New Orleans is internationally famous as the birthplace of jazz. From jazz’s birth at the turn of the century to its diverse manifestations in contemporary times, our congressionally-declared “national treasure” is recognized worldwide as America’s most distinctive contribution to world culture.
But although literally million of people can recognize it when they hear it, few can define this music called jazz.
In response to the query “What is jazz?” pianist, vocalist and composer Fats Waller once said, “If you’ve got to ask, don’t mess with it.” Jazz inspires that kind of response.
Jazz is a very broad music that can absorb any sound or musical influence without losing its own identity. On the other hand, jazz is also a very distinctive music that’s easily recognized. Essentially, jazz is an African-American musical art form developed in the early 1900s.
Jazz’s sounds hearken back to its African-American sources. Its core elements, “swing” and a blues-based tonality, are a unique contribution to world music and emanate from the culture and traditions of black Americans. Many other African-derived musics may have a lot of rhythm, but jazz is the blues-based music that swings.
Many people think that jazz is simply improvised music. But so are many other musical forms. What makes jazz unique is not improvisation alone, but “swinging” improvisation with “blue” tones.
RAGTIME ROOTS & THE STORYVILLE MYTH
In the late 1800s, a music known as ragtime was the popular rage of the day. Ragtime was a highly syncopated yet metronomic music. What New Orleans added to the mixture was the seasoning of swing and a soupcon of blues. From this melting pot came the music we call jazz.
There are a lot of myths about jazz. One of the major myths is that jazz developed in the brothels of Storyville. It’s understandable how this myth developed.
Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, a piano player who frequently held court at Hilma Burt’s “house” in Storyville, often and insistently claimed that he “invented jazz in 1902.” Jelly Roll and numerous other ragtime piano “professors” would play for hours in Storyville’s sporting houses, often inventing music as they played.
But ragtime was primarily piano music…and jazz is essentially an ensemble music. From the very beginning of jazz music, the major movers have not been pianists but rather trumpeters and woodwind players. Jelly Roll’s boast that he started jazz, whatever its accuracy, should not be interpreted to mean that jazz was born in Storyville.
Jazz bands were rarely, if ever, active in Storyville brothels. Mostly it was piano rags and at occasional duet or trio. Jazz was not born in a brothel. Jazz was born in the black communities of New Orleans.
Through interviews with and books written by the early creators of jazz, such as Louis Armstrong’s “Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans,” Sidney Bechet’s “Treat It Gentle,” and Don Marquis’ “In Search of Buddy Bolden,” we have learned the names and locations of many of the favorite haunts of the early jazz artists.
Armstrong frequently mentions “The Funky Butt” (on the comer in the same block where Armstrong grew up), “Economy Hall,” “The Odd Fellows Hall,” the “Brick House” across the river in Gretna, and numerous other honky tonks, none of which were Storyville brothels. To be sure, a number of major cabarets and music halls, such as Pete Lala’s (Armstrong’s favorite), which featured King Oliver’s band, were located in the Storyville district, but they weren’t houses of ill repute. The point is that jazz music was not “cat house” music.
A “NEIGHBORHOOD” MUSIC
The earliest forms of jazz, with its characteristic beat and blue notes, were played in dance halls, taverns, at parades and picnics, and on special social occasions such as weddings, births and funerals in the black neighborhoods of New Orleans. Jazz was also played on riverboats and at private parties sponsored by the richer citizens of New Orleans.
In fact, one of the major gathering grounds for the early jazz bands (including Buddy Bolden’s band) was a location known as Lincoln Park.
Historic photographs show the early jazz bands (not to be confused with the ragtime orchestras) were generally of two types. One was the six to eight piece combo with a front line of cornet, clarinet and trombone, and often as not a violin, with a three or four piece rhythm section (piano, string bass and drums, and frequently a banjo). The other was the traditional marching brass band, which had a similar front line often with double or even triple cornets or clarinets, and a rhythm section consisting of sousaphone, snare drum and bass drum. Neither physically—nor sound-wise—would bands like these have been able to fit in madame’s front parlor.
Today both types of bands can still be heard in the clubs and streets of New Orleans. Some of them continue to play in the old style, while others employ modern elements, but they all retain the same basic spirit that was characteristic of early jazz.
Although Jelly Roll Morton widely proclaimed himself as the father of jazz, the man most often credited as being the father of jazz is the legendary cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden,” whose forceful sound was said to carry across the river as he blew his horn out the window of clubs like the Funky Butt where he delighted dancers and musicians alike, night after night. By all accounts, Bolden was a rough-hewn player who favored the blues and set the standard for his day. Armstrong does not mention Jelly Roll as a major influence and this is probably because Jelly Roll’s contribution was more as composer and arranger than an innovative soloist. Morton had the ear and the skill to translate the instrumental music of Bolden and his followers into written music.
