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Places, Spaces and Changing Faces
New Orleans, The birthplace of jazz View of Sugar Landing, New Orleans, circa 1889
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New Orleans: The Birthplace of Jazz

Primarily excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Audio sample Chimes Blues
King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band

Recorded April 6, 1923
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Creole Homes
Creole Homes
Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum

In the early morning hours of January 12, 1819, the brig Clio anchored off the levee at New Orleans at the end of a three-week voyage from New York. Among her passengers was the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the father of the Greek Revival style of America, fresh from rebuilding the U.S. Capitol in Washington. He was a worldly, well-traveled man — born in England, he had lived and worked in France, Germany, and Italy — and he was eager for his first glimpse of the South's biggest city and most important port. But when dawn finally came, Latrobe wrote, "so thick a fog enveloped the city that the ear alone could ascertain its existence" and he heard "a sound more strange that any is heard anywhere else in the world... It is a more incessant, loud, rapid, and various gabble of tongues of all tones than was ever heard at Babel."

The sun eventually warmed away the fog, and Latrobe and his fellow passengers could go ashore to discover for themselves the source of this strange cacophony. An open-air market stretched along the levee. Latrobe wrote, "as far as the eye could reach to the West, and to the Market house to the East," two rows of clamoring shopkeepers advertising everything from bananas to tin buckets, fresh fish to rare books:
Some having stalls or tables with a Tilt or awning of canvas but the majority having their wares on the ground on a piece of canvas or a parcel of Palmetto leaves. The articles to be sold were not more various than the Sellers. White men and women, and of all hues of brown, and of all Classes of faces, from round Yankees, to grisly and lean Spaniards, black Negroes and negresses, filthy Indians half naked, Mulattoes, curly and straight-haired, Quateroons of all shades, long-haired and frizzled, the women dressed in the most flaring yellow and scarlet gowns, the men capped and hatted... I cannot suppose that my eye took in less than 500 sellers and buyers, all of whom appeared to strain their voices, to exceed each other in loudness.
From this unprecedented blend of voices from everywhere on earth would eventually come America's most distinctive music.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: New Orleans
In the early 20th century, New Orleans was the place to be for a young man with musical talent and ambition. Jazz critic Stanley Crouch tells of Satchmo's years in the Crescent City.

"Everything had an odd look," Latrobe wrote of New Orleans at the end of his first day in the city; it was "impossible not to stare at a sight wholly new, even to one who has traveled much in Europe and America." In fact, New Orleans was a sight wholly new, the most cosmopolitan city in the country, perhaps the world. Established by France in 1718, in the midst of a mosquito-infested swamp 90 miles north of the Mississippi's mouth, it was briefly ruled by Spain, reclaimed by France, visited by ships from everywhere, then more or less peacefully invaded by American flatboatmen whom the city's French-speaking citizens derided as "Kaintucks," and finally sold to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum

"There are in fact three societies here," Latrobe noted a few days after he had settled into his hotel overlooking the old French drilling ground that would soon be known as Jackson Square: "1. The French, 2. The American, and 3. The mixed." Latrobe had only begun dimly to understand the city's infinite stratifications. The French themselves were divided. Some were descendants of the city's early settlers; others were refugees from Canada and the French Revolution, from the Napoleonic wars or from the slave rebellions that had only recently overthrown French rule in Haiti or Santo Domingo. But all sought to retain their language and Roman Catholic customs, and all proudly differentiated themselves from the Protestant American newcomers now flooding into the town, whose culture, Latrobe noted, seemed antithetical to theirs. The Americans' "business is to make money," he wrote. "They are in an eternal bustle. Their limbs, their heads and their hearts, move to that sole object."

Nor did the city's complexities end there. The "Crescent City" — so called because it was built along a bend in the river — was also home to Choctaw and Natchez Indians. It would soon witness an influx of people from the Balkans: Dalmatians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Greeks, Albanians. Spanish-speaking Filipinos came and stayed, too, alongside Chinese and Malays. After 1850, large numbers of German and Irish and Silician immigrants would be added to the mix. By 1860, 40 percent of the people of New Orleans were foreign-born.

