How Louis Armstrong, Jazz, and the Mafia Got Entangled in Storyville ‹ CrimeReads
Louis Armstrong didn’t need to be told that the honky-tons that were connected were the honky-tons where you wanted to be. He learned this from King Olivier, whom he worshiped. Oliver was twenty years older than Armstrong. In many ways, the veteran cornetist and bandleader was both a mentor and a father figure to the young musician. “I never stopped loving Joe Oliver,” Armstrong said. “He was always ready to come to my rescue when I needed someone to talk to me about life and its complex little things and help me out of difficult situations.”
Oliver had a big bald head that he often topped with a bowler hat. He could be formal and stern, but he had a style of posing on the horn that was raw and spontaneous. His genius arranged his playing in such a way that he blended in an interesting way with the other members of the group. As a composer and arranger, Oliver created musical configurations that gave new meaning to jazz. His group, which he co-led with trombonist Kid Ory, was at the forefront of new music.
Armstrong came to see King Oliver play almost every night at Pete Lala’s, one of Storyville’s most renowned jazz venues. Clarence Williams, a pianist born in Plaquemine, Louisiana, who was part of the deluge of musicians who arrived in New Orleans at the turn of the century, remembered Lala as the center of the universe:
Around 4 a.m., the girls would finish their work and meet their IPs – that’s what the pimps were called – in the wine cellars. Pete Lala was the headquarters, the place where all the bands came when they got off work and where the girls came to meet their main man. It was a place where they came to drink and play and have breakfast and then go to bed.
Armstrong also remembered Lala:
These pimps and hustlers, et cetera, spent most of their time [Lala’s] until their daughters are done doing tricks in their cribs. . . They would meet them and check the night’s catch. . . Many prostitutes lived in different parts of town and came to Storyville as if they had a job. . . There were different shifts for them. . . Sometimes two prostitutes shared the rent of the same cradle together. . . One worked during the day and the other worked that night shift. . . And business was going so well in those days with the sailors of the fleet and the crews of these big ships that come from all over the world on the Mississippi River – kept them very, very busy.
Everyone knew Pete Lala was a mob-bound club. The owner was Peter Ciaccio, a Sicilian immigrant, which was confusing because there were two other clubs in the neighborhood owned by men named Lala, including Big 25, another popular club with a business license issued to John T. Lala. All of these localities were part of a group of clubs owned and operated by Italians. Rightly or wrongly, clubs in the area owned by Italians were suspected of being linked to the Mafia. King Oliver didn’t even have to tell Little Louis that these clubs were the place to be. Connected clubs were, ostensibly, the most reliable when it came to their relationships with musicians.
Armstrong knew this partly from experience. One of the first places he held a regular gig was at Matranga, which was located in Black Storyville.
Matranga’s was nothing like Pete Lala’s, which was cavernous and well laid out. The Matranga was a barrel that had been around since at least the late 1880s. Its clientele was predominantly black although the ownership was Sicilian – a common arrangement in New Orleans at the time. Being a Matranga, club owner Henry Matranga was “a man of respect”. Armstrong recalled, “Henry Matranga was quick as a tack and a playboy in his own right. He treated everyone well and the colored people who frequented his tonk liked him very much.
Armstrong knew Matranga’s was a mafia club. Using King Oliver’s example as a guide, he not only tolerated the club being connected, he preferred it. In his memoirs, he gave an example of why. One night at Matranga’s a fight broke out which was put down by the club’s bouncer, who was called Slippers. It was Slippers, as Armstrong remembered, that got him the gig at Matranga in the first place. Slippers might have been a big thug, but he loved jazz.
[He] liked my way of playing so much that he himself suggested to Henry Matranga that I replace the cornet pdiaper that had just left. He was a pretty good man, and Matranga doubted my ability to hold the post. When I opened, Slippers were in my corner cheering me on. “Listen to this kid,” he told Matranga. “Just listen to that little son of a bitch playing that quail!” That’s what Slippers called my cornet. . . Sometimes when we really started going to town while Slippers was in the rec room out back, he’d run up the dance floor saying, “Just listen to that little son of a bitch blow that quail.” Then he looked at me. “Boy, if you keep it up, you’re gonna be the best quail blower in the world.” Listen to me carefully.”
The night a fight broke out, Slippers was in top form. For Armstrong, it was another example of why a jazz musician was better off in a crowd-controlled club.
That night, a gravedigger from one of the dyke labor camps entered the place and gambled all of his winnings in the back gambling hall. The slippers had their eye on the guy as soon as he entered. The guy got angry losing, as gamblers sometimes do; he vented his frustration in the bar by threatening to rob everyone in the place. The slippers tried to reason with the guy: “Shut your mouth, my friend, or you’ll get out of here through the back.” The guy calmed down, but after a few minutes he was back, claiming that the house was playing a crooked game. So Slippers grabbed the guy by the scruff of the neck and aggressively led him out the door.
The guy had a gun, a big .45, which he pulled out and fired wildly at Slippers.
Through it all, Louis Armstrong and his band played barrelhouse blues until the knocks rang out. The color drained from Boogus’ face, the piano layer, as Garbee, the drummer, began to stutter, “Wha, wha, wha. . . What was that?”
“Nothing,” Louis said, trying to act nonchalant, though he was also terrified.
Slippers drew his pistol and returned fire; he winged the gravedigger in the leg. The guy fell. Slippers walked over and picked the man up from his gun, then continued what he started by throwing the man to the sidewalk. A horse-drawn ambulance arrived and the troublemaker was taken to hospital. Armstrong said, “Around four o’clock the girls started coming in after their night shifts. They offered us drinks and we started the good old blues. In some honky-tonks, a shooting was a surprising event that would, at the very least, lead to the club closing for the night. Not at Matranga.
For Armstrong, it was a mutually beneficial alliance: “One thing I always admired about those bad guys when I was growing up in New Orleans is that they all liked good music.”
Being jazz aficionados was one thing, but even more important was the role that men like Henry Matranga could play in enabling Armstrong to function in an unjust world. One evening, when Armstrong hadn’t even planned to perform at Matranga, he stopped for a beer.
The tonk wasn’t working, but the saloon was open and some of the elders were standing around the bar mouthing. I just said hello to Matranga when Captain Jackson, the baddest guy in the police, walked in. “Everyone is in line,” he said. “We’re looking for some jerk off guys who just robbed a man on Rampart Street.” We tried to explain that we were innocent, but he told his men to lock us up and take us to the parish jail just a block away. There, I was trapped and I had to send a message to Maryann: “I am going to prison. Try to find someone to take me out.
Louis spent the night in prison, then, miraculously and without explanation, he was released.
While I was in the prison yard, I did not realize that Matranga had contacted his lawyer to get us all out on parole. I didn’t even have to appear in court. It was part of a system that was still working at that time. Whenever a crowd of fellows were gathered in a roundup at a gambling den or saloon, the owner knew how to “get them out”, that is, get them out of jail.
Armstrong now had a protector in New Orleans; this protector was the mafia.
Extract of Dangerous Rhythms: Jazz and the Underworld, by TJ English. Published by William Morrow & Company. Copyright, 2022, TJ English. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.