New Orleans Jazz: History, Music & Musicians

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will detail the evolution and cultural significance of New Orleans jazz. We will explore the early influences and spread of the genre, as well as its basic features.

New Orleans: The Birthplace of Jazz

There is very little doubt that New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz music. New Orleans jazz is also sometimes referred to as Dixieland or early jazz. Exactly what styles predated and influenced the emergence of jazz is a hotly debated topic, but few jazz scholars dispute that New Orleans was the site of this coalescence. In the bars, brothels, and dance halls of New Orleans, ambitious and creative musicians crafted one of the defining features of American music during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Origins and Early Examples

After the Civil War, African-American former slaves came to New Orleans in large numbers looking for a better existence than the brutal agricultural work available in the rural South. While the North's victory in the Civil War brought an end to slavery for African-Americans, it also brought uncertainty and economic chaos.

New Orleans was a very different place than anywhere else in the South, with its mixture of French, Spanish, African-American, Creole, Cajun, and numerous other ethnicities. New Orleans also had a reputation for having a vibrant nightlife, particularly in the notorious red light district known as Storyville where citizens could drink and carouse and musicians would always be needed.

The red light district of New Orleans, Storyville, around 1909

The military bands of the Civil War had left behind brass instruments like trumpets and trombones, as well as woodwind instruments like the clarinet, which would be put to inventive use by early jazz musicians in the years to come. Migrants from the Mississippi Delta also brought with them the vibrant, distinctive folk tradition of that region: the blues. The music of the African-American Baptist church was also a deeply important factor in the development of jazz.

Ragtime music was the first clear precursor to jazz and can even be considered an early form of proto-jazz. Ragtime focused on versions of older vaudeville, folk, or popular tunes with liberal use of improvisation and syncopation. The syncopation that ragtime was famous for involved stressing the beats in a tune that would normally not be stressed. This technique gave ragtime an unusual, jaunty quality.

Riverboats to Chicago

By the early 20th century, ragtime had progressed into a more complicated form. Bands were becoming larger and techniques were becoming more distinctive. Early jazz and ragtime music existed prior to the advent of recording technologies and was rarely notated; by the second decade of the twentieth century this began to change.

Jelly Roll Morton was a New Orleans band leader who arranged, composed, and notated many important early jazz standards like 'Jelly Roll Blues,' and 'Wolverine Blues.' As jazz began to be written down and recorded, its influence spread and its style progressed.

Jelly Roll Morton, around 1917

Jazz musicians could sometimes find work playing on the riverboats the traveled up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. This allowed a wider audience to hear jazz and brought the style to places outside of New Orleans like Kansas City, Memphis, and eventually Chicago. One of these riverboat musicians was a young trumpet player named Louis Armstrong. After perfecting his chops on the riverboats, Armstrong would go on to become the most celebrated jazz performer of his generation and an important ambassador for the genre.

A New Orleans Jazz band performing on a riverboat around 1918, featuring a young Louis Armstrong

Although New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, Chicago was an important hub for jazz musicians, and African-Americans more generally, who hoped to flee the Jim Crow laws and rampant racism of the Deep South. As the riverboats from New Orleans brought more jazz musicians to Chicago, jazz continued to gain in popularity. Eventually, traditional New Orleans jazz would morph into styles like hot jazz, swing, big band, and bebop.

The Legacy of New Orleans Jazz

The cultural significance of New Orleans jazz is profound. Jazz has been referred to by numerous commentators as the quintessential American music, and New Orleans jazz is the most fundamental version of jazz.

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