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New Orleans is often referred to as the “Cradle of Jazz,” the “Birthplace of Jazz,” or the “Incubator of Jazz.” But despite the mothering metaphors, the musicians credited with bearing, rocking and nurturing early New Orleans jazz are invariably men.
One thinks of trumpeter Louis Armstrong, cornet player Buddy Bolden or the irrepressible pianist Jelly Roll Morton. If women enter the historical memory at all, they’re usually relegated to the extravagant brothels that are as much a part of the popular imagination of New Orleans as gumbo and Mardi Gras.
It’s time to correct history. Women did contribute to New Orleans jazz, in many and significant ways. They played bawdy piano in the famous red-light district of Storyville. They were instrumentalists, vocalists, dancers and bandleaders.
Female piano players dominated the instrument at the very moment it joined the jazz ensemble. And female blues singers influenced the sound and phrasing of New Orleans’ trumpet players.
Early blues queens Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey — who of ten played in the Crescent City — as well as noted hometown blues belters such as Lizzie Miles, Edna Hicks, Mary Mack (McBride) and Esther Bigeou, have often been miscast as precursors to jazz rather than essential participants in the birth of the music.
While it’s true that blues preceded jazz as an American musical idiom, many women blues singers performed with jazz bands and appeared on early jazz recordings well beyond the passing of that torch.
My own research and that of other music historians, along with the efforts of a feminist park ranger at the recently opened New Orleans Jazz Historical Park, have begun to fill in history’s lapses.
Here, then, are some of the stories that have been uncovered of talented and determined women who marched to their own beats and, in the process, made jazz history.
The Voice of Storyville
Ann Cook's voice stopped traffic. Illustrations by McDavid Henderson
The turn of the 20th century was a dangerous time to be young, gifted and black, but that’s when teenaged Ann Cook left her rural Louisiana home to move to New Orleans.
Against the bleak backdrop of lynchings, economic depression and the emergence of Jim Crow laws, the city beckoned to thousands of rural black Southerners as a refuge from racist violence. Employment options were limited, however, and most rural black women migrants exchanged hard lives of sharecropping for servitude in white women’s kitchens.
Cook, whose mother was a domestic worker, set her sights on one of the few better alternatives available to a black woman with talent: the burgeoning entertainment industry.
She lived in a section of New Orleans so tough that it was known as “The Battlefield.” This was also the neighborhood of Louis Armstrong, a generation younger, and his predecessor on jazz cornet, Buddy Bolden, who was Cook’s contemporary.
Like many poor women, Cook worked temporarily as a prostitute, but she also found work singing. She possessed a unique voice, a memory for endless verses and a powerful sound — by turns playful or mournful, raspy or full. In madame Willie Piazza’s popular Storyville brothel, Ann Cook carved out her reputation as the favorite barrelhouse blues singer.
Storyville — an area of the city that was literally zoned for prostitution and where sex workers were legally confined even when off-duty — often featured musical entertainment in its plush brothels. Tales of Storyville center on piano men such as Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson, but women also played and sang in its parlors.
For example, brothel owner Antonia Gonzales advertised herself as “the only cornet- playing madam in Storyville.” She performed duets with the renowned pianists. Pianist/singer Mamie Desdunes, an early influence on Jelly Roll Morton, played the brothel circuit, as did pianists Rosalind Johnson, Camilla Todd and Wilhelmina Bart.
After the Navy dismantled Storyville at the beginning of World War I, Ann Cook simply moved her act to the lively cafés and bars on South Rampart Street. She was so popular among jazz musicians that when she didn’t show up for a recording date of Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight in 1927, band members searched the city, retrieved her from the café where she had sung the previous night and whisked her to the session before the recording crew from Victor Records could get away.
As a result, she can be heard on two of the few recordings black musicians made in New Orleans in the 1920s. Rosalind Johnson recalled that Cook’s recordings of “Mama Cookie Blues” and “He’s the Sweetest Black Man in Town” (both available on the Frog CD “Sizzling the Blues”) could “stop the traffic” on Rampart Street .
Dolly Douroux Adams was a one-woman band
In 1917, when 31-year-old Ann Cook was still a regular at Willie Piazza’s, 13-year-old Dolly Douroux played piano just a block down Basin Street at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall.
