Blue Lu and the White Witch, A Memoir of New Orleans

The year is about 1986, and it all centers on a wonderful Southern gentleman named Al Rose. I will relate a few of the highlights I remember of Al, my time in New Orleans, and how I came to rolf a legend of Jazz.

I was working in Maryland practicing Rolfing®Structural Integration.My husband, Steve Hancoff, was also a Rolfing practitioner and a guitarist. Steve was performing ragtime and jazz at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri. Most of the musicians rode the night train from Sedalia to the Riverboat Festival in St. Louis, and they would play music for themselves together on the train.We had just finished a recording and Steve was giving one to everyone in the train car.There was only one person left – a Southern gentleman elegantly dressed in a three-piece white suit.As Steve gave him the tape he said, I don’t know who you are, but here is one for you.The southern gentleman said,“Why thank you,young man.I’ll listen to it.“Steve found out who the man was:Al Rose. Later on, during the festival, when Steve saw Al again,Al had listened to the tape and he had heard Steve perform.He told Steve:“Kid, you got it.“Al invited Steve down to New Orleans and said he would introduce him around.Steve said he would check it out with his wife. Al told me later he was betting I would be against it and not let Steve go. When I heard the news,I said “And you’re still here? You wouldn’t even have to unpack if you went right back to the airport.”

I stayed in our house in Maryland, and kept Rolfing to earn money, and Steve went down to New Orleans.We got a small apartment: 504 Governor Nicholls street in the Quarter, a block from the French Market and one door off Decatur.It had two small rooms one on top the other with a metal spiral staircase up between them.We were told that the rooms had been slave quarters. The bottom floor was below the level of the courtyard, and when it rained, the downstairs flooded. You could see daylight through some of the walls. There was a small gas heater, and a tiny kitchen in the corner – a tiny sink, small refrigerator, two-burner stove top and very small oven – but we weren’t planning on doing much cooking with all that New Orleans food just outside the door. We got some second-hand furniture and got to know Al and Diana Rose.

Diana had been a “whiz kid”.I think she was on a radio show where very bright kids were asked very hard questions.She was gracious under pressure, and very kind to me. Al deserves a thorough biography, which I hope will be done one day.(One of his own books, I Remember Jazz, is biographical and a delight as a collection of stories.) Al was in his 80s when I met him. His home was full of museum-quality collections. He had some Bellocq photographs for research on his book on Lulu White, New Orleans’ most famous Storyville madam, on the tables all over the house.I remember a glass case full of statues of the RCA Victor dog listening to the gramophone, and another one of New Orleans Mardi Gras dance cards and crewe memorabilia. Invitations to the crewe social club balls are so precious Al told us not even his connections could get us in.

Al told us there were seven top families who were the society of New Orleans, and his family was in the next three down. One of his ancestors was with the La Salle expedition.His grandfather owned a big circus – “not the Barnum and Bailey one” is how Al put it – and had invented cotton candy. Although Al was an only child, he had one hundred first cousins.They were all required to pay social calls on each other, which mostly consisted of knocking on the door and leaving a calling card, since the other cousin was out doing the same thing. Social life was quite demanding. Everyone wore different kinds of clothing for the different times of the day, and dinners were formal dress.

Al told me the following vignette so I would have some idea of how rich his family was: He was in his room, changing into the proper attire for the afternoon. When he took off his shirt and put it on the chair back, it slipped to the floor.As he was leaning over to pick up the shirt and put it back on the chair, his mother came in.What she said to him was:“Put that back. How dare you take work away from people who need it.”

Al’s family was Catholic, and when he was fourteen years old he refused confirmation. After this, when his mother saw him in the house, she would throw herself down on her knees and start praying. This was not wonderful for Al, and he decided to leave home.Now Al had already seen the country touring with his grandfather’s circus, and he decided he would go to New York – to Coney Island – and do caricatures on the boardwalk.He had learned how to do caricatures from his artist friends on Jackson Square in New Orleans.

