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Book Excerpts

Strippers and Be-Boppers in Postwar New Orleans Jazz

By Published: June 2, 2009
Not every strip club in the Quarter hired jazz musicians, but among those where modern jazz was played behind dancers or at after-hours sessions were the Gunga Den, Prima's 500 Club, French Opera House, Old Opera House, Puppy House (later called the Sho'Bar), Stormy's Casino Royal (later Dan's Pier 600, then Al Hirt's), Club Slipper (later, the Dream Room). Another club, the French Casino, was away from the river on Canal Street between Rampart and Claiborne, near the Texas Lounge jazz, a true modern jazz oasis where drummer Earl Palmer, pianist Ed Frank, and others played with vocalist Earl Williams.

For a variety of reasons, modern jazz was acceptable accompaniment behind the dancers and in between introductions and chasers for the comics and other post-vaudeville acts at the clubs. Since there was seldom any attempt to depict the stripping as a species of terpsichorean art, it mattered little what the background music was like, so long as the drummer caught the bumps and grinds. Also, there was an aptness of sorts in the very unfamiliarity of the new music. Its heavily accented phrases and "weird" harmonies became part of the decidedly countercultural, borderline verboten ambience. In the absence of musical freedom of any sort in most other venues, many modern jazz artists chose to make a living in the strip clubs.

Jazz-for-strippers had some built-in musical problems, of course. Some dancers and club owners allowed little or no freedom. They wanted to hear the clichés of exotic pit band music, e.g., a slurpingly seductive sax, a growling trumpet—as if the customers were actually listening. And as anyone who has ever seen a classic strip show knows, the drummer's role is inherently invasive. The music, whatever the style, is pitted against rim shots, rolls, cymbal crashes, and tom-tom and bass drum thrusts coordinated with the dancer's gyrations, all without losing the basic beat. Percussively, a challenge. Musically, a triple-forte nuisance.

But not a stopper. Amazingly, jazz accompanists were relentless and could often play wonderfully amidst the random percussion accents. It seemed that they were not so much mentally blocking out the din as visualizing it as an asymmetrical phenomenon that was part of the performance, like the Kafka tale where the frequent disruption of a ceremony by a leopard was handled by making the leopard a part of the event.

The French Quarter clubs of the early postwar years were almost exclusively for white audiences, and white musicians had most of the jobs at strip clubs. Some exceptions were recalled by bassist Richard Payne and drummer Earl Palmer. Payne, who played with early greats like Ed Blackwell, James Black, Ellis Marsalis, Nat Perrilliat, and others, remembers trumpeter Thomas Jefferson's description of a strip gig. The black band had to play for strippers from behind a curtain, invisible to the white audience.

As modern jazz attracted more fans in the late fifties and early sixties, concerts and weekend gigs and steady work became more common. At the Playboy on Iberville near Bourbon, Al Belletto performed and booked modern jazz combos regularly beginning in 1962. He also led the first openly integrated combo there in 1964. Pianist Ronnie Kole's trio gained a following with showmanly Peter Nero-type performances at his Quarter Club. Ellis Marsalis
Ellis Marsalis
Ellis Marsalis
b.1934
piano
led excellent groups at Marsalis' Mansion, his father's club that was attached to a motel. I played drums with Pianist Buddy Prima and then-guitarist Bill Huntington at Leon Prima's Fountain Lounge in Lakeview. Saxophonist Red Tyler, pianist Joe Burton, and others found audiences in town. Saxophonist Harold Battiste recorded the marvelous American Jazz Quintet on the AFO label, one of the few recorded examples of the city's modern jazz players

While none of these breakthroughs amounted to wild prosperity, modern jazz had come out of the closet, no longer limited to the seamy underworld of strip clubs or floating jam sessions at musicians' homes and after-hours clubs. National fame would await the next generation of modernists, but at least the was a civic sense of a jazz community broader than the traditional and Dixieland jazz styles that had exclusively dominated the city's image for half a century.

Learn more about Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970.

© 2001, Charles Suhor


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