How New Orleans Became the Birthplace of Jazz Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How New Orleans Became the Birthplace of Jazz

0 Conversations

The French Quarter of New Orleans.
…New Orleans jazz represents a spiritual musicalization of life. It’s everything in life brought into music. At the time it was created, it was a result of what was existing in the lives of African-Americans in the post-Reconstructionist period. It expresses all the joys, hopes, desires and you can hear all of that in the music. You hear love, you hear sadness, you hear happiness, you hear anger, you hear escapism, you hear dancing, you hear beauty: all of the things that are in life. - Michael White

New Orleans is undisputed as the birthplace of jazz music. But why New Orleans? What is it about this place that it spawned jazz, and not somewhere else? This question may not be fully answerable, but there are some significant clues in the social and musical histories of the Crescent City. Although other cities maintained dynamic musical scenes, only New Orleans fostered an environment that allowed the right ingredients to come together within a few years at the dawn of the 20th Century. In this city, all the component cultural and musical parts came together at the right time in history to make the advent of jazz almost inevitable.

This entry examines the social and musical aspects separately (though they are not easily disentangled from one another), and then gives a brief description of the New Orleans Jazz style.

Nola's Social History

Pre-Civil War

New Orleans’ social history is incredibly complex and convoluted with many successive cultural layerings dating from its founding by the French in 1718. The city was then passed on to the Spanish, then back to the French before being sold to America in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which caused another group to enter. These were the Americans: English speakers with many ethnic and religious backgrounds.

The locals brought in slaves from all over to work on their plantations, and despite the laws against it, there was also an influx of free blacks from the uprisings in Haiti in 1771. This created a lower-class grouping of blacks, viewed by whites as one large group (though the blacks themselves made quite a distinction between free black and slave).

Though slaves had few freedoms, an essential aspect of Pre-Civil War New Orleans slaves was 'Congo Square', a gathering place for the slaves while their masters were away at church on Sundays. Here, slaves could dance and sing their traditional African songs. These weekly dances were legalized in 1819, to keep the slaves peaceful, as it allowed them to vent their energy.

Many white slave owners of the time 'took advantage' of their black slaves, creating a new ethnic class, the Creoles. Though interracial marriage was forbidden, white men began increasingly to take Creole mistresses, as the number of Creole women exceeded the number of white women available. These mistresses were taken with the permission of the girl’s mother, who made sure that the children resulting from this union would be taken care of. This created a middle-class of coloured Creoles. They spoke French, and were predominantly Catholic. These Creoles did not face the same segregation and discrimination as even free blacks.

One interesting aspect of Crescent City’s racial relations before the Civil War is the 'backyard' housing pattern. In this model, the blacks and whites lived very close together: slaves living with their masters and the free blacks interspersed throughout. This was done to keep an eye on the blacks of the community, but the interracial housing pattern often led to a disregard of the colour line in such activities as drinking, eating, and gambling. New Orleans ended up with a very interesting and different racial scene than many other American cities at the time. New Orleans has historically had a reputation of maintaining liberal race relations. Supposedly, the close residential proximity of Creoles, Americans, and slaves, enforced by limited land area, contributed to a high tolerance for racial and ethnic differences. It was not until the mid-19th Century that housing began to be separated by race, dividing it into black neighbourhoods and white neighbourhoods.

Apart from the racial relations, the ethnic relations were also very different. The Americans who had entered after the Louisiana Purchase defied the French culture of the rest of the city, keeping themselves separate. Most of them had been Southerners already, and though, in the French culture of the city, the Creoles were the middle class, the Americans considered all people of mixed blood to be sub-human and slaves. This led to tension, as well as financial competition between the two ethnicities. By the 1830s, the city had divided into three municipalities: one for the Americans, one for the Creoles, and one for the immigrant farmers. They were so separated that people from one side rarely trespassed into the others. Each of these sectors even had its own currency.

Post-Civil War

The Reconstruction, after the Civil War, brought many changes for the black community. With the Northern troops occupying the city, new legislation allowed blacks to vote. This led to rapid desegregation. Although they were not able to gain full equality, the black community did enjoy many new freedoms until 1877, when the troops withdrew and white Southerners took control again.

