On our streetcar ride to the Red Cross each morning, there are signs for live music on nearly every block. Music permeates the city, from the street performers on Jackson Square to the myriad of clubs showcasing artists almost every night. There are many types of music to enjoy here in the Big Easy. But jazz has impacted New Orleans to its core.
The food, music and culture of New Orleans all tie back to its founding, where German, Italian, and Irish immigrants, french-speaking Creole communities, English speaking Anglo-Saxon Americans, African Americans, and enslaved West Africans exchanged ideas, practices, and cultures in one place. This resulted in a unique environment where many new traditions could develop. One of these new developments was jazz.
New Orleans is often cited as the birthplace of jazz. The weekly gatherings of enslaved African people in what is now known as Congo Square produced the underlying rhythms that dominated the genre. These gatherings were originally allowed in order for owners of enslaved persons to try and understand the messages that were sometimes communicated between plantations via different beat patterns on the drum (as we learned on our trip to the Whitney Plantation). The complex rhythms and call and response patterns, paired with the rising popularity of brass marching bands and ragtime piano, formed the basis of the genre we call jazz.
Improvisation became an even larger part of jazz with harsh segregation laws passed in retaliation to Reconstruction. These laws united the black and Creole of color communities in New Orleans. Black American musicians tended towards improvisation, as many could not read music, bringing a new sound to older songs. Contrastingly, Creole of color musicians were more disciplined when it came to jazz, due to their previously held social status.
Jazz was quickly integrated into many events around New Orleans, including neighborhood social halls, parades and dances, bands played at picnics, fish fries, political rallies, store openings, lawn parties, athletic events, church festivals, weddings and funerals (1). This allowed musicians to easily find work, thus allowing jazz to evolve, mature and grow in popularity.
These few facts hopefully help illuminate how the roots of jazz and New Orleans are inextricably tied. This can be seen through a cursory streetcar ride through the city. However, we had the opportunity this past week to visit one of the venues that we so often pass by on our commute, namely, the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. There we witnessed musicians who had almost certainly been influenced by the complex history of jazz and the artists who shaped that history.
The history of jazz, along with its evolution, undeniably influenced musicians who grow the genre. And when I first started singing jazz, I didn’t understand the significance of that history. However, one of the reasons I love jazz is because of its accessibility. Jazz was meant to bring people together, as can be seen throughout its origination and practice in all sorts of settings. Anyone can enjoy jazz, whether you are listening or playing. I can pick up a song, find some musical friends, listen to some recordings, and try some improvisation. In the same way, our DukeEngage cohort can walk into the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, get up and dance to the music, (or in some cases, play along!) and never doubt that they are welcome.
That feeling of welcomeness is the same feeling that distinguishes New Orleans from other cities. I’ve been lucky enough to encounter it on many occasions, whether it’s when a friendly local takes the time to share what they’ve learned about where to go or what to do or when a fire alarm installation becomes an opportunity to listen to someone’s life story. That attitude is what makes New Orleans special, and it’s what makes jazz special too.