BLACK GENESIS OF THE JAZZ “SOUND”
Some critics have mischaracterized jazz as a music that amalgamates African rhythm and European harmony. The truth is more complex.
The typical “blue notes” exist outside traditional European harmony (some musicologists humorously say that the blue notes fall between the cracks of the piano keys). If anything, jazz is a music that incorporates African-derived harmonic models into the standard European scales. Jazz musicians from the early days on often employed various techniques and physical devices (particularly mutes and plungers with brass instruments) to achieve the “dirty” blues sound and to approximate certain vocal techniques.
Moreover, in jazz rhythm is the most complex element with harmony and melody following. Whether playing complex harmonies in ensemble or blowing simple blues, the key was to make it swing.
In New Orleans, unlike other places, the African musical elements (including instruments as well as musical techniques) were preserved, especially African drumming. This is the major difference between New Orleans and every other turn-of-the-century American city as far as jazz is concerned.
Prior to the Civil War, in front of what is now the Municipal Auditorium in Louis Armstrong Park, there existed a meeting ground called Congo Square where enslaved Africans were allowed to congregate on Sundays in New Orleans. Here they would sing, dance and play African music on drums and other instruments of African origin. Here is where African rhythms and harmonies, vocal techniques and melodies were retained and passed on from generation to generation. Elsewhere in America such a gathering was strictly prohibited by laws that were rigorously applied.
The main description of Congo Square available to researchers today is from George Cable, who wrote a series of articles that are currently available in chapbook format. The most important element of Congo Square is that the African conception of rhythm-based music and dance that was practiced there continues to thrive in New Orleans via the “second-line” and “Mardi Gras Indian music” traditions.
These elements served as inspirational booster to jazz that lifted the New Orleans variant of ragtime past what was done anywhere else in the country. An interesting footnote is that the birth of jazz and the birth of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition seem to have been concurrent.
THE FIRST RECORDINGS
Although jazz is an African-American musical art form, many of the early jazz musicians were not of African descent. Almost from the birth of jazz there were numerous white musicians who led successful jazz bands. One of the most famous of the early white bandleaders was Papa Jack Laine who started a ragtime band in 1891.
In terms of the commercial success of jazz and its popularization which ultimately led to the so-called “Jazz Age,” it was the all-white Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) led by cornetist Nick La Rocca that first delivered the sound of jazz to twentieth-century America. In February 1917, while working at Reisenweber’s Restaurant on Columbus Circle in New York City, the ODJB recorded America’s first jazz record. Another interesting footnote is that the birth of the record industry and the birth of jazz were also concurrent.
The ODJB recordings proved to be extremely popular, and their popularity was followed up by the “New Orleans Rhythm Kings,” another white band. This is where the style of jazz known as Dixieland began.
Many historians, working from a chronological perspective and relying solely on records and written documentation, make a major mistake by presenting this as evidence that jazz was general New Orleans music and not specifically an African-American art form.
While it is easy to point to Papa Laine and the ODJB to prove that point, and, while the absence or paucity of written or recorded documentation on black bands of the same period seems to support the theory, the proof is in the music itself.
To this day, no serious jazz scholar considers the white bands as innovators or originators of the music; they were just the first to record. Or to put it another way, who studies Dominick James “Nick” La Rocca’s trumpet style?
In an ironic twist of fate, it is interesting to take note of what happened to Freddie Keppard, a famous early jazz trumpeter from New Orleans who was black. According to Armstrong, Keppard’s Creole Jazz Band “was the first band to leave New Orleans and make good.”
Keppard did so well on a national level he was offered the opportunity to record prior to the ODJB. But he declined because, according to legend, he was afraid his music would be stolen. Some cynics note that Keppard was only fooling himself because his music was stolen anyway. In any case, by the time Keppard did record he was well past his prime and saw his efforts fall short of the popularity attained by the ODJB and others.
The ODJB style emphasized technique and ensemble playing, the Rhythm Kings did more soloing in their music, but neither of them could touch either King Oliver with Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton.
To say that Dixieland is a pale imitation of jazz is somewhat inaccurate, because Dixieland right on down to today’s “fusion jazz” is music played in a recognizable, true jazz style. However, Dixieland and its descendants are generally deficient in their swing and use of blues tonalities—the core elements of jazz.
The ODJB may have recorded first, but it was Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and especially Louis Armstrong with his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” recordings that defined early recorded jazz and captured the attention of musicians worldwide.
Between Jelly Roll’s compositions and ensemble arrangements and Oliver’s hot style of collective improvisation with strong solo voicings, the basic elements of jazz were set for decades to come.