The Best of the West

Henry Allen ran his brass band for 45 years, and his son Red was a trumpet player known the world over. They're just two luminaries in the constellation that is old Algiers.



The house seems tiny, but its significance is large. It stands for a time when the Algiers neighborhood was jumping -- hopping with workers, families and lots and lots of music. The humble structure on 414 Newton Street, despite its dilapidated roof and boarded-up windows, carries memories of that era. It was the childhood home of trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, born here in 1906.

Red Allen's name is no longer known far and wide, except among jazz aficionados. But it was at one time -- when he was heading up his own hot band in New York, and when he was playing with Joe Oliver, Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong and Allen were friends and they appreciated each other's style -- Allen, five years younger, clearly modeled his playing after Armstrong. It's said that when Allen and Armstrong played together on a record, it's difficult to tell which trumpet is playing what.

Of course, to suggest in New Orleans that anyone's playing matched Armstrong's is almost a sin. And despite a deep mischievous streak, 76-year-old drummer Ricardo Lewis makes it clear that there are several other sins he'd rather commit.

Yet Lewis is the oldest living Algiers-born musician and he's proud of Red Allen, a fellow Algiers native. So he'll put it this way: "Red Allen was the local superstar, as big to Algiers as Louis Armstrong was to the rest of the city. He was considered Louis Armstrong's alter ego."

Red Allen was already a star when Lewis was a kid. He remembers Allen walking the streets of Algiers. "He was a walking show," Lewis says. "He had such a swagger -- he walked like one of these fully competent characters."

The competency came honestly to Allen, whose daddy, Henry "Red" Allen Sr., ran the Henry Allen Brass Band for nearly half a century in Algiers. Considered by many the best brass band in town, it included all-star players such as Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and King Oliver. When he was a small child, Red Allen Jr. would help with the band, running into the tavern and alerting the band when the mourners were leaving the church, and it was time to start the jazz funeral. Red Jr. took regular lessons from Algiers music teachers and could "read the spots on the wall" -- read music.

When Allen was growing up, ferries ran 24 hours a day across the river, and musicians traveled across the river all the time -- often to play gigs in one of the many clubs in Algiers. Some musicians say that there was more work in Algiers than any place else in town. And musicians were everywhere.

Lewis pours a lemonade and vodka for his guests and tells a visitor that his mama was "a good singer." And, Lewis adds with a wink, "Let me clue you in, Keith. She was a good singer, and ... and she was cute."

In a lot of ways, Keith Jones' family is a perfect example of Algiers during this time, a composite of music and water and the rails.

Keith Jones, 60, calls Lewis "Mr. Ricardo." By the time Jones was born, his mother, the before-mentioned cute singer Eloise Harper, had quit singing on the Sunday-morning radio broadcasts with Herbert Leary & His Society Syncopaters. She herself came from a musical family -- the Matthews, Jones's uncles, were all drummers who played with Red Allen Sr.'s band and others.

Keith's dad, Chat Jones, was gone for long stretches in his job as a steward, first with the railroad and then as a merchant seaman. And when Chat Jones and other seamen came to New York, says Keith, "Red Allen was their man." There still are photos floating around Algiers of Red Allen in New York, posing with his fellow Algiers natives.

Music and the industries of Algiers went hand-in-hand. "Everyone had an occupation--survival," notes Lewis. Even with his successful brass band, Red Allen Sr. had a barbershop at 828 LaMarque St., on what was then a canal. Many other musicians worked on the busy rails and the water, because New Orleans-Algiers was at that time the nation's number two port behind New York. Musicians worked as longshoremen, merchant seamen, boat builders, painters, foundry workers, mechanics, timekeepers and brakemen. They provided the muscle to load and unload goods such as coffee and bananas from freight cars and ships.

The West Bank of the Mississippi River is "the bosom of New Orleans," says Jones, because it nurtured the city. Jones explains that Algiers got the gunpowder magazine so that the French Quarter wouldn't explode if there was a fire. Algiers got the city's slaughterhouse, it got Lafitte's pirates coming from Barataria, it got the dry docks, the boatyards, the lumber yards, and a gargantuan Southern Pacific Railway yard that at one time employed 4,000 men. During World War II, Algiers got the naval base.

It was also the part of town known for its hoodoo.

Yet today, Algiers' contributions to the city seem largely to be forgotten. Which is why Keith Jones has for the past few years been sprucing up 414 Newton with fresh paint and taming the jungle of weeds that had filled its yard. Jones has secured a donor who will help to purchase the tax-forfeited house and move it toward the path of historical preservation. Jones had also been in touch with Red Allen's son -- now deceased -- and is working with Allen's daughter-in-law to put together a fitting historic site to Algiers' most famous musical son.

(Across the river, the Louisiana State Museum at the old U.S. Mint at 400 Esplanade Ave. currently has two Allen artifacts in its collection: a trumpet played by Red Allen and the bass-drum head from Henry Allen Sr.'s brass band.)

Last year, Jones incorporated an organization called WHAMP (West Bank Historic Art and Music Preservation), which he wants to use to promote the cultural and musical contributions that his neighborhood has made. It's called WHAMP because Red Allen used to demand attention at the beginning of his sets by yelling "Whamp!" into the microphone. Jones and other Algiers residents are hoping to use WHAMP to grab attention for their now-sleepy part of town.

