Monday, May 25, 2015

"Empire of Sin" by Gary Krist (2014)

This book is an enigma. It begins as an examination of the famous New Orleans Ax Man Murders of the early 20th Century and just when you are settling in nicely with that gruesome crime, the book becomes a history of jazz and after that morphs into a collective biography of some of the greatest jazz musicians who ever lived.

So, just what is this book? Well, I’ll tell you; honestly this is one of the most invigorating and engaging books on serial killers and jazz musicians which I have ever read. The big difference in the two subjects is that, of course, while the Jazzmen chronicled here may have slayed their audiences night after night with the new sound called “jazz”, the Ax Man murderer was slaying his audiences permanently in private performances all over New Orleans for several years. His crimes are still listed as one of the most puzzling of all serial killers, including the infamous Jack the Ripper.

Mr. Krist is an accomplished author, and it was his name which drew me to the book, the complicated title notwithstanding. Just how he wound up juxtaposing the history of what was happening in New Orleans at the time of the murders with the history of jazz is somewhat of a mystery to me, but the justification for doing so becomes apparent as you read the book.

New Orleans was a wide open Southern city; if you could call it a truly Southern city at all. There was no real segregation and racial intermarriage was quite common before the early part of the 20th Century. Gambling and prostitution were openly practiced, if not celebrated. And the Port of New Orleans brought together sailors from all over the Caribbean, Europe and Africa; not to mention an influx of Asians and South Americans. And in the days of Reconstruction all of these different people lived together in relative harmony.

At the close of the 19th Century there was an influx of European immigrants; notably Irish, Italian, German and Jewish. Each group had their own customs; and music. The first race riots in the city were not; as one would expect; between blacks and whites. Rather they were between the whites and the Italians. The Italians had become known as a “mafia” like organization. They were involved in kidnappings and extortion. They also strong armed their own neighborhood grocery stores, and in some cases murdered the owners. But when a group of these men kidnapped a young child and killed him, the city exploded in the violence of revenge.

Against the backdrop of those events in 1890 the author traces the history of crime in New Orleans through to the end of the 1920 election and the advent of Prohibition. As I said earlier, had he only concentrated on this aspect of New Orleans at the time this would have been a great book. However, by choosing to combine and compare the history of crime in New Orleans with the creation of jazz, he has created a fantastic and lively portrait of one of America’s most beloved and eclectic cities.

The book sparkles with the names of the musical legends that gave birth to a new art form. The stories of these men; with names like Jelly Roll Morton; Sidney Bechet; Freddie Keppard; Buddy Bolden; Louis Armstrong and George Baquet; are the history of what became the modern day New Orleans of legend, but also of Storyville itself; that quarter where these men first blew the notes which would come to define an era, and a genre.

Here is a link to the Library of Congress recording of Alabama Bound by Jelly Roll Morton. This is the type of music I was listening to while reading this book. Listening to the music of the time while reading the book enriched the whole experience and made for a delightful reading of this wonderful book by Mr. Krist.

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