When he first got to New York, he had the problem of where to live, as he was underage.He solved this by going to the great hotels on the park.He would go in to the front desk and tell them he was coming in ahead of his family to arrange for the rooms.His family would be arriving in the next few days, and would need two of the hotel’s best suites for two weeks.Al would pay cash in advance for both suites, and go off and enjoy the amenities and the room service.Then, just when the hotel staff would start to wonder where the rest of the family was, Al would leave, go to the next hotel and do it all over again.The hotels did not complain. In a year’s time, during the depression and with the help of a Quaker family who said he was their adopted son, he was able to buy a brownstone kitty-corner from Eleanor Roosevelt on Washington Square in the Village.

When Al was fifteen or sixteen, he decided to further his education and his art. He decided to go to college.Just that year, the very first intelligence test came out, and a great many people in the country took it.Al scored number one, the highest in the country. They called him IQ1, and he remained IQ1 his whole life -no one ever scored higher on the IQ test.The top ten scorers of the first IQ test were invited to lunch at the White House.Eleanor Roosevelt looked at Al and said,“Don’t I know you?“She remembered her young fifteen-year-old neighbor in his three-piece suits.

It was arranged for each of the top ten to meet three people of their choice and ask them a question.Al asked Albert Einstein: If he was such a smart scientist,why did he believe in God? Einstein’s answer was, “I don’t know,” which gave Al no satisfaction. I don’t remember the second person Al got to question, although he did tell me.The third person was Diego Rivera.I don’t know the question Al asked, but apparently the answer was to his liking because he went to Mexico City to study art with Diego Rivera, who was his mentor and teacher in graduate school.

While in Mexico, Al was Leon Trotsky’s bodyguard.I joked:“Nice job,” and he said “Trotsky would still be alive if I hadn’t graduated from college.” He was in sixteen shoot-outs defending Trotsky.Al took a bullet which broke a tooth.The bullet came in from the left and hit the back of his eyetooth on the right.He also had a gunshot wound in his shoulder, and another, I believe, in his calf.

After graduating, Al fought in the Spanish Civil War. He was not on either of the main sides, but on a very small third side: The Anarchists.Al told me about a gun battle, where he was pinned on a roof in Barcelona for three days, and how he got away through the countryside at night with his friend.

After the Spanish civil war, he went to Miami and was captain of a fishing boat out of Key West. This was so incongruous that I said with some puzzlement:“A fishing boat?” He then confessed that he was really running people up the Quaker Underground Railroad, which goes from Miami up to the big northern cities where refugees could disappear. Al’s refugees were from communist Europe, and Al said he would take anyone on his boat except for clergy.He had a rule against clergy.Al told me that the Quaker Underground Railroad was still being used,mostly by people who could not qualify for political asylum but would die if they stayed in their home countries. The Quakers bring them in, and then periodically amnesty is declared and they can come forward and become American citizens after all.He was connected through his Quaker “family” in New York.

He then moved back to New Orleans and became involved in New Orleans Jazz. He even took a cylinder recording device – for pre-wax records, which are pre-vinyl – and went to Africa to check out the idea of African rhythms influencing Jazz.Al thought they did not. Al produced the first jazz concerts and he took New Orleans Dixieland Jazz to the rest of the world – Japan, Australia, all over. They played for the Queen was how Al put it. Al made sure all his musicians were well paid – which was unheard of in those days.Al did not take a big cut like most band organizers did. His musicians loved him.

Al continued his interest in the early recording industry. He was partners with John Hammond in a recording company, which became Columbia Records. In the early days they made 78s. The musicians thought that records would never catch on – because who would ever want to listen to music played the same way twice.In fact, Al told me he decided to get out of the music business when they went to 33 and 1/3rd.Al figured no one would want to listen to music that long. (He said this with a wry smile at how wrong he had been.)

Being in New Orleans, and being connected to everyone,he wrote a New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album, which details who played what, when, and on what record, as well as some of the musicians’ personal history.Al wrote his scholarly book Storyville, New Orleans, which was published by a university press.Al was also close friend and the biographer of Baltimore’s great piano player, Eubie Blake.His last book was a biography of Lulu White, Storyville’s most famous madam.

