Patrons of American Music

Modern Americans owe much of their musical heritage to the prostitutes and madams of turn-of-the-century red-light districts. Working in brothels around the country, and especially in the Mississippi Valley states, itinerant musicians developed the first original published musical styles of the United States.

In the 1890s, Scott Joplin (pictured, left) led a legion of of black pianists in improvising the syncopated--or "ragged"--music that would come to be known as ragtime. "Decent" folk snubbed ragtime as immoral, and the American Federation of Musicians forbade its members from performing it. But prostitutes and madams recognized the music for what it was--innovative and fun--and paid handsomely for it to be played in their brothels. Thus the earnings of prostitutes and tips from their clients subsidized Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake, Charles Hunter, Louis Chauvin, and other composers during the years they needed to nurture ragtime into an accepted, respected musical form. Sales of sheet music and player piano rolls to be performed in brothels provided further funding later for Joplin and his peers.

From 1898 to 1917, prostitution was, by city ordinance, legal within the New Orleans red-light district called Storyville. The brothels of this area subsidized early jazz musicians just as similar institutions had done for Joplin and others elsewhere. Hundreds of ragtime, jazz, and popular musicians, including the famous "professors" Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton (pictured, right) got started in Storyville.

Their earnings were fabulous, for those times. The first madam to employ Jelly Roll Morton promised that on any night he failed to make $5 in tips, she would pay the difference. She never needed to, though; the prostitutes solicited lavish tips from their customers for him, and Morton began making, as he put it, "more money than I had ever heard of in my life". Today, Jelly Roll Morton is widely acknowledged as the first jazz composer--thanks to the prostitutes and madams of Storyville.

Composers like Debussy, Stravinsky, and Gershwin integrated jazz and classical music to produce unique new styles. Rock music now incorporates many jazz elements, and new age is a direct spinoff of jazz. The prostitutes of yesteryear continue to exert a profound influence on music today.

Scott Joplin's Maple Leaf Rag:

Jelly Roll Morton's Frog-i-More rag:

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