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Voodoo and Jazz Print E-mail
When Louis Armstrong was a kid in New Orleans he tried to get into the notorious “red light” district called Storyville to listen to the musicians. Storyville was a legally protected prostitution district in New Orleans that operated between 1898 and 1917. It was in the parlors of the bordellos and saloons that jazz was first played as a performing art. In the most famous house, Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall on Basin Street, Jelly Roll Morton, self proclaimed “inventor” of jazz, first preformed his original jazz compositions like “Tiger Rag” and “Wolverine Blues.” Louis Armstrong wasn’t born until 1904 and, understandably, the district did not like having children about.  However, if sex was the business of Storyville and jazz its anthem, Voodoo was its religion. Many Voodoo and Hoodoo Queens plied their gris-gris in the district; everything from powders to attract more lovers to sealing potions that would close a prostitute up so she couldn’t do business.  Armstrong was quick to identify the affinities of the district and use it to gain entrance. Rubbing two red bricks together he would manufacture a bucket of red brick dust. In New Orleans Voodoo one must always be on guard against gris-gris. Unlike the movies, a real gris-gris is always hidden from its target in order to disarm their taking any defensive measures. Knowing this, the astute New Orleanian always takes defensive measures. The classic uncrossing method being to scrub one’s door step with red brick dust every morning before exiting the house. When Armstrong appeared in the district with his bucket of red brick dust, he was granted a dispensation for his minor status because of the importance of, and demands for, his Voodoo product. In time, the district got used to seeing him until he came invisible to the discerning eye. When that happened, by his own admission, instead of leaving at dusk as he was supposed to, he would secret himself in yards and allies and wait until nightfall when he could listen to, and learn, jazz.

Jelly Roll Morton, the “inventor” of jazz told his life story to the famous musical folklorist Alan Lomax. In the book that followed, “Mr. Jelly Roll” he attributes the key influence in his development to Voodoo, or Hoodoo and especially his godmother, the Voodoo Queen, Eulalie Hécaud. In the Storyville demimonde he tells about the gangster Aaron Harris who could always get out of trouble because he had a “voodoo woman.”  In fact, throughout his life, he cites Voodoo as the ultimate arbitrator. Even his death, he understood was related to Voodoo and the passing of his godmother.

Sweet Emma Barrett was maybe the earliest female jazz musician. She is remembered, and immortalized, at Preservation Hall where she played piano as, “the Garter Gal.”  Both a protégé and contemporary of the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Oscar “Papa” Celestin and others, she wrote, played and sang jazz songs. Also, like them, her original work was very bawdy. She was called the “Garter Girl” because of a small thong of jungle bells she wore one ankle and that she would stomp in accompaniment to her piano playing. The band of small bells on one’s ankle is, in fact, a classic Voodoo rhythmic call used to attract Legba, the main Voodoo spirit into a ritual.

Oscar “Papa” Celestin who went on to become the original jazz headliner on Bourbon Street is best remembered for his jazz composition, “Marie Laveau.”  

Very few of the original jazz musicians in New Orleans did not have some connection to Congo Square and/or Voodoo. Even today, the contemporary headliners like the Neville brothers, the Marsalis family and, in particular, Dr. John, all make musical references to Voodoo, Congo Square and/or Marie Laveau. In fact, even the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival began in Congo Square.


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