Al kept one of everything brand new – records, pictures, autographs, memorabilia, and documents. He put these in boxes and eventually donated this collection to Tulane University.Al’s collection is what the Tulane Jazz Archives are.When we wanted to hear a recording from the archives for Steve’s research (for his recording of New Orleans Guitar Solos), we had to do the proper paperwork in triplicate. If Al were with us, it was “Yes sir, I’ll just put that record on right now, and what else can we do for you today?“In fact, if we were with Al and went into a club to hear music, the music would stop and the whole place would get quiet. Then the spotlight would shine on our table, and Al Rose was acknowledged with awe and applause. This happened everywhere. Al really was somebody in the world of New Orleans music and, I realize now, in the world of music.

Al introduced us to the Tulane University professors, who loved old-time music. There were parties about once a week where Doc Watson’s young protégé Svare played with everybody and there was playing and singing and cigars of Turkish tobacco and beer. We got to meet the historical society people and the museum folks, and so many other wonderful people Al knew. I especially remember Johnny Donnels, who did amazing black and white photography. He had a shop called Starving Artists where there was no one to wait on customers – but he had a camera and an intercom and he could talk to people if he wanted to and invite you up to his place above the store for a beer and company.He had a whole thirty-foot-long wall with photos of him with at least three presidents, and so many celebrities.Just thousands of pictures, one on top the other, it was astounding. But the really awesome wall – at least to me – was only about six-feet long, but it was filled with the business cards of all the police departments he had worked with all over the country.Johnny was the police’s expert for the whole country in drawing black suspects from victims’ descriptions.

Of course we were introduced to musicians, and found out that there were only about thirty of them in the whole quarter.Those same thirty guys played all the clubs and all kinds of music – like rock and roll on Monday night, country western on Tuesday, and jazz at the Meridien Hotel on Thursday night.You could run into them on the streets between 1 and 2 AM – easily recognizable by their tuxes – when they would gather at a late-night cafe serving inexpensive and good red beans and rice. If you were lucky, the musicians would feel like playing a little music just for themselves before they went home.

We were also introduced to the man who started Preservation Hall: Allen Jaffe, who Al said owned half of New Orleans.(Another of Al’s friends, Jules Cahn, owned the other half. I believe Jules was the landlord for our little apartment.) Allen Jaffe was born into one of the top families in New Orleans.The houses of the wealthy families, which were also called compounds, were built with the walls flush to the sidewalks, with courtyards on the inside.The family would live on one side and the people who took care of them lived on the other side. All the children from both sides of the house played together and could go from compound to compound all over the city without ever once going out on the streets.The fathers of the children Allen played with were the ones who were fairly well off and had some leisure time in the evenings to play music, and it was they who created New Orleans Jazz.There was wonderful music all around Allen in his youth.

Allen’s parents died young, I believe in an accident, and he inherited just about the time he graduated from college.After college, he came home to New Orleans, and one day when he was walking down the street, he again heard that music out of his childhood.There were two older musicians on the street corner playing in the rain with their instrument cases open for donations. Allen stopped and listened for awhile and then realized he knew these guys – “Say, aren’t you so and so’s father? and so and so’s father?” Yes, they were.Then Allen looked at them and said, “What are you doing playing out in the rain? You see that building over there? I own that.At least go play inside.“And that building is now Preservation Hall, and that is how it started.

Apparently, the only way to learn how to play ensemble New Orleans Jazz is to sit in with the musicians who know how to play it.So Allen set it up so that the younger guys could sit in and learn to play by direct experience.Preserving the music was his dream. There are three Preservation Hall bands.One is always playing the Hall, one is on the road, and one is resting. Allen also gave all the musicians houses to live in.They loved him, and he was humbly happy to be allowed to play tuba with them.He was going to feature Steve at the Hall, but Allen contracted liver cancer and died in five weeks, only in his fifties. An unexpected loss of what looked to be a promising friend as well as a major loss for Preservation Hall.

