Ellis Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. Those are just a few of the living legends who keep jazz going strong in the place it all began, New Orleans, Louisiana.
Today, brass bands still invigorate the streets during Mardi Gras, French
Quarter jazz clubs deliver the best in live improvisation on any given night,
and the Jazz and Heritage Festival
brings together the past, present and future of American jazz every spring,
proving year after year that New Orleans is still the jazz mecca of the world.
It all started around 1819 in Congo Square, an outdoor space in New
Orleans where slaves would congregate on Sundays when they didn’t have to work.
According to the Ken Burns
documentary Jazz, they would sing,
play music and dance, swaying back and forth to the songs of their home
countries. Caribbean music from the West Indies mixed with beats from Africa
and church melodies from the United States’ south. Meanwhile, in New Orleans
theatres, the stages were overtaken by racist minstrel shows, in which white
performers sang and danced in blackface to upbeat tunes. And all the while, the sound of the brass marching
band provided a soundtrack to the ongoing American Civil War.
When the war ended in 1865, all of these musical styles blended to form
a new genre called ragtime, which syncopated the rhythms of previous genres and
made songs that everyone wanted to dance to. Around the same time, former
slaves from other parts of the American south brought the blues to Louisiana,
combining spiritual music from the Baptist church with secular lyrics that told
the painful stories of slaves’ lives.
Blues musicians used the trumpets and trombones left over from wartime
music to mimic the sound of their voices, literally singing out their pain
through their instruments. It made the blues even more mournful, even more
poignant and even more cathartic for anyone listening.
When ragtime and the blues came together, it created a completely novel
style of music – a truly American art form. In the late 1890s, syncopation
joined with soulful melodies, upbeat dance tunes united with the sultry sound
of brass instruments, and jazz began to emerge.
Buddy Bolden, an African-American bandleader called “the first man of jazz” by historian Donald
M Marquis, was at the forefront of the jazz movement. Bolden played the cornet
in dance halls during the day and in the red light district of New Orleans’ Storyville
at night. Although no recordings of Buddy Bolden exist today, his music is
said to have incorporated the improvisation characteristic of jazz. A heavy
drinker with mental health problems, Bolden’s career abruptly ended in 1907, when
he was admitted to the Louisiana State Insane Asylum at the age of 30.
Many other African-American jazz legends also rose to popularity in the
beginning of the 1900s, wrote jazz critic and historian Ted Gioia in The History of Jazz. Black musicians included Bunk Johnson, Mutt Carey and Joe “King”
Oliver, while Creole musicians (Americans who were descendants from white
European colonists and their black slave mistresses) included Sidney Bechet,
Freddie Keppard and Jelly Roll Morton, who was famous for falsely claiming to
have invented jazz. A talented composer of jazz tunes such as Black Bottom Stomp and Grandpa’s Spells, Morton
also lied about his birth date to convince contemporaries that he was older and
more experienced than he actually was, Gioia wrote. White musicians who started
playing jazz included Papa Jack Laine, Sharkey Bonano and Nick LaRocca. More
often than not, bands would self-segregate according to race.
Keppard was touring the
country with his esteemed band the Original Creole Orchestra when the Victor
Talking Machine Company approached him about
recording the world’s very first jazz record in 1915. But the cornet player was
so worried about other musicians stealing his ideas that he turned down the
offer. Instead, a white band called the Original Dixieland Jass Band, led by LaRocca, recorded with the Victor Talking Machine Company
in 1917. This came as a major blow to African-American musicians in particular
because of LaRocca’s outspoken racism.
He claimed that jazz was invented by white musicians and that black musicians
would never play as well. "Since jazz
music is at the center of the American mythology, it necessarily deals
with race. The more we run from it, the more we run into it," said New
Orleans native and jazz great Wynton Marsalis in the documentary Jazz,
Gioia wrote, it wasn’t until local musicians left the city for greener economic
pastures in Chicago and New York that most gained fame and success. In 1918, musician
James Reese Europe took jazz across even greater distances. During World War I,
he led an infantry band called The Hellfighters that introduced French and
British soldiers to the new American sound. Europe then helped stage the
inevitable spread of jazz worldwide.
important figure for jazz’s future was the great trumpeter and cornetist Louis Armstrong, whose undeniable talent pulled him out of the
wreckage of an impoverished and violent New Orleans neighborhood. Under the
tutelage of Joe “King” Oliver, Armstrong went from child prodigy to travelling
horn player to illustrious soloist. His impact on the world of jazz can be felt
throughout New Orleans and around the world today.
With strong roots in the tradition of improvisation, jazz continues to evolve,
collecting accents from Afropop, Latin dance music, eastern classical music, and
pretty much every other music it comes into contact with, all while transforming
other genres around the world. And so has been the story of jazz, ever since
its birth in the vivacious city of New Orleans.
Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel
stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover
some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question,