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JAZZ A Film By Ken Burns
Places, Spaces and Changing Faces
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Jazz LoungeNew Orleans
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New Orleans Style

By Loren Schoenberg, Conductor and Saxophonist

Audio sample Chimes Blues
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

Recorded April 6, 1923
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

New Orleans jazz thrived on both freedom and discipline. The city's unique cultural mix was reflected in the music, and as was usually the case, the African influence functioned as the main catalyst. By the turn of 20th century, one of their typical jazz bands consisted of one or two cornets (later they switched to trumpets) a trombone, a clarinet and maybe a saxophone, plus piano, guitar, bass (sometimes tuba) and drums. The musicians had to learn to merge their individuality with the larger principles of a concerted group effort. When they succeeded, the polyphonic results were truly magical. Joe "King" Oliver was one of the prime architects of jazz, a mentor to Louis Armstrong, and by all accounts, a superb cornetist who liked to play as softly as his contemporary Freddie Keppard did loudly. His Creole Jazz Band recordings are always celebrated for introducing Armstrong (heard in his first recorded solo here), but, as Chimes Blues reveals, they are also some of the most sublime examples of New Orleans music extant.

Audio Feature Wynton Marsalis, musician
On the angel and devil in New Orleans jazz
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

The aforementioned Armstrong solo reveals all of the prime elements of his mature style to be firmly in place. His rhythm is rock-steady with that indefinable rubato feeling, adding to the metric irrationality from which swing grows. From a melodic angle, the solo is rudimentary but contains a fascinating set of syncopated phrases of the sort he develop over the next decade. Armstrong's sense of harmony was nothing less than perfect — he was incapable of making a misstep. But it would be a mistake to throw the focus entirely on the young Louis, for every member of this band is equally responsible for the magic spell they cast. There are many wonderful moments to be savored in this masterpiece — the triplets played by the two cornets in the deep background at the end of the first piano chorus are particularly fascinating.

The same vibrancy that helped create jazz a century ago is still present in New Orleans today, where music remains a vital part of their cultural life.