Styles & Forms | New Orleans Jazz

Conditions were ripe for jazz to evolve in New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century. A thriving port of immigration, where Africans and Creoles lived side by side with Italians, Germans, Irish, French, Mexicans and Cubans, New Orleans’ unprecedented ethnic diversity allowed for a free and easy mingling of musical ideas between cultures.

Other factors contributed to the coalescing of jazz as a cultural expression unique to New Orleans. The call-and-response tradition of West African music was retained in many Baptist churches of the South, particularly in New Orleans, while concepts of polyrhythm and improvisation within group participation (qualities inherent in African drumming ensembles) were kept alive in the Crescent City at Congo Square, an authorized venue where slaves would gather to recreate their drumming and dancing traditions. These African drumming concepts, and indeed the very notion of percussiveness as musical expression, would seep into the cultural consciousness of New Orleans.

Let The Good Times Roll

The foundation for a new hybrid music was set by a combination of the African notion of rhythm that swings, or has a propulsive motion, with the European classical influences brought into the mix by ragtime and sophisticated Creole musicians. Add a thriving brass band tradition, which developed in the late-nineteenth century from the plentiful supply of cheap brass band instruments left behind after the Civil War, blend in rhythmic and melodic elements from Cuba, the West Indies and the Caribbean, and factor in the slightly decadent and pervasive ‘party time’ atmosphere of the City That Care Forgot (typified by the pageantry of Mardi Gras, as well as the city’s unofficial motto, ‘Laissez les bons temps rouler’ or ‘Let the good times roll’), and you have a potent recipe for jazz.

Out of this rich cultural gumbo came Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden, the first bona fide jazz star of the twentieth century. A cornetist of unparalleled power, Bolden’s innovative approach took the essence of ragtime and put a looser, hotter, bluesier spin on it, grabbing dancers in the process. By 1895, Bolden was leading his own group in residence at New Orleans’ Globe Theater, where he held court as ‘King’ Bolden. By 1901, his popularity spread from playing dance halls scattered throughout the city and in outlying communities, including Preservation Hall, the Tin Roof Café and Funky Butt Hall. In 1903, he began to fade from the scene, plagued by spells of dementia and drunkenness, until he was committed to the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital on 5 June 1907: the first jazz casualty.

Succeeding Bolden as the cornet king of New Orleans was Freddie Keppard, who, in 1906, led the Olympia Orchestra. Legend has it that Keppard, leery of having other cornet players ‘steal his stuff’, turned down an offer from the Victor Talking Machine Company to become the first New Orleans musician to record. Another prominent cornetist was Joe Oliver, who began playing in local dance bands and with the Onward Brass Band in 1907. By 1917, he became...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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