Part II: New Orleans Shares Unique Music with the World

In our last post, we mentioned briefly some of the cultural reasons why New Orleans would become the birth city of jazz — many of its residents, both free and enslaved, came from cultures that featured musical improvisation. The creative energies from these groups were mostly influenced by drums and other percussive elements. These influences would change as Africans, Cubans and other people from the Caribbean began living in close proximity to one another in America. They started hearing and later learning the scales and melodies that were played and performed in their new place of residence.

From 1830 and continuing through the years leading up to the Civil War, the fears that Southern whites harbored toward the free black population in and around New Orleans specifically and in the South generally started to manifest itself in the form of new laws and more vigorous punishment that served to curtail many of the privileges that had been enjoyed by free people of color. Whites who had previously done business with skilled tradespeople and artisans in the black community diverted their business to the white community. Eventually, the economic condition of the entire community of color weakened. Whites were also fearful of the mounting political and social tension between the slave states and the federal government.  These fears came to include the possibility of armed conflict which, as we know, culminated in the Civil War.

Beginning in the late 1700s, enslaved as well as free black people got together on Sundays in a part of New Orleans known as Congo Square. They gathered for ‘funning’ on percussive instruments including the banjo and drums. There was also singing and dancing.  Although there were times when this custom was curtailed, these Sunday festivals continued until after 1880. New Orleans was captured by the Union in 1862 without much resistance. Perhaps, not coincidentally, the city was spared much of the devastation that other Southern cities realized.  Since the city was left intact after its capture, much of the culture remained unchanged.

After Reconstruction, taking the year 1877 as a marker, fear increasingly dominated the lives of many whites in the South. As a result, the rights to own property, realize any type of training or education, or enjoy gainful employment were taken away from blacks through a system of laws known as Jim Crow.  As the Jim Crow laws effectively negated more of the freedoms blacks had previously enjoyed, they found themselves restricted to smaller sections of the city with fewer resources.

One of the blessings of this era is that many of the Creoles, or lighter skinned blacks, started teaching many of the darker skinned people of color how to negotiate new instruments. They taught the various European scales and harmonies that were being used – and indeed are still used – in the music of America.  The syncopation and percussivity started to change the way melodies and harmonies were being heard.  A little more than a decade after the last Sunday festival in Congo Square, jazz was officially born in New Orleans.

In our next blog post, we will cite some of the musical personalities who were active at the very beginning of the jazz tradition and talk a little bit about their styles and how they  used the rhythmic pulse in music.