White Women Musicians of the City

Whereas most of the well-known women musicians of the city were, and are today, African Americans, the Newcomb Music School was, until 1963, a segregated school for young white girls and women. Thus, for a moment, it is interesting to turn to a few white women whose lives should be considered in explorations of the preservation and expansion of piano and organ music, of composition, and of other influences of New Orleans women on the music of the city and beyond.

One such person was Genevieve Pitot (1901-1980), a composer for the American musical theater. Pitot was the descendant of a one-time mayor of New Orleans, James Pitot (1761-1831). Her family recognized early her talent, and like many New Orleans families, felt a training in France made the most sense for her. Here she maintained a lifelong home-away-from-home, performing especially as a pianist and creating piano rolls that could be marketed to families. However, it was in New York City that she made her biggest contributions. Here, she and her husband, Joseph P. Sullivan, worked in dance and musical theater in the 1930s with such notables as Martha Graham. Pitot’s arrangements and choreography are found in such Broadway musicals such as “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Call Me Madam,” “Can-Can,” “Silk Stockings,” “Milk and Honey,” “Shangri La” and “Li’l Abner.”

Contemporary to Pitot were Boswell Sisters (Martha, 1905-1958; Connee, 1907-1976; and Vet 1911-1988), popular singers with a reputation far beyond their native Midwest or childhood home in New Orleans. Yet, New Orleans certainly influenced their style and they, in turn, influenced countless others to hear music in a more modern way. Trained as classical musicians, they once played with the New Orleans Philharmonic, and then later turned to singing, as well as the banjo, the guitar, and the alto saxophone. They are credited with taking African American jazz syncopations and blues intonationin the 1920s and 1930s.

They were especially well known for their unconventional harmonies. Working with top stars such as Bing Crosby, the Dorsey Brothers and Benny Goodman., they made appearances in movies and theatres. Connee’s appearance on the Ed Sulivan variety show is often remembered. Oddly for New Orleanians, a museum now in the process of being reorganizedis dedicated to their work, and those of others in Jazz in East Springfield, New York.

Like Pitot, another woman born to a similar French tradition in New Orleans, and one whose family also lived for a few years in Paris, was Elise Cambon (1918-2008). She would devote more than sixty years to playing the organ at St. Louis Cathedral. Unlike Pitot, the Cambon family sent their daughters to Newcomb, perhaps because by the time she was ready for more training, they had lost their family fortune in the Depression.

Cambon studied art (not music at all) at Newcomb, graduating in 1939. She first considered work in social work, applying to Tulane’s Graduate School. Just after graduation, she took an organ course and began one year later to play at the Cathedral. She furthered her education at the University of Michigan with the concert pianist Palmer Christian. Later, as an instructor in the Loyola School of Music, she was awarded a two-year Fulbright scholarship to study organ and medieval music in Europe. She also taught at McGehee’s School and Ursuline Academy, two all girls’ school Uptown. She received the Order of Chevalier des Arts et des Letters from the French government for promoting French music in New Orleans.

Finally like Pitot and the Boswell sisters, Eugénie Ricau Rocherolle (b. 1936) also became well known within and beyond New Orleans. Like Cambon, she attended Newcomb, but unlike Cambon, she studied piano and composition. As part of Newcomb’s Junior Year Abroad Program, she studied in Paris in 1956 with Nadia Boulanger. Rocherolle graduated in 1958.