How did Jazz Get Started in New Orleans?

Jazz is a musical genre that originated in the early 20th century among African-Americans. Jazz evolved out of a synthesis of several musical styles, including West African folk melodies, spirituals, blues, ragtime, and the marching band heritage. 

Jazz emerged in New Orleans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when the city was experiencing a complex cultural synthesis resulting from the persistence of African cultural influences after the end of the slave trade and the inflow of European immigrants.

So let’s raise a glass to Jazz – a genre that reshaped American culture and continues to inspire us to this day. New Orleans played a crucial role in the origin of jazz, making it one of the best cities in the US to listen to blues as well as providing the perfect cultural environment for this revolutionary genre to change the course of music history. Let’s find out how!

A Brief History of New Orleans

New Orleans was established in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. First the French, then the Spanish, and finally French Acadians (Cajuns) from Nova Scotia and the surrounding region (Acadia) established themselves in the New Orleans area. In 1803, Napoleon sold the United States all of Louisiana. Eventually, not just Americans, but also Germans, Irish, and Sicilians, settled there.

Cultural Diversity 

People of different cultures sitting with guitar in a man’s hand

The city of New Orleans was originally named after the Duke of Orleans, Philippe II, the regent of France. Unique cultures are welcomed and celebrated in New Orleans. Numerous groups have contributed to the melting pot of American culture, including the Acadians, Creoles, African-Americans, French, Spanish, and the Spanish-Americans. 

It was the fusion of European and African musical styles that gave birth to the revolutionary musical genre of jazz. The harmonic and melodic development of European music was much ahead of that of African music, which also had advanced rhythmic development and other distinctive features. Jazz was created as components from these disparate musical backgrounds were combined.

African-American Music Traditions

Jazz evolved from several styles of Afro-American music, such as work songs, spiritual music, and minstrelsy. African culture has always served as a foundation for black music. The African roots of jazz were evident in its heavy emphasis on percussion and the practice of bending notes in improvisation. 

African-Americans were able to improvise a piece of music or rhythm on the spot, often without any instruments at all. Jazz was distinguished by its emphasis on improvisation, which drew heavily from blues and other forms of music.  Black jazz players were able to incorporate these qualities into their music, giving rise to the revolutionary genre of jazz.

Role of African Rhythms

Polyrhythms (when two or more rhythms happen at once) are found in both European folk music and concert music. On the contrary, the African polyrhythmic legacy is generally considered to have had a considerably more significant impact on jazz than European polyrhythmic history. 

The ragtime beat exemplifies the African American desire to integrate two rhythms concurrently inside the European musical framework, since African phrases are constructed of the numbers 2 and 3 or a combination of 2 and 3.

Call and response”, a musical pattern common in African music, is best represented by the vocal blues and Baptist church services. There is a two-bar musical “response” for every two-bar sung line of text (the “call”). Check out So What from his album Kind of Blue!

The blue notes (the depressed third and seventh of the major scale) that are characteristic of jazz and the blues scale have their origins in Africa. Despite this, the ornamentation of tones, such as pitch bending, got its roots from European classical, opera, and folk music, as well as in West African musical traditions.

Brass Bands and the Birth of Jazz

Brass Band

After the Civil War, several popular musical genres expanded throughout the United States, and this trend also impacted the music of New Orleans. The late 1880s saw a nationwide renaissance of brass marching bands throughout the United States. More people were listening to syncopated musical styles like cakewalks and minstrel songs, which took influence from African-American traditions. 

Ragtime, a kind of syncopated piano song musical style, became a hit in the late 19th century, and brass bands soon started performing it alongside traditional marching music. The popularity of brass bands in New Orleans and beyond skyrocketed. Concerts, parades, and dances of the 1880s in New Orleans included brass bands like the Excelsior and Onward, whose members read intricate charts.

Promotion of Jazz with Bands in New Orleans

People in New Orleans always loved to dance, and many of the city’s brass band musicians also perform in dance bands. For example, members of The Superior Brass Band also played in The Superior Orchestra. Stringed instruments like violins, guitars, and string basses were used to temper the brassiness of dance bands and orchestras. 

Dance bands shifted their emphasis from string instruments to brass as a result of the popularity of brass band music and the style of playing seen in its sections.

