Jazz grew out of the African-American community at the turn of the 20th century, a time when blacks were being denied their most basic rights. The music has since become a part of every American’s birthright, a timeless symbol of American individualism and ingenuity, American democracy and inclusiveness.
New Orleans port scene, c. 1800.
Courtesy of the Williams Research Center,
Historic New Orleans Collection.
The birthplace of jazz is New Orleans, the most cosmopolitan city in the South. It was a French and then a Spanish port before Americans took it over as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. And long before the Civil War, it was famous for its two symphony orchestras, its opera house with a special gallery set aside for slaves, its love of dancing, and its annual celebration of Mardi Gras. People from everywhere came and went at its wharves, bringing with them their own styles of music: from Midwestern ragtime and parading funeral bands to African, Latin, and Caribbean rhythms; from Mississippi blues, European classical piano, and opera to the gospel of the Baptist Holiness Church—all the ingredients of jazz met and mixed in the streets of New Orleans.
African-American residents added an emphasis on dance and percussion: Rhythms and styles that had originated in Africa were reborn in Congo Square, a grassy plain in the northwestern corner of the city where slaves were permitted to dance and sing on Sundays. African Americans also brought with them Latin and Caribbean rhythms nurtured in the West Indies, which had served as the way station to North America for many of their ancestors. From the first, they absorbed all they could of the music around them—opera, church hymns, even military music, which was all the rage after the Civil War and was blasted through the city’s muddy streets by brass bands, both black and white.
Unknown Creole musician.
Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum.
“Creoles of color”—a term that generally referred to the light-skinned descendants of white slave masters and their black mistresses—added other elements to the musical blend. They enjoyed a special, separate status in New Orleans, somewhere between the white and black worlds. Creole musicians prided themselves on their formal training and often looked down on less well-schooled blacks, whom they called “fakers” and “ear-men” because many could not read music.
During Reconstruction, Creoles wielded considerable political influence in the city. But after the last federal troops were withdrawn from the former Confederacy in 1877 and white rule was re-imposed in Louisiana, they saw their power—and the social position that went with it—steadily decline.
Page 1 of 4 Next Page