Since the pleasure-loving French founded a city on the Delta in 1718, music and dance have been the heart and soul of New Orleans.
In the 18th century, the French and Creoles lived for musicales, balls that were accompanied by string orchestras, and picnics set to Old World brass bands. Considered the new Paris, La Nouvelle Orleans was the first city in America to stage opera. In the 19thcentury, proceeds from public balls helped finance the first full-time opera company. Whatever has changed over the last three centuries, our musical heritage remains.
A Classic Appeal
The classics are still going strong in an ensemble of companies and programs like the Delta Festival “Ballet, New Orleans Opera and Musical Arts Society.
In 1991, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra was the only full-time, player-managed symphony orchestra in the United States. World-class guest performers and conductors support the LPO, often donating funds, time and services.
Coined in Chicago sometime before 1913, the word JAZZ began as jass and jaz, meaning energetic or vigorous.
The Birthplace of Jazz
West Indian slaves of African descent were the touch point of New Orleans music. On Sunday afternoons, slaves socialized in Congo Square (now part of Louis Armstrong Park on North Rampart Street), where they performed tribal dances and chants with stirring rhythms to African percussions. Thousands of citizens – black, Creole, and white – gathered to watch the spectacles.
It has been suggested that Charles “Buddy” Bolden may have been among the onlookers at the Square, and that he mixed those tribal and Creole elements with African-American ragtime and spirituals, folk songs, the blues, and even the cries of street vendors who once filled the Vieux Carre, interpreting them with a European brass sound. (The Irish, Germans and Italians contributed the brass.)
Some time in the Gay ‘90s, Buddy put his cornet to his lips and blew hot notes and cool tunes that became the music we call jazz. He’d invented an American original and a worldwide phenomenon.
As with the original African music, the key to jazz was and remains improvisation. In the early days, musicians often started with a blues piece as a reference point and played their way into a new composition. Nothing much has changed there for the greats, except it doesn’t have to start with blues.
Jazz picked up momentum in Storyville where early improvisational masters like King Oliver, his protégé Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton (the first to set jazz compositions on paper) played.
Lately, a new jazz generation has emerged under the tutelage of patriarch Ellis Marsalis. His sons – Wynton and Branford, and his one-time student Harry Connick, Jr., are some of the young lions who have taken jazz in new directions while rediscovering old standards. Their students and protégés are now the fourth generation of what has become an international classic. Jazz festivals are now held around the world – Montreux, Switzerland to Monterrey, California. But the home of them all is here, New Orleans.
A Jazz Funeral
The jazz funeral grew out of two traditions. In West Africa, the ancestral home of West Indies and New Orleans slaves, tribesmen buried their own with a processional and music.
In l9th-century New Orleans, when members of private clubs called “benevolent societies” died, they were given stirring sendoffs at funeral processions lead by marching bands. On the way to the cemetery, they played slow hymns and dirges to comfort relatives of the deceased. Afterwards, the brass bands struck up rousing tunes celebrating the soul’s flight to heavenly vistas. An unofficial after guard of parade followers, called “second liners,” waved handkerchiefs and umbrellas as they sang and danced with the music.
These days, jazz funerals are usually arranged only for music greats, although the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Fabourg Treme stages an All Saints Day jazz funeral.
In the Land of Dixie
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, ten-dollar bills were printed in both French and English. Dix, French for ten, was engraved in large letters on the back, and the bills were known as dixies. It was either from the land of these dixies or from a corruption of the Mason-Dixon line to Dixieline that Dixieland jazz got its name.
Dixieland style is hard to define. Commonly harder-driving than other forms of jazz, instruments often include a banjo and a tuba, and vocalists take turns improvising in solos. It’s upbeat, with a 4/4 meter, but a 2 beat style, something like ragtime.
A Bit of the Blues
The blues may have originated elsewhere, but a blues sensibility runs deeper here than the river currents.
Starting in 1949, Fats Domino took rhythm and blues to gold on the charts with “The Fat Man” and “Blueberry Hill.”
Bluesman Henry Roeland Byrd, aka Professor Longhair, began as a tap dancer, played piano in honky-tonks, and created a style that mixed Latin rumba, mambo and calypso stylings with an Afro-Caribbean beat interpreted with a percussive keyboard style. His “Go to the Mardi Gras” has become a local anthem.
In the ‘60s, Creole pianist Allen Toussaint penned hits for Irma “Queen of the Blues” Thomas, and Aaron Neville. With the invasion of English Rock bands like the Beatles and the Stones, the blues were swept aside until the ‘70s, when the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival reintroduced the style to new generations of music lovers.
Cajun & Zydeco Music
Cajuns, who were expelled from Nova Scotia in 1755, brought with them music of French origins to Louisiana. Then it simmered in a gumbo of Native American, Creole, West Indian, British, Spanish and other European influences. Now, Cajun tunes are primarily thought of as dance music, gallops, reels and polkas.
After 1925, the accordion, a German addition, accompanied the fiddles and pumped up the volume to carry across crowded dance floors. Cajun singers pitched their voices high and cried out, both from emotion and to be heard above the din. The steel guitar and other instruments came a few years later.
Mixing the same European and New World ingredients, Creoles threw in African and West Indian rhythms and soulful blues, producing a variation of Cajun music. Then, in the ‘40s, influenced by Creole compositions, piano accordionist Clifton Chenier formed a band with his brother, Cleveland, who played percussion on a washboard. Cleveland graduated to corrugated tin played with spoons and bottle openers and finally to the trademark Zydeco instrument, the frottoir.
The name Zydeco comes from a French phrase, les haricots son pansales (the snapbeans aren’t salted). In Cajun dialect, it emerged as Chenier’s signature song: Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.”
The Quadroon Ballroom of yesteryear is just a few steps away from the Jazz & Heritage Festival of today. Cajuns still dance to variations of the European steps played in the Quadroon ballroom: contradanses, mazurkas and valses. The African, American, Caribbean, Creole and European elements fermented into a heady mix of music that defines the soul of the city.
This material may be reproduced for editorial purposes of promoting New Orleans. Please attribute stories toNew Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau. 2020 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130 504-566-5019. http://www.neworleanscvb.com/. Revised 2009.