In 1890, a Louisiana state law required black and white railroad passengers traveling through the state to occupy separate cars. In hopes of overturning this and other segregation laws in court, a New Orleans Creole named Homer Adolph Plessy got himself arrested for refusing to leave a “white” first-class car for which he’d bought a ticket. Convicted of breaking the law, he appealed to a higher court. In 1896, the United States Supreme Court found in Plessy v. Ferguson (Ferguson was the judge who initially ruled against Plessy in the lower court) that “separate but equal facilities” were constitutional. That decision and the system of discrimination that grew from it—a set of laws and traditions collectively known as Jim Crow—would circumscribe the lives of black people in the American South, and in New Orleans, for nearly 60 years.
Jelly Roll Morton (in blackface) and partner
in black vaudeville.
Courtesy of the Duncan P. Schiedt Collection.
It also affected New Orleans music. Because their ancestry included what a new state law defined as “a traceable amount” of “Negro blood,” Creoles now found themselves classified with other African Americans as second-class citizens, and Creole musicians who had played for wealthy whites were suddenly displaced by white musicians and forced to compete for work with the less well-trained black musicians they had once scorned.
Meanwhile, during the same decade that saw Jim Crow’s grip steadily tighten on New Orleans, African Americans added three fresh strains to the city’s already rich musical mix: ragtime, blues, and the sacred music of the Baptist Holiness church.
Ragtime was first heard in black neighborhoods in Midwestern cities. It was the outgrowth of the African-American tradition of “ragging”—syncopating and rearranging every kind of music to create livelier, more danceable versions. Older people deplored ragtime; one critic called it “syncopation gone mad ... an infectious disease.” But young people loved it, and it remained America’s most popular music for a quarter of a century. No city heard more of it than New Orleans.
At about the same time, black refugees from the cotton fields of the Mississippi River Delta began streaming into the city in search of better-paying jobs on the waterfront. With them they brought the blues. This emerging form began as purely vocal music that followed no rigid structure. But when New Orleans musicians began to play the blues on their instruments, an agreed-upon form started to develop: three chords, most often arranged in 12-bar sequences, that somehow allowed for an infinite number of variations and expressed an infinite number of emotions.
Country church and congregation.
Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum.
The blues was good-time music and was therefore disparaged by some church people. The music being played in black Holiness churches—employing drums, tambourines, and trombones—was sacred. But musically it was almost identical to the blues. Each was built around the same rhythms, the same moans and cries and bent notes. Each was meant to help find hope in a troubled world. Both employed the same call-and-response structure—one blues musician answering another, just as the preacher and his congregation talked back and forth. All of this would be echoed in jazz.
Beginning some time in the late 1890s, a handful of black New Orleans musicians began to fuse all the music that surrounded them into something new. The result was “not spirituals or blues or ragtime,” one man remembered, or any of the other kinds of music heard in the Crescent City, “but everything all at once, each one putting something over on the other.”