Louis Armstrong's first gigs: Our Times
The raw details about Louis Armstrong's formative years as a musician are well established. As a child, the future jazz icon was sent to a local reformatory of sorts for at least the second time, and soon he joined the band of the institution, the Colored Waifs Home.
Armstrong wrote in his autobiography that "the band often got a chance to play at a private picnic or join one of the frequent parades through the streets of New Orleans covering all parts of the city, Uptown, Back o' Town, Front o' Town, Downtown."
But the young musicians also played at least one venue that was more commercial in nature: the Crescent Theatre in what's now the Central Business District. The performances there in 1913, which are not widely known to biographers of Armstrong, could be considered among his first gigs as a professional musician. They are also a stark reminder of the overt racism that pervaded all elements of New Orleans society during the Jim Crow era.
The show was "The White Slave," a so-called racial melodrama written in 1882 by Bartley Campbell and set in the antebellum South. Campbell, who had worked in New Orleans as a young journalist before becoming a successful playwright, was institutionalized in an insane asylum several years after writing "The White Slave," according to his 1888 obituary in The New York Times.
"The story of the drama is a simple one," wrote The Daily Picayune in its Nov. 16, 1913, edition. "A girl grows up in an aristocratic Southern home under the belief that she is an octoroon, and falls a slave into the hands of a man who would betray her. She escapes with her lover, and after passing through many perils happiness comes at last with the knowledge that she is a free-born white woman."
Lillian Lee Anderson was the star. Ticket prices were in line with other theaters in what was a hotly competitive market: You could see the Colored Waifs Home band for as little as 15 cents.
Armstrong is not mentioned by name in stories about the show, nor is any other member of the band. But the young African-American musicians were described as one of the highlights of the play, and the newspaper coverage suggests they were compensated for their work.
"Superintendent Agnew is making his negro band from the waif's home earn their new uniforms at the Crescent this week. The sene-gambian music-makers are part of 'The White Slave' show — a big part, too," The Daily Picayune wrote, referring to Thomas Agnew, a white man who was the leader of the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. There is no mention of Peter Davis, who as the band director for the Colored Waifs Home trained a number of musicians who went on to great fame, or Capt. Joseph Jones, who operated the home with his wife, Manuella.
The press coverage of the young musicians is threadbare, but it does note that the songs they played were a mix of the old and new. There was even dancing at some of the performances.
"The negroes sang all the old familiar songs of the South, and mingled the ragtime melodies of today, responding to many encores," The Daily Picayune wrote on Nov. 17. "Friday night there will be buck and wing dancing for money prizes."
"This is the first I've heard about the Waif's Home band playing behind a play in November 1913, and it offers fascinating insight into Armstrong's earliest experiences as a young professional," Ricky Riccardi, archivist at the Louis Armstrong House and Museum in New York and author of "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years," said in an email.
The Crescent, which was on Baronne Street near Common, was torn down in 1937. By then, Armstrong was famous worldwide for his music and had appeared in his first films. Lillian Lee Anderson seems to have faded into obscurity.
"Armstrong was at the Waifs Home for a year and a half," Riccardi said, "and though he talked about it frequently he didn't discuss the details of day-to-day life and the types of music he had to play. Learning about this one melodramatic production illustrates that Armstrong was already getting an education in the world of show business."
The Daily Picayune did not publish photographs of "The White Slave" cast. But the French-language local newspaper L'Abeille printed a shot of a "scene de la plantation" in its Nov. 16, 1913, edition. It's grainy, but in the front row, you can make out what appears to be a small group of children. Perhaps one of them is young Louis Armstrong, on stage at age 12, performing to get uniforms for his band.