When the Southern Democrats did take control, they immediately imposed many 'Jim Crow Laws.'1 'Jim Crow' came to personify the system of government-sanctioned racial oppression and segregation in the United States and severely restricted black people. The racial, social, and class confusion spawned by the events of the late 1890s and early 1900s inherently altered the structure of the city, a situation that would have a major impact on the evolution of jazz music. Jim Crow, also known as the Code Noir, severely repressed the African-American community, controlling everything from ownership of weapons, to marriage and religious practices. While New Orleans seemed relatively peaceful compared to other cities in this period, the racial tension was high.

These laws not only affected the black former slaves, but the mixed-blood Creoles as well. The Code Noir affected anyone with the slightest 'taint' of African blood in them. By the early 20th Century, the unique middle caste of black Creoles disappeared, as the city narrowed the definition of race down to the two categories of black and white. The Creoles, however, considered themselves very different from the blacks, and remained aloof from them. This is not surprising; the Creoles had enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, and were now being cast down into the lower class with freed slaves of a different language, religion, and culture, solely based on the colour of their skin.

Upon this shore of social and racial upheaval, the wave of jazz broke. The social history of New Orleans and the musical history of jazz are long, twisting, and inextricably linked. As these cultures cooperated and clashed, the consciousness of Crescent City’s inhabitants changed, and with these changes came the new sounds of music trying to encompass these new things through collaboration and reinvention.

Musical History

Jazz began2 with the opening of Storyville, New Orleans’ famous red-light district. Its roots, however, run further back, and, like the roots of a marigold, are tangled, and draw sustenance from many different sources.3.

Though the roots of jazz are difficult to trace, perhaps the best place to begin a discussion about it is with Congo Square. As mentioned earlier, this was a weekly meeting place where the slaves would gather to sing and dance while their masters were at church. These songs and dances were decidedly African. After emancipation, this African music wasn’t restricted to once a week in Congo Square.

'Black' music had two definite styles. The first was the Creole style, the second, the freed black. Creoles played classics, opera, mazurkas and quadrilles while uptowners, playing by sight, improvised in a rough and robust style. Also, the Creole tradition centered heavily on the clarinet, a traditionally French instrument, which went on to form the 'first line,' the backbone of the New Orleans jazz band, while the black music was more percussive. When Jim Crow took effect, these two styles experienced a sort of forced merging. As the Creoles were forced into lower class positions, many financial opportunities withered, and Creole teachers began to take on black students. From this merging and a number of other cultural and social influences, the blues were born.

The Blues

The blues is an African-American invention. It closely resembles the spirituals and working songs of the African slaves, but there is a major difference; the spirituals were originally sung a capella while blues is sung against a musical background. The spirituals promise better times to come, while blues are bound to this troubled earth. It is not, however, an African invention; that is to say, the blues does not come to us directly from Africa, it is, like jazz after it, a combination of the African traditions and the musical traditions of the people around whom the blacks were living.

The theme of the blues is indicated in its name. Since the Elizabethan era, the word 'blue' has meant a sort of melancholy or depression. Washington Irving4 is credited with coining the term 'the blues' in 1807. Early blues songs were the songs of the extreme privations of slavery.

The blues truly emerged as a separate musical form after the Reconstruction period, during that time of extreme segregation and repression of African-Americans. It was sung mostly by musically (and often generally) illiterate musicians, and as such was largely dependent on improvisation, though not to the extent of the jazz music to come. The blues consisted of 12 bars, separated into three lines. The singer would repeat the lyrics for the first two lines, then improvise his own for the third. This first repeated line is called a 'burden,' a fitting term for an element of blues music, though it actually originates from the archaic word 'burthen,' meaning 'chorus.'

WC Handy made the blues popular as a musical style. He 'discovered' the blues during a stay in St. Louis, and when he came back to New Orleans, he made it famous. There is some argument about what kind of music Handy actually played. Though he is widely regarded as the 'Father of the blues', many sources place his music in the category of ragtime. Regardless, he certainly took much of his inspiration from the blues. He was one of the first ever to write them down into sheet music, and is credited with making the blues popular throughout the States.


The second major musical influence in jazz is ragtime, which has been traced as far back as 1880, originating in Missouri. Ragtime is piano music that is composed. Though improvisations and variations on ragtime tunes became popular with the advent of jazz, ragtime is very formal, and the composition is important. Ragtime music started out as a combination of banjo music and marches. The right hand would play the syncopated melody, an imitation of a banjo sound, and the left hand would play a steady march beat, usually in 2/4. It was the transformation of a style of folk performance into a ‘classical’ form of composed music.

