New Orleans, a land ready for the arrival of jazz
It is a well-documented fact that the first place where jazz music made an appearance in America is the city of New Orleans and the region around about.
New Orleans is located in the delta formed by the Mississippi river at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, which is why it can almost be considered a seaport. In the 19th century, New Orleans was already the most important commercial port in the south of the United States. The goods from the plantations, especially cotton, was shipped in large quantities and this trade ensured intense economic activity and consequent social vitality in the city. It was inhabited by people of the most diverse origins, mainly the French, Anglo-Saxons, Spaniards and Afro-Americans. The varied morphology and character of the city’s neighborhoods reflect this diversity of populations, from the elegant French district, the Vieux Carré, with its orderly grid of streets, porticoed houses and delicate wrought-iron balconies, to the squalid district of black residents, then known as Back O’Town. There was a large esplanade between these two neighborhoods called Congo Square (now Louis Armstrong Park), where the slaves gathered on Sundays for their celebrations and musical rituals.
Probably because of its long-standing Catholic roots in the French and Spanish colonial empires, the New Orleans aristocracy and bourgeois society were relatively tolerant of the black population compared to other cities in the heavily racist states of the American South. The segregationist laws and customs were not overly rigid, and the white and black populations lived together to a certain extent and there was even a Creole population: the result of the mixing of the French and Spaniards with the black population, which enjoyed a certain consideration and social status. In this context, the presence of black people and Creoles was prominent in the various manifestations of city life.
As in any seaport, life in New Orleans was very lively. Both day and night, the atmosphere was cheerful and festive and music played an essential role. Bearing this in mind, we can understand why jazz music found everything necessary to its emergence in this city.
Music, an important element of life in the city.
The direct witnesses of the turn between the 19th and 20th centuries have told us about the city of New Orleans: the street vendors improvised melodies on the street to sing the praises of their products; they organized daily marches livened up by bands to announce dances, shows, rallies and other events in public life; there were open-air dances in the suburbs on Sundays and, on certain festivals, such as Mardi Gras, there were — and still are — wonderful parades with a large number of bands flooding the city’s streets with music.
Music was also present at burials: a funeral march accompanied the funeral procession with the coffin to the cemetery and, once the ceremony was over, the band played a very happy song to cheer up the grief-stricken relatives. Groups of curious onlookers used to gather at the gates of the cemeteries: the so-called second line who joined the procession and danced the festive return journey to the house of the deceased.
If all this happened in daylight, no less happened during the night when music continued to play its leading role, albeit in very different places and environments. This nighttime atmosphere was mainly concentrated in the district of Storyville, named after the city councilor Story, who drew out this area of the city where trades and businesses considered less than honorable could be carried out. Storyville was thus home to the most luxurious pleasure houses imaginable at the time, as well as the lowest slum dwellings. In the luxurious establishments there was often a pianist or small orchestra to provide a pleasant soundtrack to the sumptuous rooms where the clients — rich businessmen and plantation owners — and the girls who worked in the house made first contact.
Nevertheless, there was always a dilapidated piano in a corner or a small group that livened up the dancing in the poorer and more obscure places, taverns called Honky Tonks or Barrelhouses, which had a clientele of sailors, gamblers, prostitutes, pimps, etc. It was in this neighborhood of Storyville, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, that the first great jazz musicians began their professional careers.
In 1917, however, the Ministry of the Navy considered it convenient to close the neighborhood of Storyville for obvious reasons in the middle of World War I when the troops that were to embark for Europe were stationed in the city.
This marked the beginning of the decline of New Orleans as the first jazz capital. After the closing of Storyville, many important musicians, along with many of the people who made a living in the district, emigrated to the cities of the north, such as Saint Louis, Chicago, and New York. Music continued to be an important element in the life of New Orleans, but it did not regain the momentum and splendor of those early years.
A well-defined style of music
The style of jazz that pervaded the environments and situations of life in New Orleans had well-defined characteristics which would mark the new music that was emerging throughout the American territory, so that the world of jazz lived and grew under the influence of the so-called New Orleans style between 1900 and 1930.
Three basic characteristics define the New Orleans style:
The mix of instruments:
New Orleans orchestras had no more than eight instruments, and often less. For brass and woodwind instruments, there was the trumpet, trombone and clarinet, and in the rhythmic section there was the piano, the guitar or banjo, the double bass or tuba and the drums. The saxophone did not appear until later.
As most musicians of the time did not know music theory, they played by ear guided by an innate sense of harmony. Their performances were characterized by improvisation in which all instruments, especially brass and woodwind, played at once. In other words, they performed what was called collective improvisation. In it, the trumpet was the main voice without moving too far away from the original melody, while the clarinet improvised a counter-melody on the treble clef and the trombone created a third voice on the bass clef and filled moments of silence with timely glissandos (effect achieved by moving from one note to another without interruption by means of a type of sliding sound). With a naturally developed ear and a surprising sense of harmony, the New Orleans musicians achieved a fascinating and highly engrossing effect with their collective improvisations.
The accent and rhythmic beat:
The rhythm and phrasing of New Orleans style musicians is not found in any other jazz styles. The drummer usually marks the rhythm accentuating the weak tempos of the beat in a clear and forceful way, but, at the same time, in a relaxed and gentle way, typical of the music of the tropical regions. The other musicians adapt their phrasing to this beat and their phrases rest on this particular beat and are constructed in a balanced way, without great contrasts or exaggerated effects, which does not exclude them from being very warm, expressive phrases with touches of exquisite subtlety.
Overall, the New Orleans style jazz with its simplicity is the most direct, joyful, fresh and communicative of all the styles that jazz music has given us.
Ricard Gili, Fundació Catalana Jazz Clàssic