Al introduced us to Danny Barker, who had played in New York with all the musicians in the 20s and 30s, from Jelly-Roll Morton to Charlie Parker.Danny was sort of retired in New Orleans and played banjo in one of the Preservation Hall Jazz bands.Steve and he hit it off.Guitars and banjos are both fretted string instruments and often are grouped with the piano player for rhythm.Danny was kind to Steve and showed him a few things. When the band came to play locally in Maryland, we were both home and we got complimentary tickets. I made a huge batch of organic chocolate chip cookies – a couple of big bags for each band member.After the show, which finished with “When the Saints Go Marching In”, we went back to thank the guys in the band for the tickets.Narvin Kimball was the banjo player in this band and, coming up behind him while he was putting his banjo away, Steve said. “Say, can you tell me what the name of that last piece you played was?“Narvin turned around with a priceless mix of disbelief and suppressed suffering on his face – and saw us. We all had a really good laugh.

The band members were very appreciative of the cookies, especially Narvin, who was very partial to organic.Maybe those cookies were why Danny came up to me next time I was in New Orleans.He asked me what Rolfing was. I told him it was for help from problems left over from accidents, injury, and surgery.He took that in and nodded, and went on.About a week later, he came up to me and asked me would I please work on his “lady wife”.Now we were pretty tightly socially committed as it was the last few days of my visit, but I just had to say yes.It was the way his heart was in the phrase “my lady wife”.We rearranged our social schedule to get the time and borrowed Al’s old Honda.Al told us as we drove off that we were the second white people to ever be invited to Danny’s house – he had been the first.

It was a neighborhood in a low-lying area mostly of shotgun houses – so named because if you opened up all the doors, you could shoot a shotgun through the house without hitting anything. It was in the middle of the 9th Ward.When we found Danny’s house, a couple of Danny’s friends were hanging around outside waiting for us.One of them set his boy to watch Al’s car so no one would steal it.(Cars were rare in that New Orleans neighborhood – we had seen only one or two cars parked on the street or even driving by for miles.)Danny greeted us at the door wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a flower-print Hawaiian shirt in an unusual color combination. The place was casual, not picked up or cleaned up for company, with Sunday newspapers on the floor by the chair and a few beer bottles around and ashtrays full.The legendary Blue Lu Barker was also called the Billie Holliday of New Orleans. She only did one or two recordings, one of which was the 1938 Decca Records recording of “Don’t You Feel My Leg”.We heard it later at the Tulane Jazz Archives.She was honored, revered and most beloved by the whole black community of New Orleans.I went into the bedroom and found Blue Lu in bed where she had been since a surgery two and a half years earlier.She had developed a bowel perforation, and the medical treatment was a temporary colostomy above the perforation. After the perforation heals, they reconnect the bowel and people are supposed to heal over and all is well more or less. Blue Lu’s case was complicated by infection and she had a six-month stay in the hospital.Two and a half years later she still had not healed over. Blue Lu showed me an oval hole about two inches wide and one and a half inches tall that had been the site of the colostomy bag.I told her I was amazed that with that open she was still alive and that she must have good healing abilities. I rather anxiously asked if she expected me to do anything about the hole.She said“Oh my no, dear.“I said, “Good, because I don’t want to work anywhere near it” (for fear of knocking something in and causing an infection was the first thing that came to mind).So I asked her what could I do for her, and she showed me her right hand that had had so many IVs she could not close her hand and grip anything.She said with great sadness that she couldn’t cook for her husband because she couldn’t hold on to a cast-iron frying pan.She also showed me her foot, which somehow had gotten mangled during her six-month hospital stay so she couldn’t walk. I thought:hands and feet, no problem,I can do those, and so I did.

