As we continue with Part 3 of this New Orleans music blog posting, we are starting to understand that there is something inherently triumphant in the music itself. In spite of any laws, restrictive actions, even the taking of human lives, the lineage grew stronger even as the evolution of the music continued. From the days when the musicians of color in New Orleans drew predominantly on their percussive strengths, to the period between 1870 and the early 1900s when more musicians gravitated to the diverse array of instruments we know today, the harmonies and melodies they used increasingly reflected a deepening awareness of European music. Yet the foundational rhythms remained African/Caribbean.
New Orleans was and still is considered the birthplace of jazz because of the emphasis on improvisation in the music that was being played throughout the city years before the Sidney Story ordinance became law in 1897. The purpose of the ordinance was to create a district, a kind of corral, in which all manner of otherwise illicit activity could take place. What the ordinance actually established was a kind of incubator in which early jazz flourished. In addition, there were brass bands, military marching bands and musical ensembles associated with the city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. Most of the creative musicians affiliated themselves with these Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs partly because the white insurance companies refused to service their life and burial needs so citizens of color banded together to take care of one another and provide such help.
As stated above, the official year for the beginning of jazz was 1897, but musicians throughout the city were playing creative music quite a few years earlier. There were competitions between black and white bands documented as early as 1892.
So why does the music of New Orleans sound so different?
The difference is the employment of the rhythmic scheme. The rhythmic variance – what some people call syncopation – can make the harmonies sound and feel different; it can alter how one receives and perceives melody. The texture of a composition can become more noticeable and of course the beat makes you want to move, keeps you excited and interested in the music you’re listening to.
It was the rhythmic variation used by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Ferdinand Lemothe (known as Jelly Roll Morton) and others who would come later that seemed harder to play, sometimes harder to grasp except that you know you are enjoying what you are listening to.
Most music that we know can readily be divided into two general rhythmic schemes. The even eighth note or sixteenth note scheme is probably the most popular one. The other rhythmic scheme relies heavily on the triplet rhythm.
What is an eighth note and how can we recognize even eighth note rhythmic patterns?
Most jazz, blues, and rock/pop compositions are in what we sometimes call 4-4 time, meaning there are 4 beats to a measure or bar, after which the counting cycle starts again. (For example, 1-2-3-4; 1-2-3-4; repeat several times). If you repeat the cycle a few times, evenly, you’ll also notice that there is a space between the numbered beats you are counting. In that space, add the word “and”. Now your verbal count will be “1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and”. If you drop the “d” from the word “and”, your rhythmic flow will be aided greatly.
The other general rhythmic scheme features the triplet rhythm patterns. This rhythm is used in jazz/blues, and some rock n’ roll; other subcultures may use sequences based on this conception.
New Orleans musicians have a special way of blending these two types of rhythms and we will get into that a little more in our blog post next week.