White was one of Storyville’s most successful madams, famous for supplying light-skinned Creoles-of-color prostitutes, considered exotic by white middle- and upper-class men (blacks, and Creoles of color such as Douroux — her heritage was Sicilian, French and African — could work in Storyville but not be customers).
Both of Dolly’s parents played trumpet, Louis Douroux in a brass band. But codes of feminine respectability restricted Olivia Manetta Douroux’s public playing: Only at private parties could guests delight in the stunningly difficult duets she would play with her husband.
Growing up in this musical atmosphere, Dolly Douroux learned to play bass, drums, trumpet and guitar, but her skill as a pianist gave her special cachet. Since the earliest jazz bands were marching units, pianos were out of the question, but when bands began to play in venues with pianos, the instrument became a staple.
Piano chordings helped anchor the improvised, interwoven melodies of the brass and reed players. Thus, an activity considered a respectable “feminine” accomplishment — playing the piano —came to be valued by bands made up primarily of men.
Other women in this formidable generation of early jazz-band pianists include the aforementioned Todd and Bart, along with Margaret Kimble, Jeanette Salvant (Kimball) and Mercedes Garman (Fields).
Douroux soon found herself in demand with bands all over the city, including those led by Peter Bocage, Luis “Papa” Tio, Lorenzo Tio Jr. and Alphonse Picou. She also organized her own ensemble to accompany vaudeville acts at the Othello Theatre on South Rampart Street .
But in 1922, Dolly married Placide Adams, who preferred that his wife stay home. So Dolly Adams bore and raised a musical family, training all seven of her children on multiple instruments.
When the family ran into financial hardship in 1937, however, Placide finally allowed his wife to resume her career. First with her brothers and then with three of her sons, Dolly Douroux Adams continued to rock New Orleans into the 1960s.
The Downtown Girl
"Dixie" Fasnacht and her clarinet
In 1929, when Ann Cook’s records were causing a stir and Dolly Adams was raising her musical family, 19- year-old Yvonne Fasnacht was learning clarinet and alto saxophone at a New Orleans trade academy, the Nicholls School . (Three other talented instrumentalists at the school, who played banjo, piano and sax, would later make their mark as one of the most famous singing trios of the 1930s, the Boswell Sisters.)
Most of the Nicholls students were from the middle and upper classes, but Fasnacht was a working-class “downtown girl” of Swiss, German and French descent.
Throughout the 1930s, “ Dixie ” Fasnacht traveled in and out of New Orleans with all-women bands, including the Sophisticates of Swing and the Southland Rhythm Girls.
The latter were enthusiastically reviewed in Down Beat for “hitting ’em high on the clarinet and supplying the vocal swing,” and the band even appeared in a short film, Speedy Justice, in 1935.
While Fasnacht was on the road, her sister Irma opened a bar, and Dixie soon returned to New Orleans to help run it. Dixie’s Bar of Music had two locations over its 25 years of operation, the second at the current Bourbon Street location of the Cat’s Meow.
Irma was the businesswoman, and Dixie provided the gender-integrated Dixieland band. Along with pianist Dorothy Sloop and other bandmates, she recorded an album in 1957 called “ Dixie and Sloopy,” but the record company would not allow them to record with their usual bassist — a man!
Apparently it only made sense to record women jazz musicians if the ensemble was strictly female. Today, Dixie , now in her 90s, still complains about the music industry’s illogic that prevented her original band from recording.
Baby Briscoe wore the pants in the band
Neliska Briscoe was another New Orleans local who achieved national attention in an all-woman band. She’s fondly remembered by a generation of black New Orleanians as Baby Briscoe, acquiring the name as a child star in the 1920s.
Her mother, a convent cook who had roots in Mexico (where many Creoles of color fled during the rise of Jim Crow), would take her talented daughter to the Alley Cabaret. There, Baby would wow audiences with her acrobatic dancing and charismatic stage presence.
The theatrical entertainers of jazz — chorus lines, dance teams and acrobatic dancers —often go unacknowledged in the music’s history, although it was often those performers’ names and artistry that attracted a crowd.
Briscoe, who pursued a dance career in New York in her early teens, returned to New Orleans in 1933 as the star attraction of the popular band Joe Robichaux’s Rhythm Boys, which at various times also included trumpet player Ann Cooper and singer Joan Lunceford (née Daisy Lowe).