An important aspect of ragtime that separates it from other forms of composed piano music is the 'swing' rhythm. The name Ragtime, in fact, means 'ragged time,' referring to the syncopated rhythm. Ragtime reflects the 19th Century. Everything relevant to that time can be found in it - from Schubert, Chopin, and, most of all, Liszt, to marches and polkas - all recast in the black rhythmic conception and dynamic way of playing. Thus, ragtime can simply be defined as 'white music played black'.

The first popular composer of ragtime music was Scott Joplin, but the most famous is 'Jelly Roll' Morton. He added a rolling bass line, a slower but more forceful rhythm in the character of a stomp, and began to approach a jazz feeling. 'I invented jazz in 1902,', self-aggrandizer Morton claimed. This is not exactly true; Jelly Roll’s music was not wholly ragtime, as it incorporated elements of the blues and some other musical influences, but it certainly was not jazz. The music that Jelly Roll Morton played is closer to ragtime than anything else.


Although he certainly did not invent jazz, Morton was right on the scene for the opening of Storyville in 1897 by city ordinance. Storyville is Crescent City’s fabled red-light district. The city ordinance that created it specifically prohibited prostitution outside of that section of the city, though prostitution was technically not legal inside Storyville, either. The police overlooked the vice in that area, believing that it was keeping prostitution out of the rest of the city. The opening of Storyville is hailed as the most influential event in the invention of jazz. In the mingling of the many ethnic and musical strains in New Orleans, which occurred almost automatically in the laissez-faire climate of Storyville, New Orleans Style was born.

The establishments in Storyville were not just centres for vice, they were a form of nightclub. Many of these brothels served liquor and booze, and larger establishments would have a musician or a band. It was this opening-up of the job market that brought all sorts of musicians together, especially joining ragtime pianists with musicians from a more folksy blues background. Here musicians could hear and learn from each other and play together, merging their styles into a new thing: New Orleans jazz.

What Is It?

New Orleans jazz differed from what had come before it, but it, too, was recognizably a product of its component parts. A very simplified definition of early New Orleans jazz is that it would take old ragtime songs and improvise variations on them, using the swing syncopation of the ragtime and a blues scale (which is partway between a major and a minor scale, with different flats and sharps). The 'first line', the heart of the jazz band, consists of the Creole/French clarinet, the cornet, and the trombone. The lead is taken by the brilliant sound of the cornet, effectively contrasted by the heavy, weighty trombone. The clarinet entwines the two brasses in an intricate pattern of melodic lines. The rest of the band may consist of any of the following 'rhythm' instruments: piano, bass, drums, banjo, guitar, and/or tuba. The soul of jazz is improvisation, and the soul of New Orleans jazz is the collective improvisation of the whole band, based on variations of the original tune or on the simple chords that accompanied it.

A few interesting techniques developed in this early jazz for the playing of the instruments. Musicians began to make their instruments 'talk', attempting to imitate the sounds of the human voice. The advent of jazz was also the advent of muting, the growl, the shake, bending (or lipping), glissando, and fluttering. Muting is changing the sound of an instrument by blocking the sound with objects of different shapes and materials. The growl occurs when a musician blows and hums into his instrument at the same time. The shake is an exaggeration of the simple vibrato using the hand or movements of the jaw. Bending, also known as lipping, controls the pitch by adjusting the stiffness of the ambiture. Glissando, gliss for short, is a slide from one pitch to another. Rather than playing one note, then another, a gliss allows one note to merge gradually with the next note. Fluttering occurs when the musician vibrates his tongue against the roof of his mouth (as when one rolls an r). These new techniques further separated jazz music from its predecessors, creating a truly unique style of music.

1The 'Jim Crow' laws were so called after a popular 19th-century minstrel song that stereotyped African Americans.2As much as any kind of music can have a 'beginning'.3This entry attempts to simplify things and create a flow that is easily understood, but the history of jazz is more complicated than it is represented here.4Washington Irving (1783–1859) was named after General George Washington. He is best known for creating Rip Van Winkle and the Headless Horseman from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The hit book made Irving the first American author to gain real fame in Europe.

Bookmark on your Personal Space

Conversations About This Entry

There are no Conversations for this Entry

Edited Entry


Infinite Improbability Drive

Infinite Improbability Drive

Read a random Edited Entry

Categorised In:

Written by

Write an Entry

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."

Write an entry
Read more