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St. Cecilia Day symposium celebrates NOLA women in music

Editor's Note: NolaVie partners with Nola4Women to highlight stories about women in New Orleans, through its Women of New Orleans: Builders and Rebuilders initiative. From now through the tricentennial in 2018, this program will celebrate generations of women who have built and rebuilt the city by placing women at the forefront of the New Orleans narrative. A series of programs and exhibits are planned in more than 50 local institutions over the next two years, and NolaVie will spotlight many of them.

St. Cecilia's Day, which celebrates the Catholic patroness of music, arrives Nov. 22. So New Orleans writer and historian Carolyn Kolb figured November would be the perfect time to honor the long list of local women who have helped shape one of the city’s most important cultural foundations: its music.

On Saturday, Nov. 19, Kolb will deliver a free talk on New Orleans women in music, followed by a concert of local women musicians. St. Cecilia Day Symposium on Women and Jazz, presented by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, National Park Service, takes place at 1:00 p.m., with the concert at 2 p.m,. at the old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave. It’s part of a myriad of exhibitions, and events orchestrated by Nola4Women, an organization that promotes the contributions past and present of women to New Orleans.

Women, notes Kolb, have many ways of expressing themselves, but a continuous one has been through song. And the link between the city’s women and its melodies date right back to its founding, and the early 18th-century arrival of the Ursuline nuns here.

“There are several levels of being an Ursuline nun,” Kolb explains, “and the highest level is chorister. Those generally were the ones who had come into the convents with dowries. They generally had a higher literacy level that most other colonists.”

Choristers were responsible for the te deum hymns sung in Catholic services. Materials from the former Ursuline museum on State Street included many of these early religious songs. When those materials ended up at The Historic New Orleans Collection, curators recorded women’s voices singing the melodies. “They are charming,” says Kolb.

But the Ursulines were the first of many women songsters to leave their marks on local history. In the 19th century, New Orleans was an operatic capital, and female opera stars were the rock stars of the era.

“Opera was like musical comedy for people here, performed in their language,” says Kolb. They flocked to hear international stars like Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, whose American arrangements were handled by none other than circus showman P.T. Barnum.

“Madame Pontalba gave Jenny Lind an apartment while she was here, and afterward auctioned off all the furniture in it” to an adoring public, adds Kolb. “Everyone in town saw Lind multiple times – black, white, everyone.”

The next big female singer to hit town was Adelina Patti, who spent a good deal of time in New Orleans, says Kolb. “She was very much a part of the American psyche. When Abe Lincoln had a child die in the White House, she famously sang 'The Last Rose of Summer' for him."

Other singers were native New Orleanians, with many, like Mahalia Jackson, rising out of local churches and gospel choirs. New Orleans produced “a slew of blues singers,” as well as talented female musicians and music teachers. Shirley Goodman, lead singer of duo Shirley and Lee, “was like 14 when she made ‘Let the Good Times Roll.’”

Lofty or lowbrow, music was interwoven into all aspects of New Orleans life.

“It was part of the air here. It was encouraged,” says Kolb. “Since New Orleans was mostly Catholic, there was more music and more dancing – it was not puritanical, like other parts of the country. Music always was part of worship.”

New Orleans also proved a fertile environment for entertainment. “In the days before radio, that meant you had to provide entertainment yourself, or go out and find it,” says Kolb. “And as organizations and clubs became more important in people’s lives, there were more bands for parades or dances.”

Louisiana folksongs played a major role in shaping local music. Composer and pianist Camille Nickerson, an authority on Creole music, started the B Sharp Music Club in 1917 to promote and appreciate this rich, native musical repertoire. And lullabies and children’s melodies both dwelled mainly in the female realm.

With the arrival of the 20th century, young women who wanted to perform could do so here. There were a number of girl bands in New Orleans as early as the 1930s, performing a variety of styles.  Lil Hardin, who was married to Louis Armstrong, had her own all-girl band, Kolb notes. "And there's a funny video of Huey Long with a girl band singing 'Every Woman a Queen.'"

Women, Kolb says, were probably more likely to play a stay-at-home instrument like the piano, and teaching music was an acceptable female pursuit. In New Orleans, where music often was passed down generationally in families, women were an important part of that process.

“Music education historically was something that was very important,” Kolb says. “Fortier and McMain had not only bands, but orchestras.”

Women definitely had a voice – a necessary voice – in the development of important New Orleans music.

“You need a soprano voice to sing gospel,” Kolb observes. “And a high voice to have harmony.”

St. Cecilia Day Symposium on Women and Jazz

  • What: A lecture, with ample audio and video highlights of performers, that surveys three centuries of performing women and the music they made in our city, followed by a concert featuring all female musicians. Tulane Professor Carloyn Kolb is the guest presenter. Presented by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, National Park Service.
  • Where: The Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave.
  • When: Saturday, Nov. 19, talk from 1 to 2 p.m., concert of women musicians from 2 to 3 p.m.
  • Admission: Free

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at renee@nolavie.com.