Robichaux led the band at rehearsals, while Baby — splendid in her trademark tuxedo, baton in hand — conducted their performances at the Rhythm Club.
During Mardi Gras dances, Briscoe also fronted the visiting Harlem Playgirls, a Minneapolis-based African American all-woman band organized in 1935 by drummer Sylvester Rice.
New Orleans was never simply an origin point for jazz, but an important stop for traveling and migrating musicians, and the Playgirls — including trumpet player Tiny Davis, who would later play with such well-liked 1940s bands as the International Sweethearts of Rhythm — were wildly popular.
After the Playgirls’ smash New Orleans appearance in the spring of 1938, Briscoe joined them on the road for two years, earning praise from the black press: “Her ability to keep the girls ‘in the groove’ while swinging out with their hot numbers, has won her a good reputation as a band leader,” wrote The Pittsburgh Courier in 1938.
When the band played New Orleans , black people from all over the city turned out to cheer their local prodigy-turned-headliner.
By the early 1940s, Briscoe settled back in her hometown, this time to marry and to raise a family. She left the stage, but it was a sacrifice her children would “never hear the end of,” according to her daughters.
And the Band Played On
In the years following World War II, the first New Orleans “Revival” swept the U.S. , invigorating a younger generation’s interest in early jazz. William Russell was just one of the historians and collectors who sought out original players, and in 1949 he asked Ann Cook to record with other early New Orleans musicians.
Cook refused at first. She was now a church lady whose powerful voice rocked the choir at Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church No. 2. She finally agreed to record not the blues, but a gospel number, “The Lord Will Make A Way” (available on “Jazzin’ the Blues,” Document Records). She never returned to the blues before her death in 1962.
A second New Orleans revival occurred around 1960 with the opening of new venues devoted to traditional jazz, including the still-thriving Preservation Hall in the city’s French Quarter.
Many women have played and led bands at Preservation Hall, such as pianists Sweet Emma Barrett, Billie Pierce and Jeanette Kimball, who were among the pioneer instrumentalists in the 1920s but became better-known in the autumn of their careers because of playing the Hall.
The gutsy co-owner of Preservation Hall, Sandra Jaffe, was female and white, and she went to jail more than once for maintaining an integrated institution in a segregated city.
Dolly Douroux Adams played piano and led bands through both revivals, even performing occasionally after she suffered a stroke in 1966 (she died in 1979).
Yvonne “ Dixie” Fasnacht still lives in the Bourbon Street cottage that she and her now-deceased sister Irma retired to in 1964.
Dixie’s Bar of Music holds another distinction in New Orleans’ history: It was considered one of the city’s first gay bars. Sexuality is not something people of Miss Dixie’s generation discuss easily, but she will agree that the gay crowd was “very loyal.”
So were the Fasnacht sisters: In 1962, when an entire gay Mardi Gras Carnival Krewe was arrested, Miss Dixie posted their bail. In 1997, she was honored by the gay and lesbian community of New Orleans as a “living testament to the history of gay New Orleans.”
Throughout her spectacular career as a dancer and band leader, Neliska Baby Briscoe longed to play an instrument — so she took up the alto saxophone in her 60s.
She remained proud of her dance career as well, performing the splits on her 75th birthday and dancing for guests at her 80th birthday party. The next day, she complained of pain; it was bone cancer.
During the final months of Neliska Briscoe’s life, a hospice nurse told her daughter that Briscoe had become “a little confused,” because she had regaled the staff with fantastic stories about wearing a tuxedo and leading an orchestra.
“That isn’t confused,” said the daughter. “She really did that.”
And women in early jazz? Yes, they really did that.
Related New Orleans Jazz Historical Park Ranger Margie Ortiz took it upon herself to dispel the myth that New Orleans jazz was an entirely male invention. She proposed a study entitled “A Feminist Perspective on New Orleans Jazzwomen,” which was supported by the park staff. The resulting 300-page report will soon be used to enhance the educational programming and exhibits at the park. PBS' website on Ken Burns' Jazz features an excellent section on Women in Jazz, also written by Sherrie Tucker. Audio samples are included, as well as links to NPR interviews and features on women in jazz.