It took me about two and a half hours. When I finished, I went out and gave them all a smile, told them we were finished and that she would soon be out – and sat down. It then occurred to me that they were going to want to pay me, and that I didn’t want to take it.I also knew they would not accept charity – and rightly so – but it just did not feel right and I was determined not to. I did wonder how I was going to manage that one.We waited for her to come out, and when she did, Danny immediately noticed the difference and said to her:“You can walk!“He looked at me and I nodded. She then eased herself into an armchair using her right hand and he said to her: “And you can use your hand!“Â He then turned to me and said: “ What can I get you to eat?” I do believe I was adopted there and then.He rushed to the kitchen, and got me a piece of rather old and very blue chocolate birthday cake. I ate every bit, and then he asked me what I would like to drink – not an easy one for me as I do not like alcohol and rarely ever drink it. I considered water, but that didn’t feel right.White wine was something they probably would not even have in the house, and I also don’t really don’t like it. Luckily I spied a beer bottle, and said,“I’ll have a beer, if you have one.” Danny turned to his friend, and said:“I told you she would take a beer.” They still had to give me something – so Blue Lu gave me the insider information on which brand of canned food to buy.They gave me a can of Blue Runner Cream Style Black Eyed Peas so I would remember, which I still have and will always treasure.Then came the moment I was dreading:Blue Lu quietly asked me how much the session was. I crossed my mental fingers and tried to put my feelings into words. I asked her would she please accept this session as a gift for all her music had given to us. I held my breath, while she considered that a while
and finally, she graciously nodded her acceptance.When Al heard, he told me I could not have done a more perfect thing, because money never changes hands in the black community.

Chickens marinated in sauce cooked for three days showed up, and Danny took Steve into clubs where the real music of contemporary blacks in New Orleans was happening.Danny told Steve that if he went in on his own he would get a knife stuck in him. Steve told me about one time when Danny put his head in the door and said, “It’s me…and I’ve brought a friend.“Then he brought Steve in with an arm around him and said: “This here is my friend” – and he stared them all down.After that, he gave Steve a push towards the bandstand with the words “and the kid can play – get up there Steve and show them what you can do.“Steve went up and set up, and the band launched into “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and Steve took his solo,which he did beautifully, since he had recorded it and knew it well.The musicians nodded and smiled and Steve sat in for a set.

Two weeks later I came back to New Orleans, and of course I went to see Blue Lu again. There were several more friends hanging out, and the whole house was simply immaculate, with doilies on the tables and fresh flowers around, with that wonderful smell of fresh polish.Blue Lu was waiting in the bedroom, and said with a shy smile that her daughter had been over to clean.I took a look at her – that hole had healed over! You could have knocked me over with a feather.I had the thought that the diagonal stresses of walking and moving had caused the tissues to grow over.The scar had some diagonal striations in it and was reasonably thick and nice and dry. I could work on it, and gave her a basic first session with some attention to replacing the bowel loops, and a general clean up of the area from an infection that had been part of the surgical mess. Afterwards in the living room, Blue Lu gave me a truly precious gift:she sang just for me.She apologized for her voice not being what it used to be, but she wanted to show me the secret to her singing success – the phrasing. Danny and Steve backed her up and she sang “Big Butter and Egg Man” and “Don’t You Feel My Leg.”

After this session, she went dancing. After this session, the black community began calling me “The White Witch”. The first time I heard it, I was walking down the street on my next visit and a couple of black guys were hanging out at the front of a store talking. As I walked by, I heard one say to the other:“It’s her… It’s The White Witch
“ The other said, “Are you sure? She looks kind of young to me.” The first one said, “It’s her…. I’ve seen her before”.

Very soon after this, we had a big music event come up. Someone in the black community had been going through their attic, and had come across an old trunk that had music manuscripts in it. Almost anything old and especially to do with music ended up with Al, so they brought him the trunk.It was a very important, singular and rare find A certain Basile Bares, a Creole of color, had been a contemporary of Debussy in Paris and had written classical music in the 1880s before ragtime and jazz were born. No one had ever found classical music from those times written by a person of color.Al said that the common belief in those days was that black people were incapable of understanding or writing classical music, and the existence of this music proved that notion wrong.

