The Story of Traveling Circuses, Carnivals and Jazz

What exactly happened to jazz after Storyville was shut down? Con Chapman, author of “Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good” tells the story.

The origin story of jazz is familiar to just about everyone with a passing interest in the subject.  Jazz was born in New Orleans, goes the conventional wisdom, where a looser version of ragtime developed in the whorehouses of “Storyville,” the city’s red-light district.  

A composition by Jelly Roll Morton, the first serious jazz composer, is titled “The Naked Dance,” and as you might guess from the title, it was played to the spectacle of naked women as they danced to display their wares to potential customers.

Despite this disreputable branch in its family tree, there are several other, less colorful ones that help explain how jazz became, for the first half of the twentieth century, the most popular form of music first in America, then around the world.

After all — Storyville was shut down in 1917 at the request of the federal government to reduce the spread of venereal disease among sailors.  What happened to jazz when the prostitutes moved out?

Many early jazz musicians learned their trade in brass bands, which provided innocent entertainment throughout the Midwest and Southwest, often outdoors, usually for free.  These bands played a variety of styles, from the marches of John Philip Sousa to ragtime.  

Some musicians acquired instruments that had been pawned by Confederate soldiers after the Civil War, but sometimes instrumentation grew by accretion; when a new horn or drum was needed, band members would chip in until they’d raised enough money.  When the musician who played the instrument left the band, the instrument stayed with the group.  

Black and white musicians formed separate bands at first, reflecting the segregation of the times but allowing Black musicians to interpret the brass band repertoire in their own style.  

Where a white band playing a Sousa march would stick to the score and its rigid rhythm, in the hands of a Black band the same number would be transformed into something new—and swinging.  In his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton plays a syncopated version of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” that wouldn’t sound out of place in a honky-tonk of the times.

Brass bands were stoked by competition with each other, and the men who emerged as their leaders drove their musicians to improve.  While the title of “Professor” was sometimes conferred indiscriminately on bandleaders, some had been taught harmony and music theory and were thus capable of training musicians who may have had little or no prior formal instruction.

Community brass bands were amateur operations that didn’t provide musicians with a steady income, but those who trained with them could move on to paying jobs in settings not normally associated with jazz: medicine shows, carnivals, and eventually circuses.  

White bands would perform under the “Big Top” circus tent with the feature attractions such as lion tamers and trapeze artists, while Black bands were consigned to a smaller “sideshow” tent, where they would play music for minstrel acts and perform alongside “freak show” type attractions; for example, the sideshow band of Ringling Brothers Circus performed along with a midget, a three-legged boy, an armless man and conjoined twins.

Over time, the music played by Black bands in sideshow tents came to be preferred.  Black and white bands would march together in parades through towns to advertise that the circus was in town, and in 1911 a correspondent in New York reported that crowds lining the streets “hollered” to “put the colored band in front” of the white band.  

White bands were depleted by the draft for World War I, and in 1918 a Black bandleader reported that he “and his sixteen merrymakers” would be the featured—not the subordinate—musical attraction in the circus at the Missouri State Fair.

Few know the story of the further development of jazz in these innocent settings in which musicians created and expanded the boundaries of the music in the early 20th century, and it takes a fair amount of historical digging to uncover them.  “Jamming,” for example, is a shortened form of “wind-jamming,” which is how formally-trained musicians and white bandleaders referred to the noise they heard coming from circus sideshow tents.  

The musicians in the sideshow tents did not play “the heaviest marches, latest popular songs and rags.”  Instead, they created something new out of the material at hand; as they gained recognition and prestige, these alternative bands grew to full size and eventually went out on their own, independent of the road shows they had once been part of.

One such group was Walter Page’s Blue Devils, which started out as part of a traveling minstrel show, but broke up when the show closed.  They re-grouped, and some members of the Blue Devils—including bassist Walter Page and a pianist named Bill Basie–went on to become the Count Basie Orchestra, one of the two most successful big bands (along with Duke Ellington’s) of the twentieth century.

The market for jazz has shrunk to the point where it now trails classical music for market share, and those looking for a way out of the corner it has painted itself into would do well to recall its past, when it caused people to line the streets of small towns across America, eager to hear music that entertained them.

Con Chapman is the author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award by Hot Club de France. His latest offering – Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good – is available via Equinox publishing.

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