New Orleans was a center of the southern slave trade as well. It would eventually boast two dozen slave auction houses and, several times a year, the spacious ballrooms of its two grandest hotels doubled as showrooms for human merchandise. But it was also home to the most prosperous community of free people of color in the South. Many were the descendants of French colonists and their African- and Native-American wives and mistresses. They called themselves "Creoles of Color" and spoke French or a distinctive patois that white Americans called "nigger French." A wealthy few sent their children to Paris to school. Creoles controlled cigarmaking and bricklaying, carpentry and shoemaking in the city. Many lived south of Canal Street in the original, most fashionable section, called "Downtown," and were at best ambivalent about the black servants and slaves and menial workers who crowded together in the "American quarter," called "Uptown."

Creole musicians — sometimes whole orchestras, more often a string trio or quartet — supplied most of the music for the city's dancers, both white and Creole: waltzes, polkas, schottisches, quadrilles, and sensual, syncopated contredanses, including habaneras, filled with Spanish rhythms carried to New Orleans from Haiti and Cuba. They played for the celebrated — or notorious — "quadroon balls," too, at which white men sought out Creole women to be their mistresses. Nonwhite males were officially barred, though since men and women alike often wore masks, it was sometimes hard to tell just who was asking whom to dance. As Danny Barker remarked, in New Orleans there has always been "a whole lot of integrating going on."

Well before the Civil War, the city also exhibited what the New Orleans Picayune called "a real mania for horn and trumpet playing," and dance musicians often doubled in the marching bands that seemed always to be playing somewhere in town — entertaining picnickers in the parks or along the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, waging what one observer called "a windy war" by blaring different airs from the decks of steamboats anchored side by side, escorting mourners to and from the cemetery "preceded, followed and hemmed in on every side by a... collection of all colors, sexes and conditions."

Congo Square

New Orleans' slaves made their own kind of music as well. Out for a Sunday afternoon stroll along St. Peter Street not long after he arrived in the city, Benjamin Latrobe heard what he remembered as a "most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from... horses tramping on a wooden floor." Hurrying up the street, he discovered that "it proceeded from a crowd of five or six hundred persons, assembled in... a public square... All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be blacks." Latrobe had happened upon Congo Square, a grassy plain on the northwestern edge of the city where the city fathers permitted slaves to dance and sing for a few hours on Sundays. The dancers, Latrobe noted, were formed into two circular groups "in the midst of which were... two women dancing. They held each a coarse handkerchief... and set to each other in a miserably dull and slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies."
The music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument... [one of which was] a cylindrical drum, about one foot in diameter... They made an incredible noise. The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument, which no doubt was imported from Africa. On the top of the finger board was the rude figure of a man in a sitting posture, and two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash. It was played upon by a very little old man, apparently 80 or 90 years old... A Man sang an uncouth song to the dancing which I suppose was in some African language for it was not French, and the Women screamed a detestable burthen on one single note. The allowed amusements of Sundays, have, it seems, perpetuated here those of Africa among its inhabitants.
To Latrobe and the other curious whites who turned out to see and hear them over the years, the slave dances at Congo Square and the music that accompanied them, filled with complex polyrhythms, seemed to provide an authentic glimpse of Africa. And some of those who danced there in the early years had been brought from West Africa in chains. To these people, for whom music and dancing had always been an integral part of everyday life, Congo Square must have offered a precious opportunity to recover at least a little of what they had lost when they were taken from their homes.

But adversity demanded improvisation. To survive in America, slaves needed to be able to incorporate everything they saw and heard around them, had to find ways to make it all their own. At the time of Latrobe's visit in 1819, the importation of slaves from overseas had been illegal for more than a decade; within a few years of it, most of those who continued to gather in Congo Square had no firsthand memories of Africa at all. They were immigrants or children of immigrants from the West Indies, their music already heavily alloyed with the infectious Latin-tinged pulse of the Carribbean, their religion a blend of Catholicism and West African spirit worship they called vodoun — "voodoo" to the whites who both feared and were fascinated by it.

Others had filtered into the city from the interior of the South, where the music of their ancestors had long since merged with that of their masters. European instruments — fiddles and fifes, Jew's harps, triangles, and tambourines — now appeared alongside drums and rattles and banjos, while the musicians played French and Spanish melodies and dances — along with wholly American songs like Old Virginia Never Tire and Hey Jim Along Josey — to which the dancers performed jigs and fandangos and Virginia reels that would have mystified their African forebears.

