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New Orleans Jazz - A Brief History

Aug 31, 2013
Jazz is considered an art form particular to America and specifically, New Orleans. But why?

All styles of traditional jazz (swing, Kansas City, dixieland, Chicago, west coast) are unique for any number of reasons, but New Orleans is often thought of as first and foremost in the genre. This is mostly because New Orleans is where it all started. While most Americans were dancing to military marches in the late 1800s, New Orleans was moving more to the sounds of voodoo rhythms and drums. Of course, you don't have to travel far to also feel the strong influence of Delta Blues that combine those famous drumbeats into the style now known as "rhythm and blues" - but that's getting ahead of the story! Rhythm and delta blues, together with the sounds of gospel hymns from early 20th century churches, put together by the local musicians of New Orleans created the style that first came to be known as "jazz."

Although Buddy Bolden is considered one of the first jazz men, he was surpassed by people such as Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. It's not a far leap from the days of those stars to the current flag waivers such as Ellis Marsallis, Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. When Papa Jack Lanine's band circa 1885 played, it was noted that he did so in a "ragged time". It's been said that the musicians played in various tempos and that made it "swing". Perhaps so, but Papa Jack was also a consummate clarinetist, teacher and mentor to many of the early jazz musicians.

Improvisation is another key factor in defining the genre that's really known as New Orleans jazz. In classical music, most musicians attempt to play the same songs without varying from one note to the next each time they play a piece. But in jazz, the idea is to use the melody line as a guide and then to play extemporaneous passages based on melody and chord structure.

New Orleans jazz can also be called "hot jazz" or "early jazz", which led to the Lindy Hop dance in Harlem not so many years later. But the real reason New Orleans took off as the birthplace of jazz is because the unique cultural environment of New Orleans in the late 19th and 20th centuries (home to both Spanish and French colonial roots, together with recently freed African slaves) couldn't be found anywhere else. It's still true today - there's no place like New Orleans.

By 1917, the early pioneers of jazz were taking their music on the road. Jazz spread like wildfire from Chicago to New York, all the way from Kansas City to the West Coast. Many musicians continued to evolve the form and left their mark on the evolving style (and still continues today!). New Orleans jazz is alive and well in the city of New Orleans and across the world.

Furthermore, many of the great musicians stayed at home in the 1920s which lead to such great bands as Papa Celestin's Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchstra, A.J. Piron's New Orleans Orchestra, The Sam Morgan Jazz band and many others. None of these musicians became famous in the manner of Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, but the truth is the musical scene in New Orleans remains fertile ground for creative musicians united by a common love of that syncopated swing sound known as New Orleans Jazz.
About the Author
Jimmy Maxwell is founder and Executive Director of the Louis Armstrong Society Jazz Band. He proudly promotes Louis Armstrong songs through the historical and entertaining show, "Salute to Satchmo" as well as other types of New Orleans jazz concerts at public and private events across the country.
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