Mapping the evolution of Jazz in New Orleans
By Isil Akgul
Although there is controversy in regards to the history and evolution of Jazz, one cannot deny that New Orleans is the cradle of Jazz music and the melting pot of ethnicities and cultures that have led to a cross-cultural and multilingual heritage. New Orleans has always been different from the rest of the United States in terms of demographics and history. In its early years, New Orleans moved from French rule to Spanish rule before becoming part of the United States. Even today, its French and Spanish creole heritage remains strong and intact. Due to the liberal nature of the Creole culture and the diversity in the crescent city, New Orleans has become a great symbol of celebration and dance. It is the perfect place to see a complex heritage come alive thru music.
When Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States in 1803 the city saw an influx of American, French, Creole, and African settlers. Later came the Irish, Germans, and Italians who continued to diversify the region. Before 1863, sugar and cotton were the dominant commodities. So was slave labor. New Orleans had the largest slave market in the United States. But it was also the only place where slaves were allowed to use drums and to sing in the plantations. Throughout the 18th century, slaves gathered in the Congo Square in the French Quarter, where the Louis Armstrong Park now stands. On Sundays, or their days off, they formed circles and practiced the dance and drumming tradition, which was reminiscent of African culture.
For the slaves in the plantations, music was the only thing they had to escape the aggravating circumstances, be free, and run wild with creativity. The music they played often involved one lead singer and an accompanying choir. They would respond to one another in a rhythmic dance, and in concert to the movement of the labor.
Because slaves couldn’t afford instruments or were banned from using them, they used their voices and bodies to create syncopated rhythms by hand clapping and foot stomping. This type of communication became a continuous part of their daily life and merged with the religious practice. Syncopation has been used in music throughout history, even in classical music in the medieval times but it is most closely identified with ragtime, which led to the musical advancement of Jazz. After slavery was abolished in America the slave trade still continued illegally and some slave songs are believed to have included coded instructions on how to escape the plight of plantations. At the time, however, most songs were improvised and consisted mostly of idioms spoken in a musical and rhythmic manner as a collective communication tool. This characteristic distinguishes African music from European music. African music takes on an organic, functional role having been used in rituals for centuries.
After emancipation, segregation continued to be a part of daily life until the mid 20th century. The period between late 19th century and early 20th century was characterized by the gradual fade of minstrel shows to vaudeville. Minstrels started as theater-like shows that featured caucasian performers with black painted faces mocking those of African descent, used elements of African culture and music, and portrayed slaves as ‘half-wits’. The racist term ‘coon song’ was used to describe the music white minstrels sang while wearing blackface makeup. And ‘cakewalk’ was a term often used to describe the circle dance of the slaves to the music.
These shows existed before the civil war and were already considered controversial by some segments of the white population. They were also considered disrespectful of social norms during the time of segregation. Minstrel shows, emancipation, and ongoing segregation played a huge role in the transition of music from being improvisationally performed outdoors to being written and performed in dedicated venues. A character from the minstrels of Thomas D. Rice, ‘Jim Crow’, became the stereotypical symbol of black people as ‘half-wits’ and unworthy of integration. After being used as a curse word until the end of the 19th century, eventually, the segregation laws were symbolically named after this character.
Although this form of entertainment started with white people mocking slaves, some minstrel shows later on featured African American performers and others even consisted of whole groups of African American performers. Eventually, ‘coon song’ and ‘cakewalk’, two major parts of minstrel shows, evolved into what we recognize today as ‘ragtime’. Ragtime still carried the rhythm of marching although only performed on the piano. Brass bands like Excelsior and Onward are another example of how diversity in New Orleans fused cultures by combining African American culture with parades and dances. These brass band parades were formed to help people get through the dark times of war and continue to be used in funerals and communal events. While these bands only used brass instruments, ragtime was also fast maturing on the piano.
By 1895, ragtime was dominating the music scene and it continued to do so until the end of the First World War. Ragtime started its humble journey in the syncopated slave songs along the Mississippi River and is often considered the first written example of African American music. Although Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag only became a hit in 1899, the style was already being played by the early 1800s. The word ‘ragged’ was used among black musicians to describe the use of syncopated rhythms. The communication between these two genres, brass bands improvising and faking ragtime became the transformational step in the growth of New Orleans Jazz.
New Orleans Jazz started to spread to other cities through minstrel and other show tours. Soon, Chicago and New York were attracting Jazz musicians from New Orleans. The most important migration was when the original Dixieland Band left New Orleans to play in New York in 1916. In 1922 Louis Armstrong also migrated to Chicago, carrying his unique style to open an innovative era with his soloist art. Slowly, Jazz music became more and more popular and began to drift away from the original New Orleans style.