Almost every early jazz artist, including Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet, performed in the brass band, which had a profound impact on the development of jazz. Several new Jazz bands were formed in New Orleans including Onward Brass Band, Tuxedo Brass Band, and Eureka Brass Band, each with their own style of bringing up the “Jazz!” (pun intended)

Furthermore, most jazz ensembles (Buddy Bolden’s, Kid Ory’s, etc.) doubled as brass bands with minimal adjustments. The New Orleans brass band, which was heavily inspired by jazz performance methods, became the most important black brass band tradition in the United States.

Storyville and the Jazz Scene

Storyville

Between the years 1897 and 1917, Storyville, or the “District,” was New Orleans’ official tenderloin area. Although prostitution was Storyville’s main industry, music and other forms of entertainment had a significant supporting role. 

Storyville may not have been the actual birthplace of jazz, but it certainly had a role in popularizing the emerging genre. While some brothels had a piano `professor”, the majority of the neighborhood’s jazz musicians found work in dance bands at establishments including Pete Lala’s, 101 Ranch, Fewclothes Cabaret, Tuxedo Dance Hall, and the Big 25

Storyville included performances by such jazz greats as Jelly Roll Morton, Bunk Johnson, Manuel Manetta, King” Oliver, and a young Louis Armstrong.

Famous Jazz Musicians from New Orleans

With the popularity of Jazz music in New Orleans, many new singers emerged, some of which got very popular. Following are a few of the most popular jazz musicians we could dig from New Orleans!

Charles Buddy Bolden

Charles Buddy Bolden

Charles “Buddy” Bolden, who was born in New Orleans in 1877, is widely regarded as the inventor of jazz. Bolden picked up the cornet while he was only a teenager.  He became a member of Charlie Galloway’s exclusive New Orleans dance band. 

He was renowned for his sonorous tone and remarkable improvisational abilities, which left an indelible impression on aspiring musicians who followed in his footsteps.

When he was 20 years old, he decided to form his own band. He is still known for bringing the jazz tunes of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues“, “Careless Love“, and “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor“. There are several Blues clubs all over the US named after him.

The young Bolden was admitted at Jackson’s East Louisiana State Hospital in 1907 due to dementia and other symptoms of disorganized speech and behavior.  About 24 years later,, on November 4, 1931, at the age of 54, Charles “Buddy” Bolden passed away in the same hospital.

King Oliver

Joseph King Oliver

Joe “King” Oliver was an important figure in early jazz because he brought the derby mute.  He was born in Louisiana in 1885 and started his musical training on the trombone, switched to the cornet as a youngster and began traveling with a brass band around the turn of the century.  Oliver’s skills deteriorated while he battled pyorrhea, a gum ailment.  

His most famous band, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, was an instant hit on stage and the first black band from New Orleans to achieve mainstream success with recorded music. 

Other significant contributions by Oliver include the use of “big four“, which was a rhythmic technique that emphasized the second and fourth beats of a measure. This technique helped give his music a distinctive swing and was widely imitated by other jazz musicians. By 1935, Oliver had lost the ability to play at all, yet he still led bands for another year and a half.  A heart attack claimed the life of King Oliver in 1938.

Jelly Roll Morton

Many believe the American jazz pianist, bandleader, and songwriter Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton (October 20, 1890 – July 10, 1941) to be the genre’s first authentic composer. Morton often referred to himself as the “inventor” of jazz music and the genre’s name. Unlike other artists, Morton was one of the first musicians to write down jazz compositions in a structured way, using sheet music to capture the intricate arrangements and solos of his band.

Despite the hyperbole, he was undeniably one of the great jazz pioneers, and his technique to improvise inside previously-rehearsed group arrangements is now universal. As opposed to the regular 12-bar blues, he worked with varying tempos, keys, and moods, creating a dynamic and engaging listening experience. In 1938, Jelly recorded an impressive session for the Library of Congress, capping off a stellar musical career. He passed away in 1941.

Conclusion

New Orleans musicians and styles had a lasting impact on jazz throughout the nation even as the genre went through a series of rapid-fire creative transformations. During the Swing period of the 1930s and 1940s, jazz established itself as the preeminent style of American popular music. Bebop in the 1940s and the avant-garde in the 1960s were two novelties that further separated themselves from the New Orleans style. As a result, classic jazz performers continue to have chances to perform and record in New Orleans.