“The Big Easy,” a popular nickname for New Orleans, was originated by African Americans. The story can be solved now, and those African Americans can be honored now. Living witnesses can provide the final pieces, so please share this with everyone you know.
“BIG EASY” DANCE HALL (1911)
It was long rumored that a “Big Easy” dance hall existed somewhere back in the 1910s, but no one knew where. Thanks to Newspapers.com, I found it. This is from The Times-Democrat (New Orleans, LA) on August 14, 1911:
“The negro dance hall known as the Big Easy, in East Green, in the rear of Gretna, was destroyed by fire last night at 8:30 o’clock. The place was operated by Paul Batson. The blaze started on the outside, in the rear of the dance hall, which adjoins a saloon operated by Batson, which was also consumed. A third building, operated as a residence by negroes, also was destroyed. A fire department responded, but owing to the remote location and lack of water, could not check the flames, which burned out themselves. The loss is estimated at $2500.”
This was probably the location, from The Times-Democrat on September 7, 1911:
“Paul Batson was granted the privilege of operating a saloon at Lafayette and Eighth streets. A petition protesting against the saloon was read, as well as one in favor of the place, before action was taken.”
This is from The Daily Picayune on the same date of September 7, 1911, although another date is given for the fire:
“The application of Paul Batson for a renewal of license for a barroom and Eighth and Lafayette was granted. The place burned March 25.”
This death notice was printed in The Times-Picayune on November 2, 1944:
“BATSON — On Wednesday, November 1, 1944, at 3 o’clock a. m., PAUL BATSON of 723 Remain street, Gretna, La., beloved husband of the late Mary Batson, father of Peter, Philip, Anthony, Sam, and Lucille Batson, Mrs. T. Hackler, Mrs. George Hill, also survived by six grandchildren, aged 66 years; a native of Italy, and a resident of Gretna for the past 40 years.”
Peter Batson (1899-1979) was a member of the Masons, Dante Lodge No. 174. (Masons often have genealogical information.) Sam Batson (1914-1980) was a boxer.
I told the mayor of Gretna, as well as the mayor of New Orleans and the Times-Picayune, that the location of the Big Easy dance hall has been found, and that property records should be checked and living witnesses should be identified, and a “Big Easy” marker should eventually be placed on the site. There has been no response from anyone.
As to what the name “Big Easy” means, it’s anyone’s guess. Perhaps “easy” is similar to the term “speakeasy.” Other dance hall names include “Come Clean” and “Funky Butt.”
“BIG EASY” GAP FROM THE 1910s TO THE 1960s
Is the “Big Easy” dance hall really the source of the ‘Big Easy” nickname? There is nothing else in the 1910s. Nothing in the 1920s. Nothing in the 1930s. Nothing in the 1940s. Nothing in the 1950s. The next “Big Easy” citations appear in the 1960s.
The authority on New Orleans jazz was Samuel Charters (1929-2015). He wrote books such as Jazz New Orleans (1885-1963): An Index to the Negro Musicians of New Orleans and A Trumpet Around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz. His papers are at the University of Connecticut. Only in the second book does he refer to “Big Easy,” and just once. Charters moved away from New Orleans in the mid-1960s to live in Sweden. It appears that this New Orleans jazz authority didn’t know much about the “Big Easy” term at all.
“Big Easy” wasn’t in a song title or in a song lyric in this time period. GenealogyBank.com has digitized The Times-Picayune, but no “Big Easy” citation during this time period has been located.
“BIG EASY” APPEARS AMONG AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE 1960S
The New Orleans Jazz Club has digitized its publication, “The Second Line,” from 1950 until 1976. This jazz club was mostly for white jazz musicians, not black jazz musicians. I did not find a single “Big Easy” in any of its publications.
The first citation of “Big Easy” appears in the book New Orleans Blues by Marty Most (Dr. Maurice M. Martinez):
“It’s called ‘Big Easy’
way, way down…
‘Cause baby, if you haven’t
den you done missed
Other “Big Easy” citations are from Clinton James Scott Jr., who died at age 89 in 2016. Scott co-founded Nola Records in the mid-1960s with Ward Quergue, who died in 2011 at age 81. This is from “Scotty’s Whirl” by C. Scott in the publication “Inside New Orleans” on February 4, 1965:
“Jackson and La Salle is getting to be the jazz corner of ‘Big Easy’ (New Orleans).”
From “Scotty’s Whirl” in “Inside New Orleans” on April 10, 1965:
“Meanwhile, back in ‘Big Easy,” the No. Claiborne St. jazz scene was in full swing again with members of Lionel Hampton’s band sitting in with the Edward Frank trio.
From “Scotty’s Whirl” in “Inside New Orleans” on November 27, 1965:
“Dave splits the scene for two weeks, then back to Big Easy, to prepare for the Four Kings Festival of Stars, on December 26, 1965 at L. A. Auditorium.”
Finally, a national publication reports on the term. From Newsweek magazine, “Spotlight on Business: New Orleans, Throes of Change” on February 28, 1966:
“Life in ‘Big Easy,’ as the town’s Negro citizens sometimes call it, remained graciously indolent, and about this time each year, the revelry of Mardi Gras provided all the excitement required.”
This was printed in The Louisiana Weekly on December 26, 1970:
“I don’t care what you may say or, anyone else, there is no place like big easy (our town).”
We can notice several things. “Big Easy,” not “THE Big Easy,” is being used. The “Big Easy” term is used by African Americans (“Negro citizens”), and it’s popular among jazz musicians.
The James Conaway novel “The Big Easy” was printed in 1970. Conaway has admitted that he was working as a police reporter for The Times-Picayune about 1965-66, walking along Claiborne Avenue to the criminal courthouse, when he overheard two African American men chatting and using the term “Big Easy.” This is entirely consistent with what we know.
Newspaper columnist Betty Guillaud (1934-2013) is often given credit for “Big Easy,” but her use occurred much later. She was hired by the States-Item in the 1960s, but went on a long pregnancy leave and returned in the 1970s. She took over the “Lagniappe” column in 1978, and then wrote the same column for the Times-Picayune in the 1980s. Guillaud has admitted that she began to use “Big Easy” when New York’s nickname of “Big Apple” was repopularized, and that occurred in the 1970s.
There was a little-remembered television drama series called “The Big Easy” in 1982. However, the New Orleans nickname was popularized to many with the movie “The Big Easy,” directed by Jim McBride, written by Daniel Petrie Jr. and starring Dennis Quaid, Ellen Barkin, John Goodman, and Ned Beatty. The film took the title from Conaway’s 1970 novel, but nothing else.
The final “Big Easy” clue might come in an interview with Larry McKinley in The Times-Picayune on January 25, 1976, talking about his days at the radio station WYLD:
“We were told ‘Don’t say Crescent City.'”
Larry McKlinley died in 2013 at age 85. Unfortunately, this is yet another key New Orleans figure to pass away recently.
The radio station WYLD was very popular, and it frequently advertised in publications such as The Louisiana Weekly. If its DJs weren’t allowed to call New Orleans the Crescent City, might they have used Big Easy?
A radio station would have had the power to reach the African American community instantly. There was no internet back in the early 1960s, and television was limited. People listened to the radio.
There are people still alive who remember listening to the radio in New Orleans in the early 1960s. Do they remember “Big Easy” being used? Do they remember what DJ said it?