqued, and generally under appreciated. Names like Willie Drive 'Em Down Hall, Sullivan Rock, Kid Stormy Weather, and Tuts Washington never made it out of New Orleans. The first Storyville musician to make it big ended up leaving the Crescent City, touring, and ultimately moving to New York.

Jelly Roll Morton 1890-1941

Ferdinand Joseph Lemott, was born October 20, 1890 in New Orleans. As a child Lemott explored a number of instruments before settling down with piano at age ten. As a young teenager Lemott began playing in the Storyville brothels developing his own transition from ragtime to jazz. By 1904 the future Jelly Roll Morton had left New Orleans and began travelling the South playing music, doing vaudeville comedy, gambling, and reportedly pimping.

Jelly Roll settled in the Los Angeles area in 1917-1922 and then headed to the Windy City until 1928 when he left Chicago for New York where he lived until 194O. Morton then moved back to Los Angeles where he died July 10th at age 50. Following his death Jell Roll Morton developed a strong following with the revivial of interest in New Orleans jazz, which always remained his distinctive sound.

One of the first great jazz composers, Morton wrote a number of classics including early blues songs taking rural Delta folk music and infusing it with his own bouncy piano sound. Songs such as "Mr. Jelly Roll," "Wolverine Blues," "Black Bottom Stomp," "Wild Man Blues," King Porter Stomp," "Sidewalk Blues," "Dead Man Blues," "Jungle Blues," "West End Blues," Cannon Ball Blues," and many others rolled from his pen.

Some of the fame due Jelly Roll Morton was diluted upon his death after an unfortunate publicity flap cast him as competing with W. C. Handy as the originator of jazz. At one point Jelly Roll purportedly made the claim he "invented" jazz in 1902 back in Storyville.

Champion Jack Dupree 1910-1992

William Thomas Dupree was born on the 4th of July, 1910 in New Orleans. While still an infant Dupree's parents were both killed when the family home burned. Although the blaze was labelled accidental Dupree would sometimes claim the blaze had been set by the Klu Klux Klan. In any event the young orphan was sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys, the same orphanage that Louis Armstrong was raised in.

Dupree began playing piano at the orphanage taught by an Italian priest. At age fourteen Dupree traded institutional routine for a life on the streets. Willie Hall then taught the teenager all about boogie piano and the Storyville venues offered the work. During this period of street hustling Dupree took up boxing at a gym on Rampart Street.

By age 20 Dupree was tired of the racism of the South and moved to Chicago, then Detroit, ending up in Indianapolis. While in Detroit, Dupree met Joe Louis and boxing seemed to offer a way up and out. Dupree won a lightweight championship bout in Indiana in 1935 and ended his boxing career with 107 fights to his name--which by now had changed to Champion Jack Dupree.

In 1940 Champion Jack returned to the keyboard where he would pound out the tunes and started recording for the Okeh label but World War II interrupted those plans. Life seemed safe enough as a cook in the Navy but out on the front Champion Jack got captured and spend two years as a POW of the Japanese.

Dupree moved to New York following the war and recorded under several different names for 21 different labels. The only song that Champion Jack recorded that made the charts was in 1955, a duet with Teddy McRae called "Walking the Blues." In 1958 Dupree released "Blues From The Gutter," a release that many consider his finest work and seemed to be a reprise of his early life in Storyville.

Continuing to be dissatisfied with life in segregated America, Dupree moved to Europe in 1959 where he lived until his death January 21, 1992. After a 36 year absence Champion Jack returned to New Orleans in 1990 for the Jazz and Heritage Festival and recorded "Back Home in New Orleans" backed by an all-star line-up of Crescent City musicians. Contemporary musician Billy Diamond says, "Champion Jack started it all, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Fats Domino, they all followed him, he was first."

Professor Longhair 1918-1980

Henry Roeland Byrd was born December 19, 1918 in Bogalusa, Louisiana but raised in New Orleans. By then Storyville was no longer wide open but music venues still abounded in the French Quarter. Byrd's first gig was tap dancing for tips on Bourbon Street learning piano, guitar and drums along the way. Legend has it that Byrd's first piano was an old junker retrieved from the trash. In the early 1930's Byrd was in and out of various bands. He left music to pursue cooking, boxing, and card playing. Eventually World War II gave Byrd a stint in the Army. Music again beckoned and by 1948 Professor Longhair and the Four Hairs were on stage. That band was followed by Professor Longhair and his Shuffling Hungarians with who he recorded in 1949. In 1950 his new band called Roy Byrd &The Blues Jumpers released "Bald Head", the only release the Professor had that hit on the R&B charts.

Professor Longhair acquired his name in 1948 when Caldonia Club owner Mike Tessitore introduced him as such commenting on his shaggy hairstyle. Longhair built upon the existing New Orleans sound by mixing in a little Latin spice with a Caribbean taste. The song "Tipitina" was the inspiration that led to the growth of the New Orleans music club chain. "Going to Mardi Gras" is a virtual anthem in the Crescent City. Longhair's happy music mixed in mambo-rhumba-boogie riffs with everything else and added his own unique signature to the New Orleans piano sound.

Although Professor Longhair is legendary and highly revered in New Orleans he is not well known outside of Louisiana and didn't pay much attention to what the rest of the world thought or was up to. By the 1960's "Fess" had returned to card playing and was also doing custodial work to support himself. Fortunately the slump did not last and in 1971 Longhair made a comeback launching his recharged career at the Jazz & Heritage Festival which he continued to perform at until his death. Longhair traveled to Europe in 1973 and played at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He would get featured on the PBS-TV concert show Soundstage and make a documentary about piano players that ultimately became a memorial video as Longhair died before it was finished.

Professor Longhair died on January 30, 1980 in his sleep. Longhair's last release "Crawfish Fiesta" came out on the day he died.

Back to Top

Back to Contents Page

A cure for the blues
six times a year.







Cover photo by
Robert Jr Whitall
March 2, 2003 on Fat Sunday at the House of Blues, New Orleans