Wednesday, June 17, 2009

New Orleans and the birth of jazz

Original Dixieland Jass Band - Livery Stable Blues (buy) (1917)

Original Dixieland Jass Band - Dixie Jass Band One Step (buy) (1917)

Spike's Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra (Kid Ory) - Ory's Creole Trombone (buy) (1922)

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band - Just Gone Blues (buy) (1923)

At the turn of the century, a number of crucial Afro-American musical styles were born that would change forever the face of XXth century music. We've discussed in a previous post the ragtime boom, and we've heard various forms of spirituals.

Today, we will stop in the Crescent City, the place where jazz was born.
If jazz is not the main topic in this blog (which has more to do with various forms of American popular songs, especially country music and the blues), it deserves a series of posts because its links with the blues are very strong, as well as its folk roots. Jazz is absent from the purest forms of blues (i.e. "Delta" blues), but both styles took a lot from each other. Think of the first "classic " blues female singers like Bessie Simth or Ma Rainey, who were backed by jazz combos, or the big band boom of the 40's which had more of its share in the rise of rhythm and blues.

New Orleans is the "craddle of jazz", if not the only city where jazz took form.
The French catholic community were more liberal than the Puritans in the rest of the South, and during French and Spanish administration drums and percussions were allowed among slaves (cf. the Congo Square tradition).
New Orleans is a port, open to Caribbean influence (there was for instance, a significant Creole immigration wave from Haiti), and a city of pleasures and entertainment, with Storyville as the epicenter.

To learn more about the historical context, especially the French speaking Creole subculture, check out these excellent articles here at Red Hot Jazz, and here at Dixieland Jazz. To sum it up, it was the clashing of the refined and classical musical training of the Creoles with the traditions of the American Blacks, (for the majority, newly freed slaves and their descendants) that caused jazz to emerge. The Creoles brought their mastering of music and ensembles while the Afro-Americans brought improvisation, the key factor in jazz, as well as the blues, spirituals and hollers.

In NO, as in any city before the phonograph era, there were a lot of orchestras, playing on various occasions : picnics, garden parties, funerals, dance halls. Bands played everywhere, not only in Storyville. In the streets, the gardens, sometimes on top of wagons that cruised the streets, advertising a dance. They soon borrowed the military brass band instruments that were left after the Civil and Spanish American wars.
Marches, square dances, polkas blended with rags, spirituals, blues, to form a new style of music.
The classical Dixie jazz orchestra was formed then, with one or two cornets, trombone, clarinet, double bass (or tuba), 4-string banjo (or guitar) and sometimes piano (although it was absent from the first jazz orchestras).

There are sadly no recorded documents of this great turn in instrumental Black music in the first years of the century. In 1916, bandleader Freddie Keppard refused to record (by fear of being imitated) and legendary cornet player Buddy Bolden never put foot in a studio. The first recording was in february 1917 by a white orchestra, The Original Dixieland Jass Band (photo below), led by Nick La Rocca.

The spirit of jazz is present in those recordings (the fun, the polyphony, the 4/4 beat), although the band don't improvise and the rhtythm is still a bit "stiff", brass-band like.

Most historians agree that Black musicians sounded much better at that time, but it took 5 more years for them to record. The first was bandleader and trombone player Kid Ory (below with his orchestra) in Los Angeles in 1922, then King Oliver (with Louis Armstrong on second cornet) in 1923 for Gennett in Richmond, Indiana.
Both musicians had emigrated as soon as 1919, but Ory chose California for health reasons, while Oliver went to Chicago.
Those bands, especially Oliver's, have a much better sense of swing. Oliver's style is still polyphonic, without solos.

We'll come back to early jazz later, with recordings that predate 1917, and a lot of other suprises for you. Thanks for your patience (for those who've read all) and laissez les bons temps rouler !


gadaya said...

Good presentation and really well written. I've just finish reading a book called "Louis Armstrong's New Orleans" by thomas Brothers, a fascinating glimpse on the origins of Jazz in this city...

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I already know a lot of things about this genre, specially if we're talking about Dixie Jass Band... they were fantastic. It's aesthetics being adapted to its varied environments and giving rise to many distinctive styles.

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