New Orleans as a Focal Point in the Development of Jazz
New Orleans is known a melting pot of culture and music and it has played a major role in early development of jazz. It was full of opportunity and rich with the fine arts of music and dance, while offering a breeding ground for innovation. In the back alley city streets, clubs and saloons, basements of homes and African-American dance halls, jazz was born. Brass bands marched in numerous parades and played to comfort families during funerals. There were numerous society dances that required skilled musical ensembles for entertainment. New Orleans was home to Joe "King" Oliver and his leading student, Louis Armstrong. They hailed from New Orleans along with other influential musicians to include Jelly Roll Morton.
In 1718, the French started building the city of New Orleans. Located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, the city lured people in from various backgrounds. The Crescent City was ripe for the development of new music at the turn of the century. The port city opened its doors to the spicy sounds of the people from Africa, the Caribbean and Mexico. A large, well-established black population also enticed a lively and flavorful atmosphere. New Orleans was also a major seaport for trade ships and travelers throughout the world. Freed blacks were drawn to the city because of its huge offers of opportunity. Being that it was growing everyday, New Orleans had created jobs that needed to be filled. Along with their aching bones, tired muscles and small amounts of belongings, blacks brought with them rhythmic flavor, instrumental qualities combined with the European concert traditions of music created what was called ragtime music.
Congo Square, a modest corner of the French Quarter, is considered by many scholars to be the birthplace of jazz. It was in the Nineteenth Century in Congo Square in New Orleans that observers heard the beat of the bamboulas, the wail of the banzas and saw the multitude of African dances that had survived through the years. During these antebellum times, slaves would meet here on Sundays and play traditional African songs while women slowly swayed to the rhythms. Congo Square was a weekly refuge from the drudgeries of slave life. It was a place where music created a special freedom that didn't exist elsewhere. This square was used as a gathering place for the residents of New Orleans almost since the city began and located across Rampart Street on the backside of the French Quarter. It had been an area outside of the fortified walls of the original city where Native Americans and where slaves later sold their wares in an open market by the Bayou Saint John. In time, the unrehearsed slave songs of Congo Square came to be known throughout New Orleans.
The people in town would gather around the square on Sunday afternoons to witness what went on inside the square. In 1819, a visitor to the city, Benjamin Latrobe wrote about the celebrations in his journal. He was surprised to find that five or six hundred unsupervised slaves would be allowed to assemble for dancing. He described them as ornamented with a number of tails of the smaller wild beasts, with fringes, ribbons, little bells, and shells and balls, jiggling and flirting about the performers legs and arms. The women, one onlooker reported wore, each according to her means, the newest fashions in silk, gauze, muslin, percale dresses. The males covered themselves in oriental or Indian dress and covered themselves only with a sash of the same sort wrapped around the body.
One witness from the time pointed out that several clusters of onlookers, musicians, and dancers represented tribal groupings with each nation taking their place in different parts of the square. In addition to drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments and quillpipes made from reeds strung together like panpipes, marimbas and European instruments like the violin, tambourines and triangles were also used. With this activity, the slaves were able to preserve the culture that they had brought with them from Africa. The slaves who came directly from Africa greatly continued many traditions and folklore. The greater part of the music, their methods, their scale, their type of thought, their dancing, their patting of feet, their clapping of hands, their grimaces and pantomime, and their gross superstitions were incorporated into the life they were forced to live. Slaves would often sing while at work. The songs told of the slave's loves, work and floggings and served as rhythmic accompaniment to labor. Unfortunately, attempts were made to stop slaves from continuing with African religious rituals. Drums were banned as plantation owners and overseers feared that they could be used to send messages. They were particularly concerned that they would be used to signal a slave uprising.
Today the square that had been Conga Square is surrounded with high iron fences and has concrete walkways. It is very different from the open field that was visited by slaves. The site was never actually supposed to be a square, according to the original city planners, however no other spot in the nation is mentioned more often by music scholars as the origin of jazz and modern American dance. From the heritage of the African people grew a unique blend of music. It was when ragtime and blues came together that jazz was born (Mabunda, 1997). Ragtime music hit New Orleans and was very popular. The new syncopated feel given by ragtime became an instrumental element of jazz. Ragtime commanded the scene with this technique that led to a new rhythmic style. In ragtime, the left hand plays the bass part while the right plays the second and fourth beats. Most rags had a definite format, which showed a vast European influence of balance and form. Usually, each selection consisted of four themes of equal importance. Unlike modern jazz, all ragtime was written, not improvised. Ragtime clearly sets a link to jazz. By giving a syncopated feel, ragtime is a definite trendsetter of jazz. This syncopated feel is a clear element of modern jazz.
The original Storyville was established on January 1, 1898 as a legally operated red-light district in New Orleans. This has been the only legal red-light district in the United States (Mabunda, 1997). The district was home to beautiful bordellos that were renowned for their grand architecture. The bordello's festive atmosphere was created by seductive women and mood-altering music. Although New Orleans is know to be the birthplace of Jazz, the section known in New Orleans, as Storyville is the center to be the birthplace of Jazz. "Jazz" was a slang word for sex. The fun lasted until the fall of 1917, when the United States Department of the Navy shut it down. Later in the 1940's, New Orleans government wanted would do a good thing for the city by constructing a low-income housing project. To make way for this project the old district was completely demolished.
From the moment of its inception in January of 1898, the legend of the Storyville District has loomed large in the minds of New Orleanians and the city's spirits around the world. A disciplined experiment aimed at containing unregulated and rampant vice, the Storyville District was created via a city ordinance declaring boundaries. These boundaries were from today's Iberville Street to St. Louis Street and from North Robertson to North Basin. Any prostitution outside of this area was prohibited. The ordinance, introduced by Alderman Sidney Story, gained defacto legal status by carefully avoiding any reference to the legality of prostitution within the boundaries of Storyville. To Alderman Story's horror, newspapers quickly dubbed the new bordello district "Storyville," and the area flourished for the next twenty years.
Music was certainly not the reason Storyville was created, although music was constantly heard throughout the district. The music from the house pianist, known as "the professor," would greet visitors as they entered many of the better establishments. The Storyville District provided relatively uncritical audiences allowing musicians almost unlimited freedom to experiment and develop their own styles. Cultural barriers among ethnic groups were transcended as they began to play together, adding greatly to the potential for form, expression and variety. Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong were among the talented musicians who captivated Storyville audiences nightly with their vibrant performances and contagious passion for music. At its peak, Storyville employed as many as 2200 prostitutes, 70 professional gamblers and 30 piano players nestled in as many as 230 houses, cabarets, houses of assignation and cribs.
Storyville was a hotbed of colorful characters and activity.
Jelly Roll Morton was the first important jazz pianist and the first great jazz composer. His style of traditional jazz merged ragtime and blues with group improvisation. His recordings began in 1926 and went to 1930. He led a small band called the Red Hot Peppers and they are now considered classics of the recorded jazz repertory. Morton had hits such as…