Monday, January 11, 2021

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Storyville

     Cape Cod and Jazz, the two go together like peanut butter and jelly. The beautiful peninsula and the popular music genre have been connected throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The Columns in West Dennis was well known for its jazz during its 1970’s heyday. However there was a spot which rivaled it as far as sheer talent which appeared there. For a few brief years during the middle of the 20th century one place shined brighter than all others when it came to Cape Cod jazz and that was Storyville in Harwich.

    Storyville may have opened its doors along Pleasant Lake in Harwich in 1957 but its legacy goes back much further to the waning years of the 19th century. In 1897 the original Storyville was opened in New Orleans, Louisiana. As jazz was in its infancy a district of the city was created by Alderman Story to house the new music. Years later accomplished musician George Wein would open his own Storyville in Boston. Wein, who would gain fame for creating the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival, made it his mission to bring the most talented jazz artists to play at his Boston locale. With his success at Storyville-Boston secure Wein planned his next step.

    In 1956 Wein spent the summer in Wellfleet playing music at local nightspots with his close friend Paul Nossiter. It was during this time that he fell in love with Cape Cod and decided that it needed a permanent spot to showcase jazz. He found a perfect spot in a former Cape restaurant. The Robin Hood Inn gained fame during the 1920’s as a Prohibition-era spot being built atop the filled in remains of the Cape’s first cranberry bog owned by Cyrus Cahoon and designed by his cousin Alvan.

    Wein would purchase the former restaurant-turned-inn the following year. Although he added a wing to the home to bring its capacity from 300 up to 600 people he kept much of its medieval interior charm. Storyville-Harwich would set the tone for its all too brief existence on its very first night. It was on July 4, 1957 that the Cape’s hottest jazz club would debut with none other than Louis Armstrong playing two long sets to a raucous crowd. The opening season would see other legends of the day such as Dave Brubek and Erroll Garnor stopping in to ply their trade for week-long engagements. The first season at Storyville would be a huge success, a harbinger of things to come.

Storyville Menu (

    Initially the establishment would serve only drinks to its patrons. However with the rousing success of the opening season Wein decided to serve food as well, hiring a chef and maĆ®tre d’. Opening night saw throngs of people waiting three hours for their dinners as Wein and Nossiter were not restaurateurs. Though they had the ‘hippest menu’ complete with steaks, ribs, chicken, lobster and more, the foray into serving food lasted only a month as they served high quality food for reasonable prices, losing money on the venture.

    Despite that failure the musical acts continued to be what drew the people. Stars like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Goodman, Sarah Vaughan, and others would make the trip over the Cape Cod Canal to the woods of rural Harwich to entertain the masses during the ten-week summer season. However the supernova that was Storyville could not be sustained.

The Circus Room of the Bradford Hotel where Storyville-Boston was located in 1959. (Boston Public Library)

    In 1959 the star power was still there with mainstays like Armstrong, Vaughan, Garner, and others returning. However it was a double-edged sword. In order to bring in such acts they needed to be paid, yet there was only so much that Wein and Nossiter could charge people to get into Storyville. This meant that the club was not making much, if anything, in terms of profit. It was around this time that George Wein began being stretched too thin with his commitments to the Newport Jazz Festival, Newport Folk Festival, as well as other projects. He simply could not devote as much time and energy to his Harwich spot.

    In 1960 the star power of the musical acts would wane. As the big names of jazz began to get nationwide exposure Storyville was not able to afford to bring them in to play anymore. Customers had been accustomed to the big names and when they became fewer the business went as well. Wein sold his Boston Storyville location after the 1960 season. It ran for another season under new management before closing for good in 1961. This left Wein to run his Harwich location for one more year.

    Despite the impending end of the establishment the 1961 season still managed to attract megastars like Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner, and Louis Armstrong. However the death knell for Storyville came when the wildly popular Kingston Trio failed to sell enough tickets for a July show and canceled. The rising cost for acts and ticket prices was a combination too powerful for Wein and Nossiter to overcome. Storyville was shuttered after the 1961 season. The building itself would have another chapter, being renamed The Red Garter. The name would be changed again to Your Father’s Moustache due to a copyright problem. It was badly burned in a fire later in the 1960’s.

George Wein in 2009 (Infrogmation/Wikipedia)

    The building was torn down. Your Father's Moustache reopened in Dennis Port in the same building as Improper Bostonian. In the 1970's the site of the former jazz club became home to a housing development roughly in the area of Prince Charles Drive. George Wein continued to be a force in jazz, running the Newport Jazz Festival into 2020. He is still going strong at age 95. As for his contribution to the jazz scene on Cape Cod the only thing left behind is Storyville's legacy of great music.


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