Early New Orleans Jazz Posters

The Early New Orleans Jazz Posters exhibit from the Hogan Jazz Archive offers a rare glimpse at music and society in New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century. Through a series of posters advertising various social events, one can see firsthand the strong connection between the formation of Jazz and the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mutual Aid and Protective Associations and their associated Halls that were an integral component of the African-American community in New Orleans. The fabled locations printed on these posters including Economy Hall, Oddfellows Hall, and St. Katharine’s Hall, are some of the most referenced establishments in early jazz history. The acquisition of this powerful collection came as an unexpected addition to the renowned John Robichaux performance library of sheet music and orchestrations.  When unpacking and processing the materials for the first time, folded and interleaved paper that appeared to be packing material to protect and separate the sheet music and orchestrations, actually turned out to be the series of posters featured in this exhibit. They are in remarkably good condition with the exception of a distinct crease or tear down the center of the poster from remaining folded for such a long period of time.   

Considering the collection’s origin, it is not surprising that John Robichaux’s Orchestra is often one of the bands featured, and this exhibit would not be complete without at least a brief description of him and his times. Robichaux, a Creole of Color and a classically trained violinist, was originally from Thibodaux, Louisiana like so many other talented musicians that found their way to New Orleans. Upon arriving in the city 1891, he took up the bass drum with the Excelsior Brass Band and later formed his own successful orchestra. The Robichaux Orchestra was reputed to be one of the finest in a city full of talented musicians, and was in demand at benevolent society halls, public parks and high end establishments alike. Later in life, Robichaux would enjoy a long tenure leading the Orchestra at the famed Lyric Theater. Many were held in awe of John Robichaux, believing him to be the epitome of refinement. He is often viewed as one of the last of the old guard, attempting to hold onto a unique way of life in the face of inevitable changes.

Although not mentioned by name on any of the posters, the shadow of Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a contemporary of Robichaux’s, is impossible to escape. Bolden was not a creole, nor classically trained. He embraced the new ratty style, learning to play music predominantly by ear and not yielding to established musical conventions or polite social norms. He was reputedly as wild as Robichaux was refined, and as uninhibited as Robichaux was disciplined. Although the collection ranges from 1900-1913, the vast majority are dated after 1907, the year Bolden was declared legally insane and institutionalized, so it is not surprising that he is absent from these advertisements despite his fame and notoriety. We do see an advertisement from 1910 featuring the “Famous Eagle Orchestra” which was the continuation of Bolden Band under the leadership of Frankie Duson after Bolden was institutionalized. This exhibit also features advertisements for functions held at Lincoln and Johnson Parks, famous segregated parks in the city where Robichaux and Bolden reportedly battled for the affection of audiences and the supremacy of their style.

While it is tempting to romanticize the history of jazz and its forefathers, it would be disingenuous to ignore the oppressive milieu these musicians could not escape from. New Orleans was a city in flux; the increasing Americanization of the Francophile city post-reconstruction and crippling Jim Crow segregation legislation, which stripped Creoles of Color of their unique social status, was bearing down in full force at the turn of the century as evidenced with the brutality of the Robert Charles Riots. De jure racism permeated Louisiana, so it is unsurprising, if disheartening, to see several posters that reflect this harsh reality.  Within the exhibit, one sees phrases such as “strictly white excursion,” “extra cars for colored people,”  “separate cars for colored people,” or “The Most Refined Park for Colored People in the South.” As such, it is important to view these posters advertising for benefit balls put on by the mutual aid societies and social pleasure clubs as a reflection of their times, when medical, burial and life insurance were out of reach for African-Americans, and such memberships and fundraisers attempted to fill a chasm that Jim Crow legislation created with impunity.

With all of this in mind, perhaps the most important information one can take away from this exhibit is that Jazz was a product of the diverse communities in New Orleans. It gestated in social halls supported by neighborhoods and society memberships; Lawn Parties, where often ladies would negotiate the services of a band with food and drink for an admission fee; public parks and excursions, where entire families would gather for entertainment. There is no mention of Storyville, the red light restricted district. While some members of these bands referenced certainly played in the restricted district, the idea that Jazz developed solely in the environs of Storyville, is a simplistic notion that sullies the rich musical tradition associated with New Orleans since its inception, and continues to this day, almost a century past the closing of Storyville.

For ease of browsing, the exhibit has been broken into three categories based on the occasion of the event, available from the links below. Within the three categories, one can click on each poster to view the full descriptive information, and click on the image again to view the full, enlarged image. If you have any questions regarding the exhibit, or would like any additional information, please contact the Hogan Jazz Archive at jazz@tulane.edu

Exhibit Sections