'Rooted in racism': Ban on jazz music removed by New Orleans schools one century later

Andrew J. Yawn
The American South

For the past 100 years, jazz music and dancing has been banned from New Orleans public schools.

The ban was impossible to enforce and failed to prevent a long line of jazz musicians from honing their talents in New Orleans schools. But on March 24, 100 years after the Orleans Parish School Board voted to bar jazz from its educational institutions, the board’s current members unanimously voted to lift the ban. 

“I'm very glad that we can rescind this policy. I want to acknowledge it. It was rooted in racism,” OPSB President Olin Parker said in a statement. “And I also want to acknowledge the tremendous contributions of our students and especially of our band directors, whose legacy continues from 1922 through present day.”

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Louis Armstrong, 1950. Courtesy photo by Duncan Schiedt.

The 1922 ban was proposed by a school board member identified in New Orleans Times-Picayune archives as Mrs. A. Baumgartner, who told the board, “Jazz dancing and jazz music in schools should be stopped at once.”

Baumgartner said she had seen “a lot of rough dancing” in school auditoriums and that she preferred the one-step, the two-step and the waltz. When asked by another board member what jazz is, Baumgartner replied, “I’ve seen only a little bit of it, but it was awful.” 

The ban did not keep jazz out of public schools, according to local historian Al Kennedy’s 2002 book “Chord Changes on the Chalkboard: How Public School Teachers Shaped Jazz and the Music of New Orleans.” In a 2004 Times-Picayune interview, Kennedy describes finding a photo in a 1929 yearbook showing a local school’s jazz band. The photo featured a young Frank Federico, who went on to play guitar for Louisa Prima. 

At New Orleans’ Craig Elementary School in the 1930s, students in one classroom included Edgar “Dooky” Chase, Warren Bell Sr., Benny Powell and Yvonne Busch. All went on to become jazz musicians. And many, such as Busch, eventually taught in New Orleans public schools while shaping the next generation of jazz talent, according to Kennedy’s book. 

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“You really can’t look at music in this city without also looking at what was being taught by public school music teachers,” Kennedy said in the 2004 interview. “It didn’t take long to ignore the order.”

Still, some wonder about the damage caused by the symbolic ban. James Karst, a New Orleans jazz researcher and writer, said a young Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago months after his hometown banned jazz music in schools. 

“It worked out all right for him," Karst said. 

Karst said New Orleans city officials were “long hostile to jazz.” Armstrong’s childhood home on what used to be Jane Alley was destroyed by the city in 1964 to make room for a traffic court. Jazz musician Sidney Bechet’s home was also razed by the city, “which unwittingly approved the demolition” while working to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, according to a 2011 Associated Press article. The home of Buddy Bolden, considered one of the founding fathers of jazz, also sits in disrepair despite several efforts to save it through the years. 

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A wall collapsed off the side of The Little Gem Saloon jazz club in New Orleans, La., as seen on Monday August 30, 2021, is seen after Hurricane Ida came ashore in Louisiana on Sunday August 29, 2021.

Karst said he appreciates the school board’s decision to eliminate a longstanding — if ineffective — ban on jazz in schools. 

“Anything that moves us in the other direction, to where we are embracing our rich history and culture, I think is great,” Karst said. “Jazz is something to be appreciated and loved.” 

News tips? Questions? Call reporter Andrew Yawn at 985-285-7689 or email him at Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.