Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for New Orleans. Gary Krist. Amberley.
Where did it all begin? That hedonistic lifestyle that we call Rock ‘n’ Roll? Was it when poet Phillip Larkin proclaimed that “Sexual intercourse began in 1963” (Annus Mirabilis 1967) during Swinging London in the ’60s? Or perhaps it was the Greenwich Village area of New York when Bob Dylan first arrived in that great city. I think we need to look further back in time to New Orleans in 1890 when the Storyville area was created. This led to the birth of Jazz and the beginning of a lifestyle that linked sex, music and drinking.
Gary Krist is an American novelist and historical writer who turns his considerable research and writing talents to this meticulously crafted study of what he refers to as the “Demi-monde” – New Orleans from 1890 to 1920. Empire Of Sin studies the inter-related themes of politics, crime, race relations, prostitution/brothel keeping, gambling, drinking, and jazz which all came together in the notorious Storyville area, named after local Alderman Sidney Story who created the concept of a vice zone.
Empire Of Sin has a focus on major crime in New Orleans, in particular the role of the Italian Black Hand gang and a number of unsolved axe murders which occurred from 1918 -1919. What is really fascinating for the music lover is the way in which key jazz musicians such as Buddy Bolden, Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Nick La Rocca, Kid Ory, Joe “King” Oliver and a very young Louis Armstrong are introduced. We learn about their early lives and how the Storyville area created employment opportunities for young talented musicians who played in the local bars and brothels.
In the hands of a lesser author a book of this scope could be somewhat overwhelming but Krist skilfully navigates us through the murky world of politics and crime. He paints a compelling picture of a colourful, uninhibited, multi-racial world where jazz was the background music to unrestricted hedonism. However, the free spirited world of Storyville had many critics and the book shows how the combination of government controls on prostitution brought about by America’s entry to WW1 in 1917 and the rising tide of Prohibition led to the closure of Storyville.
The jazz musicians who had served their apprenticeships in New Orleans had already begun their migration northwards to Chicago and other big cities where they were eventually to record the music which had begun on the streets, bars and brothels of Storyville. It was not until the early 1950’s that the term Rock ‘n’ Roll was born but its lifestyle and to some extent its music had its origins in early 20th Century New Orleans.
I suggest you pour yourself 4 fingers of Jack Daniels and chill out listening to the coolest jazz musician ever, the late great Miles Davis as he performs “So What” a track from the best jazz album ever, Kind of Blue (1959).