Nor was Congo Square the slaves' only dancing place. Despite a battery of ordinances meant to keep them quiescent and confined at home, New Orleans slaves drank and danced nightly in so many illicit taverns, the editor of the Bee complained in 1833, that "Not a street, nor a corner can be passed without encountering [them]. The noise and disturbance is very disagreeable to the neighbors, though it may be profitable to the proprietor." The New Orleans good-time tradition, the city's near-universal fondness for music and dancing, combined with the surprisingly porous nature of its racial walls, made every kind of music available to every resident. All of them would find their way to jazz.

The New Music

By the mid-1890s, three new kinds of music had begun to filter into the city — three strains without which there would have been no jazz. The first was ragtime, the formal outgrowth of the decades-old African-American improvisational practice of "ragging" tunes — syncopating and rearranging them to provide livelier, more danceable versions. Created by black musicians in the cities of the Midwest, who had found a way to recreate something like the percussive sound of the banjo on the piano, ragtime drew upon everything that had gone before — spirituals and minstrel tunes, European folk melodies, operatic arias and military marches — all filled with broken chords and set to fresh rhythms. Spread first by itinerant pianists, and then by the sale of sheet music, ragtime caught the fancy of young dancers all over the country who loved it all the more because — since it encouraged young men and women to dance close together as couples rather than in groups — their parents did not. "Ragtime is syncopation gone mad," the editor of Etude magazine would write, "and its victims, in my opinion, can be treated successfully only like the dog with rabies, with a dose of lead. Whether it is simply a passing phase of our decadent art culture or an infectious disease which has come to stay, like leprosy, time alone can tell."

Audio Feature Wynton Marsalis, musician
On the romance and integration of New Orleans
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

Meanwhile, a steady stream of black refugees from the Mississippi Delta was pouring into the city, people for whom even hard labor on the levee promised a better life than any they could hope to have back home, chopping cotton or cutting cane. They brought with them as part of their baggage two interrelated forms essential to the development of jazz — the sacred music of the Baptist church and that music's profane twin, the blues. "One was praying to God and the other was praying to what's human," a New Orleans musician said, "One was saying 'oh God, let me go,' and the other was saying, 'oh mister, let me be.'"

The earliest blues singers — wandering guitarists who played for pennies along the southern roads — followed no strict musical form. But as first New Orleans musicians and then others around the country began to try to play the blues on their instruments and songwriters started to see commercial possibilities in them, an agreed-upon form was developed: stripped to the essentials, blues came to be built on just three chords most often arranged in 12-bar sequences that somehow allowed for an infinite number of variations and were capable of expressing an infinite number of emotions. The blues could be about anything — a beautiful woman, a mean boss, the devil himself — but they were always intensely personal, meant to make the listener feel better, not worse — and each performer was expected to tell a story.

The blues were good-time music, which was why, to many churchgoers, there were anathema, the work of the devil, forbidden to be saved. But musically, the blues and the hymns black Baptists sang and played in church had always been virtually interchangeable — filled with identical bent notes, moans and cries. And in the 1890s, the distinction would blur still further as the new Holiness churches that had begun to spring up in the black neighborhoods of the big cities all over the country started employing tambourines, drums, pianos, cornets, even trombones in order to make their noise still more joyful to the Lord. Jazz music would eventually embody both kinds of invocation, the sacred and the secular, and New Orleans musicians would be the first to deepen the infinitely expressive sound of the blues by bringing it to their horns, the first to echo the collective "moan" of the congregation, the first to reproduce the call-and-response patterns of the religious exhorter and his transported flock.

There was, as yet, no name for the music black and Creole musicians began to play together at the dawn of the new 20th century. Some older musicians would call what they played "ragtime" to the end. But the eventual result would be a brand-new music — "not spirituals or the blues or ragtime" or any of the other kinds of music heard in the streets of New Orleans, one musician remembered, "but everything all at once, each one putting something over on the other." Like the city that gave it birth, like the country that would soon embrace it, this new music would always be more than the sum of its parts.