Fifty or 60 years ago, Algiers was anything but sleepy. "There was a lot of noise, put it that way," says Keith Jones.

No wonder, given the lengthy list of musicians with Algiers ties: Edwin Bocage, better known as Eddie Bo, descends from the Bocages, a family of Algiers boat builders and musicians. Memphis Minnie was born in Algiers. Clarence "Frogman" Henry is a native. So was Frank Dusen, the trombonist who took over Buddy Bolden's band after Bolden was committed to a mental hospital. Clarinetist George Lewis lived in Algiers for many years and his grandchildren still live there. Bassist-drummer Placide Adams and his brothers grew up in Algiers in a family of musician-carpenters. They were related to the prestigious Algiers music families Douroux and Manetta -- names that meant music to many New Orleanians.

All of these faces can be viewed in the Algiers courthouse exhibit put together by Kevin Herridge, owner of the House of the Rising Sun Bed & Breakfast. Herridge has been studying the area's musical history since he moved here in 1994 from London, England. Thanks to his work, locals coming to the courthouse to pay their property taxes or traffic tickets can pore over the photos looking for their neighbors or cousins. Herridge himself has pored over thousands of newspapers and gone through hundreds of city directories to document who the Algiers musicians were, where they lived, and where they worked. A thick gray three-ring binder is testament to his research.

In conversation, Herridge is ready with a wealth of information: musician birth and death dates, the names of the two Algiers streets that fell into the river in a crevasse in 1842, and the year of the earliest brass band appearance in Algiers (the Pickwick Brass Band in 1873, followed by the Pacific Brass Band). He'll inform you that there were 31 bars in Algiers in 1911 and he can rattle off the names of who played at the Masonic Hall, the Elks Hall, the Elmira Pleasure Grounds, the Greystone Voters League, and the halls above the local fire stations. He owns a collection of records -- by the likes of Jimmy Bryant, Roosevelt Sykes and Memphis Minnie -- who sing about going to Algiers to see the hoodoo lady.

All of this research is headed for a book to be called Over 'Da River, which is how some musicians referred to Algiers. It really is stuff for the history books, observes Herridge, since the relatively few places that really have music now include the Old Point Bar, the Dry Dock Cafe, and the Crown & Anchor English Pub.

Ricardo Lewis and Placide Adams and Eddie Bo -- all now in their 70s -- can recall when there was either a bar, a hall, or a church on every corner of Algiers.

Musicians could be found all over Algiers, congregating at places like Henry Allen Sr.'s barber shop on the canal. You could find them at the shop partly because they wanted to look clean and fresh on stage, and partly because blacks could be cited for gathering on the street. It was "the racial profiling of the time," comments Jones.

Music seemed to emanate from nearly every house. Eddie Bo, whose mother played piano, recalls that "everybody had an upright piano in those days; I didn't know how." Keith Jones also remembers the pianos -- he, like every Algiers child, "was into the arts, although we didn't call it that at the time. On Saturday morning, if you were a kid, you were getting your behind out that door. You were going to tap dance, sing, play the piano, the horn. You were doing something."

Placide Adams, whose Adams family band played for "anything going on that meant anything," says that musicians from Algiers and New Orleans knew each other and visited back and forth. He remembers stopping by to see his uncle, Manuel "Fess" Manetta, a man who played several instruments and gave lessons to all sorts of Algiers kids -- including Red Allen. One memorable day, his uncle had a visitor, says Adams. "I was a boy six years old, and I didn't know Louis Armstrong from Pluto. He (Armstrong) looked at me and said, 'What you looking at, boy?' in that voice." Frightened, Adams ran out the door, and his uncle Manuel called him back in and said, "This is Louis Armstrong, he's not trying to scare you, that's just the way he talks."

Today, some 60 years later, a visitor can walk down an Algiers street on a weekend afternoon and hear no music at all -- no clubs, no halls, no bar rooms with live music. What happened?

Each Algiers native holds their own theory about this. Ricardo Lewis postulates that it was the Depression that kept everyone together; music was there to cut the boredom. Once the Depression was over, the music died down. A few other musicians muse about how the World War II naval base kept the Algiers clubs hopping until the armistice was signed. Others wonder whether the Huey P. Long bridge and the end of 24-hour ferry service stifled the Algiers-New Orleans foot traffic that had been so common in an earlier day.

Placide Adams says that he thinks people were ultimately lured away by a more expansive Bourbon Street. Ricardo Lewis moved off to California in the 1940s but remembers seeing the strip when he would return to town. "It was sophisticated, though -- it was Galatoire's, it was top bands, coats and ties, the top tier of money spenders. There were pretty girls with pretty bodies -- I think the term dirty old man was coined there during that time -- but burlesque shows were an art form. It wasn't like it is now."

Algiers might be more quiet, but it could be worse. Placide Adams adds that, if he has any say in the matter, Bourbon Street can keep its crowds on the other side of the river. "In Algiers, we were real true people, true entertainers, we didn't have all the humbug, all that nasty stuff," he says. "If it was going to get that way in Algiers, thank you, let it come to New Orleans."

Kevin Herridge has put together a walking tour of Algiers that can be picked up at the Algiers courthouse. The Preservation Resource Center, 923 Tchoupitoulas St. (581-7032), has put together a driving-tour map that includes Red Allen's house and other jazz musicians' residences in Algiers and New Orleans.

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