Strippers and Be-Boppers in Postwar New Orleans Jazz

Charles Suhor By

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The article below was adapted by the author, a native Orleanian, from Jazz in New Orleans: the Postwar Years Through 1970 (Scarecrow Press/Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, 2001).

New Orleans was a hotbed of jazz activity in many styles during the years after World War II, but it has been largely unrecognized by critics and historians. Beginning in 1948, trumpeters Sharkey Bonano, Papa Celestin, and Tony Almerico led a lively popular revival of traditional and Dixieland jazz, winning large followings in the city. Bonano's Kings of Dixieland were followed by a second line of young players—the Dukes of Dixieland, Pete Fountain, the Basin Street Six, and others. Veterans like George Lewis and Paul Barbarin also led popular bands.

Ironically, the French Quarter was at the same time the underground setting for modern jazz. This exciting movement was virtually unknown outside the gatherings of young players who were discovering and advancing the revolutionary music. It wasn't until the current generation of modernists—the Marsalis Brothers, Harry Connick, Jr., Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, Irvin Mayfield, and others—that New Orleans artists were widely thought of as adept in post-Dixieland styles.

But today's successful modernists are standing on the shoulders of largely invisible giants. No one would claim that New Orleans musicians invented the new music, but the city's early boppers were certainly on the cutting edge. They were brilliant, impoverished, and relentless. Unable to make a living in a city devoted to early jazz and the emerging rhythm and blues, they played jam sessions at each other's houses and after-hours sessions. The only venue for steady employment was French Quarter strip clubs, where the modern jazz was heard by audiences who clearly were not there for the music.

Musicians from other parts of the country were attracted to the city's freewheeling lifestyle. The Quarter's bohemian atmosphere had not yet become a badge of hipness sported by middle class émigrés and exploited by studiedly quaint boutiques. Among the loosely knit community of locals and visitors who worked the strip clubs were Al Belletto, Mouse Bonati, Sam Butera, Benny Clement, Fred Crane, Tony D'Amore, Johnny Elgin, Bill Evans, Don Guidry, Pete Kowchak, Black Mike Lala, Bruce Lippincott, Tony Mitchell, Brew Moore, Joe (Cheeks) Mandry, Joe Morton, Fred Nesbitt, Earl Palmer, Joe Pass, Bill Patey, Chick Power, Pete Monteleone, Mike Serpas, Frank Strazerri, Don Suhor, Bob Teeters, and Louis Timken.

Joe Pass, later famed as the guitarist with Oscar Peterson, played the strip clubs for ten months. He told jazz writer Rhodes Spedale that "after 3 a.m. we could jam, and that's what kept me here. In 1949 there was as much good jazz and good players happening here as in, say, Chicago. You could live here relatively cheap and you could play—all night and all day."

But the strip clubs settings were typically dingy, and the dancing artless. Strippers disrobed while walking arhthymically across the stage, embellishing the stroll with bumps and grinds. B-girls and prostitutes worked the dark, ill-smelling rooms, soliciting watered-down drinks and sometimes "rolling" hapless customers (i.e., robbing them after drugging or clobbering them). A variety of narcotics was available, and they took their toll on musicians, entertainers, and prostitutes.

In the early 1950s a few French Quarter clubs, led by the Sho'Bar and Prima's 500 Club, aspired to the dubious status of classy exotic dance nitery. On the theory that gauche is a step up from sordid, they featured better-known strippers or those who had a gimmick—Candy Barr, Lily Christine (the Cat Girl), Evangeline (the Oyster Girl—the slimy mollusks would slide seductively down her body), Kalantan, Allouette (who twirled tassels that were affixed to pasties on her nipples), Sally Rand, Blaze Starr (Governor Earl K. Long's mistress), and Stormy, whose success led to a follow-up act, Stormy's Mother.

Only in New Orleans: in the squeaky-clean fifties, the Sho'Bar had a daytime radio show. Comedian/emcee Lenny Gale touted the club's strippers and the vulgarian red-hot-momma Carrie Finnell with the energy and aplomb of today's infomercial hosts. The patina of respectability failed to cover a multitude of vices. Comedian Frankie Ray told David Cuthbert in a Times-Picayune article that the Latin Quarter Club of 1949 as "a real den of iniquity" and the Treasure Chest as "the worst ***** house on the street."


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