Al explained the historic context in this way:In that era, all the wealthy families had the tradition of a “practice wife” for their young men. Young men were expected to be sexually accomplished, and young women of the same class were expected to be sexually innocent.So how was this to be managed considering that if a young man acquired his experience with a young lady his own class, her life would be ruined, and her brothers would try to kill him? They solved this problem the following way:The family of the young man would find a suitable young woman of preferably mixed blood and offer her a legal contract to become a “practice wife”.Since the only sort professions open to young women of mixed blood were prostitution or ones with very hard work like laundry, the offer was not such a bad choice.The contract I saw guaranteed that the young woman would live in a nice home, wear fine clothes, and live very well. At the time of the man’s death, the woman would be freed. Any children of the union would be born free, well cared for, and educated up to the standards of the wealthy family.Since schools in New Orleans would not be a good place for a mixed-blood child, they were educated in Paris.There have also always been free and wealthy black families in New Orleans, unlike most of the South, and they sent their children to Paris for education as well. Al said all the best New Orleans families had parallel families in the black community. You might be sitting at the lunch counter having an oyster po’boy and the guy sitting across from you looks exactly like you except for the color of his skin, and he probably is exactly like you.Al remarked that the black community knew all about who was related to whom, while the white community was trying hard to forget.

Al distributed the music in the trunk to several New Orleans musicians and arranged for the debut of the body of work to be at the Annual Convention of the Musicological Society. Steve got the piece “Folies du Carnaval” and I got an invitation to the event. Of course I got all dressed up with a long flowing black roses on black cape that almost went to the floor, and when I got to the door of the auditorium, a very elegant and self-assured black man took my invitation and then looked at me and said to the room at large in a carrying voice, “So you’re The White Witch.“I think I gave him a smile and I might have nodded – what else was I to do? – and then he looked me over and turned to the assembled audience and announced with a rather impish grin:“And she’s pretty too.” Then he waved me grandly on in through the door.The whole place was packed with the cream of the New Orleans black community, and I could hear the words all over the auditorium – The White Witch – as the word about me was passed. I made it to my seat, very glad that I didn’t trip.

After Blue Lu’s sessions, Al tried a session, but due to many factors, we did not continue with it. Al’s wife also was not a good candidate for the work, so unfortunately the wonderful folks in the white community did not show up, although we did do a few. We were hoping we could establish enough of a Structural Integration/Rolfing practice to move full time down there, but we never got enough momentum going in the white community to do it.We would have had fabulous food and friends and great parties and the music, but we could not have paid the rent.

Blue Lu went on to perform and record live ten songs with Danny at the 1998 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.She sang for the first time since she had been disabled by the surgery, the first time in a generation.

We did work with Al to get his book on Lulu White, the most famous Storyville madam, published. In writing his book on Storyville, Al had come across much information on Lulu, and with great good luck, he found her personal maid living in the apartment below him, and interviewed her about Lulu and life at Mahogany Hall.Since the book was written in novel form, the university press thought it was too racy for them to publish, and although Al thought it was his best book, no one would publish it in America, although the French were eager and waiting for it.

Steve and I put it together, working at editing, page layout, and picture placement. We did a whole lot of research in New Orleans for Al, and since the mayor of New Orleans had married the second-most famous Storyville madam in a society wedding, we could identify many prominent family members from those pictures and were looking for more to identify.We looked in police academy yearbooks, and to our amusement the particular yearbooks we wanted had the pictures we were looking for razor-bladed out. Al said that was a common practice of the top families, who did not want anyone to know their family history from those years.

We were close to finished with the layout and editing – it was to be a large coffee table book – and about to start serious production, when a death in our family took us down different path, and we just could not go forward with the book.We had to let the project go.We let the French have the book, since they were now all ready to go to press with the work we had done. We stopped going to New Orleans, we stopped doing anything fun.I believe we did not even see a movie for about three years.

When we were able to emerge from mourning our loss and look around.Al Rose was gone, Danny and Blue Lu Barker were gone….An era had passed. I am sad to have lost touch with all of the wonderful people I knew in New Orleans. With Hurricane Katrina, the 9th Ward is totally gone and much of the actual physical reality of the New Orleans I knew is gone, a resonance in loss for Al and Danny and Blue Lu that has drawn me to tell this story.

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