‘Tiger Rag’ musicĀ ties Italian partĀ of exhibit to LSU

Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELDA coffee grinder from around 1880 is on display at the LSU Union Art Gallery's exhibit A Slice of Life in South Louisiana: 1890-1920.
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELDA coffee grinder from around 1880 is on display at the LSU Union Art Gallery's exhibit A Slice of Life in South Louisiana: 1890-1920.

One can’t help wondering if Nick LaRocca would have believed it if someone had told him exactly how much influence his song would have over a stadium of 90,000-plus.

Make that more than 100,000 when the addition to Tiger Stadium is complete, when more voices are added to the crowd’s roar when the LSU Tiger Marching Band hits that first note of the “Tiger Rag” chorus to begin its pre-game show.

But that would never have been without a New Orleans jazzman named Nick LaRocca. He founded, led and played trumpet in the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

LaRocca wrote “Tiger Rag” in 1917, and it’s significant, because he was one of many children born to Italian immigrants in New Orleans, one of four cultures explored in the LSU Student Union Gallery’s exhibit, A Slice of Life in South Louisiana: 1890-1910.

The exhibit runs through Sunday, May 19, and features artifacts on loan from the American Italian Culture Center, A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans, The Historic New Orleans Collection, Louisiana National Guard Museums, the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans, LSU Libraries Special Collections, LSU Museum of Natural Science, LSU Rural Life Museum, LSU Textiles and Costume Museum and Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans.

The Louisiana State Museum loaned the 1920 edition of LaRocca’s “Tiger Rag” sheet music.

“It’s part of the Italian culture’s story, but it’s also our way of connecting the exhibit to LSU,” Judi Stahl said

She’s the gallery’s director, the person who contacted the various museums to put the exhibit together.

“We received a grant from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation for this show,” Stahl said. “I sent letters out to 140 schools in the Baton Rouge area about this show. At first, we were a little afraid that people might be getting tired of Louisiana history exhibits, because there were so many during the state’s bicentennial. But people have really enjoyed this exhibit. The kids’ reactions are great.”

But it’s understandable, because the gallery doesn’t attempt to deluge visitors with the 200 years of state history in one room. Instead, it focused on specific cultures in a specific place in a slice of time.

Along with the Italian Americans, the exhibit focuses on African Americans, Native Americans and middle class New Orleanians between 1890 and 1920. This was a time when horse and buggies were giving way to automobiles and electricity was replacing gas light

ing.

But even with advances in technology, many in Louisiana stood by the old ways. So the mix of what was old and new during the era is prevalent in photographs and artifacts throughout the show.

Take the Italian culture, for instance. More than 69,000 people came through the Port of New Orleans between 1890 and 1920, many of them from Sicily.

“They had a strong background in farming, and they grew their own gardens when they came here,” Stahl said.

“Their immigration brought booming business of fruits and vegetables,” the exhibit label says. “They introduced the city to new and exotic flavors, including citrus, garlic, tomato and onion. By 1920, they owned more than 40 percent of the grocery business in New Orleans.”

The exhibit also points out that the Italian influence on New Orleans’ food world also can be found in the invention of the muffuletta.

“This staple deli sandwich came about when Italian immigrants requested olive salad on their ham and cheese sandwiches from deli counters at lunch,” the exhibit label states.

But there are no muffulettas to be found in the exhibit’s St. Joseph’s Altar display. This Sicilian tradition continues in New Orleans in modern times. The altar is filled with food in honor of Sicily’s patron saint, St. Joseph, from whom Sicilians requested prayers to relieve famine in their country. The food later is to be distributed to those less fortunate.

Now, all of this could be an example of the old, and LaRocca, the native son of Italian descent, can be the symbol of ushering in modern times.

For jazz is one of the main symbols of the Roaring ’20s, when there was no limit on possibility.

LaRocca was born in New Orleans in 1889. His parents were poor Sicilian immigrants. His father wanted LaRocca to seek out security in a profession. But LaRocca loved music. He loved it so much that he taught himself to play the trumpet in secret and supported his music habit by working as an electrician.

His Original Dixieland Jazz Band eventually made history’s first jazz recording, “Livery Stable Blues,” in 1917, the year LaRocca penned “Tiger Rag.”

“Tiger Rag” would become one of the most important standards in the jazz genre. It was covered 136 times by 1942 by such artists as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington, Kid Ory, Bix Beiderbecke, Les Paul and The Mills Brothers.

Then, of course, there’s that continuing Saturday night tradition upheld by the Golden Band from Tigerland.

LaRocca was living the American dream.

But life was different for others in the cultures featured in this exhibit.

The show explores how the Chitimacha Indian tribe continues to live on a portion of its original land in south Louisiana.

This parcel of land totals 260 acres, and display cases highlight some of the tribe’s intricate baskets.

“The lack of the white man’s acceptance of Native ways is what ultimately led to the deterioration of the Native American heritage in south Louisiana,” the museum label says. “The Chitimacha managed to save their language through recordings made by Morris Swadesh, a Yale University linguist, in 1952.”

There might be too many artifacts in this show to mention in one sitting. There’s the 1880 coffee grinder at the galley entrance, where visitors grind their own coffee beans into coffee. Bags are stationed at the bottom of the grinder to catch the grinds.

“Now, we’ve had several workers in the union who have tried this, and I have to warn you,” Stahl said, laughing. “They said their coffee tasted terrible.”

There’s also the engraved print of the interior of New Orleans’ French Opera House that stood on Bourbon Street before a fire destroyed it in 1919. Though this is a small item, it’s a big symbol, one where cultures mixed, brought together by music.

Then there’s the part of the exhibit acknowledging legalized prostitution in New Orleans’ Storyville district that once stood along Basin Street at the back of the French Quarter.

One noted item is a Blue Book listing what were called the district’s sporting houses.

“But then World War I came along, and President Wilson said legalized prostitution wasn’t good for the Doughboys, so it was outlawed,” Stahl said.

Speaking of which, the show also features a U.S. Army uniform from World War I. Other clothing items also are on display, most of them illustrating the lifestyle of New Orleans’ middle class.

And what might pique the most interest is the inconspicuous display of an 1890 cast iron lawn mower. The contraption has small blades at the bottom, but all action depended on the person pushing it.

No motor, no wheels. Just a manual workout.

Add Louisiana’s heat to the equation, and one can’t help being thankful for modern technology.

But there are some things from this exhibit’s era that have stood the test of time. Music is one of them.

LaRocca’s music, which is still recorded.

And heralded by almost 100,000 football fans on fall nights in Tiger Stadium.