My music teacher father was always something of an enigma. He was remarkably well-educated and well-spoken for someone who had grown up poor in the rough neighborhoods of north Denver, sprinkling conversations with Shakespearian quotes in one breath, then in the next joking that “at least he wasn’t playing piano in a whorehouse”. I often puzzled over that last image, especially after I figured out what a whorehouse was, but halfway through my latest read, Empire of Sin (Crown Publishing Group, 2014), I finally “get” it (I think…) My trombonist dad, lover in equal measure of both classical music and old-time jazz, was referencing the ragged origins of one of his favorite types of music.
Gary Krist’s book is subtitled A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, and is set in the time period I seem to be stuck in lately, namely the 1890’s to 1920’s. If you’ve ever been to New Orleans, think of this volume as an explanation of the cultural origins of Bourbon Street. In it, Krist explores the establishment and subsequent efforts to dismantle “Storyville”, a section of the city that attempted to legalize and contain prostitution, drinking, and gambling, and that saw the musical experimentation that birthed American Jazz. There are shady Mafia figures and murders, serial killers, colorful and flagrant madams, “good old boy” politicians, and fervent, self-righteous reformers. Krist writes with an engaging style that turns history into story-telling (no pun intended), and I particularly enjoyed his explanation of the childhood that formed the legendary Louis Armstrong. While the book is fascinating and well-written, I especially appreciate and look forward to working my way through the “New Orleans Playlist” of suggested jazz recordings and the “Recommended Reading: Fiction About New Orleans” at the end. Grounded in solid research, Krist’s book gave me a perspective that informs a deeper understanding of the modern city.
If you’ve not ever been to New Orleans, I suggest you attempt to visit. Not only do they need your tourist dollars after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, it is a truly unique experience. There is a foreign feel to it. but of course you’re still in America. The music, the food, the exuberance of the people, the mixture of cultures and historical influences all contribute to make it a place unlike any other. I think I was in love with the Crescent City — particularly its music — before I ever went there…because of my Dad. When I did finally arrive, I felt his presence on every street corner. New Orleans is an enigma, just like him. There’s a refinement that seems to coexist with a dangerous edge. It’s a place where a few blocks away from the raunchy excess of Bourbon Street you can glimpse a quiet, gas-lit courtyard, where you can sense the ghosts in the cemeteries or the Garden District. Knowing some of the history behind a place always helps me enjoy, appreciate, and truly experience it that much more, making Empire of Sin an invaluable addition to the New Orleans bibliography. Who knows, maybe one of those spirits was even that piano player in a whorehouse!
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.