Charles Chamberlain 2014-02-11 11:10:15
Attendees of the CoSA/SAA Joint Annual Meeting in New Orleans will be singing a happy tune this August. Known as the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans has long inspired innovations in music, from rock ‘n’ roll to the emergence of the modern brass band scene and contemporary rap. Music continues to be central to the fabric of the neighborhoods; just as live music in clubs thrives throughout the city, music is also an important part of life on the vivacious streets.Brass bands lead second line parades through the backstreets almost every weekend of the year, and outdoor performances of jazz, funk, and blues entertain crowds at neighborhood festivals. New Orleans’ music reflects a diverse blend of cultures. A port city since its inception in 1718, New Orleans received individuals— some who came willingly and others who were coerced and enslaved—from Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia. These individuals brought their musical traditions with them, and over time, the traditions blended into the distinct music forms that make up the city’s unique rhythms, melodies, and genres. Singing the Blues New Orleans is known foremost as the birthplace of jazz, a genre first captured in 1917 when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded “Livery Stable Blues.” Early jazz recordings reveal elements of ragtime song structure, blues melodies, African-inspired call-andresponse melodies, rhythms of the black Pentecostal church, European symphonic–inspired interplay between and among instruments, marching band– inspired songs and solos, and Afro-Caribbean/Latin rhythms. The genre’s popularity spread across the world with the invention of the gramophone, and early local artists like King Oliver, Sydney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton propelled the style further. Louis Armstrong emerged as jazz’s first true solo star in the mid-1920s with his charm, scatting vocals, and powerful trumpet solos. Fusion of Sounds Also noteworthy is the city’s impressive piano heritage, which reflects European classical and African influences.In the years before the Civil War, native son Louis Moreau Gottschalk emerged as one of the most dynamic and popular composers and pianists in the world. Raised in the French Quarter, Gottschalk absorbed the city’s European and African musical sounds. His groundbreaking composition, Bamboula: Dance des Negres (1844–1846), infused the African rhythm (habanera) of the bamboula dance from the city’s Congo Square with European melodic theme and variation. It qualifies as the first classical music composition to be based on African rhythms. Many are familiar with this rhythm today as the basis for Latin music, from the tango to modern reggaeton. A legion of local ragtime and blues pianists, known as “professors,” emerged by the turn of the century.When Jelly Roll Morton learned piano in the brothels and clubs of New Orleans’ red-light district in the early 1900s, the New Orleans–style blues infused a habanera bass in the left hand with a blues form—like a blues tango. By the post–World War II rhythm-andblues period, pianist Henry Byrd, known as Professor Longhair, defined his style by infusing this same habanera rhythm into his left-hand bass, influencing a new generation of baby-boomer pianists like Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr. Congo Square Inspirations This use of the African-based habanera rhythm demonstrates the influence of historic Congo Square. Established in the colonial period as a gathering place for enslaved Africans to perform music, dance, and trade on Sundays, Congo Square (located at St. Peter and Rampart streets) is central to the city’s musical identity because it enabled the survival of African music traditions. These rhythms and dances permeate the musical culture to this day. Congo Square ceased to exist as a gathering place after the 1840s, but the music and dancing traditions remained. Africans and their descendants in New Orleans demonstrated these rich traditions through processions, which became a staple in the city. In the 1800s, African Americans and Irish and Italian immigrants performed musical processions at funerals and eventually incorporated brass band instruments. Today, New Orleans is known internationally for its “jazz funeral” tradition, in which a brass band accompanies the deceased to the cemetery with a slow, solemn dirge and then, after the burial service, breaks into a joyous swinging spiritual, encouraging others to dance and celebrate. The city’s famed Mardi Gras celebration also incorporates African traditions. In one tradition, African Americans honor their historic ties to Native Americans by masking and playing a repertoire of specific songs on Mardi Gras day. In the 1970s, the electrification of the historic Mardi Gras Indian repertoire helped to expose and educate music lovers internationally about a practice that was largely unknown until then. Some forty Indian gangs remain a vibrant part of the city’s culture and parade every year on Mardi Gras day and St. Joseph’s night (March 19). Artists of New Orleans Since World War II, New Orleans has continued to produce internationally renowned artists revered for their distinct style. In the 1950s, Antoine “Fats” Domino sold the second-most records after Elvis. His hits “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m Walkin’” were recorded at the J&M studios across from Congo Square. In the 1970s, the Neville Brothers and Dr. John led a renaissance of New Orleans’ groovy funk style. The Marasalis family has become a first family of modern jazz, while also encouraging respect for New Orleans’ jazz heritage. Rapper Lil’ Wayne is an international hip-hop star with a cartoonish voice and rich vocabulary. The New Orleans bounce style of hip-hop maintains a distinct and immediately recognizable sound with an upbeat dance tempo and call-and-response chants. What to See and Do Those who visit New Orleans this August will encounter a music scene that continues to thrive and infuses a respect for tradition with modern styles. The French Quarter’s Preservation Hall remains popular among tourists who want to check out authentic New Orleans–style jazz. But for local music lovers, it’s the vibrant blocks of lower Frenchmen Street just outside the French Quarter that call. Numerous clubs on the street feature jazz, modern brass band music, funk, and other styles. If you’re interested in finding live club music, Offbeat Magazine (offbeat.com) and its mobile app have the most complete listings organized by venue, date, or genre. To catch an authentic brass band second line parade, the Backstreet Cultural Museum (backstreetmuseum.org) in the Treme neighborhood provides notices of the weekly parades during the second line season from Labor Day to Memorial Day. With New Orleans’ diverse musical offerings, you’re sure to find something that strikes a chord with you in the Crescent City. Historia is a New Orleans–based company that provides history consulting and museum services.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.