Sunday, October 10, 2010

New Orleans Jazz

Courtesy of Wikipedia
There are many factors that contributed to the creation of jazz music in New Orleans: the roots of different cultures intertwining, several evolutions of musical forms leading up to what we know as jazz, socioeconomic reasons, the hard-pressed but thriving slave culture – the list is effectively endless. However, no factor is more important than the factor of the city itself. This key factor, it seems to me, is really two combined in one: not just “New Orleans,” but the “multicultural location” of New Orleans. Having been situated on a nexus of French, Spanish, and British territory as well as having been controlled by all three powers at least once over its history created a truly unique environment for people of different cultural backgrounds to interact. With the addition of African culture through the slave trade, New Orleans became unlike any other city in the world. The fact that these four major cultures (and doubtless, other cultures of the world had smaller footholds in New Orleans) were centered on the Mississippi River would have created, quite literally, a vortex of people and their cultures trading and traveling up and down the Mississippi, with New Orleans being the terminus through which everyone must pass. This is what I mean by multicultural location. The location of the city and its mix of cultures are codependent factors in the creation of jazz. Jazz could not have been synthesized without them. I picture the creation of jazz like a jigsaw puzzle: location and historical circumstance make up the borders, the edges that hold the puzzle together, while the different people and cultures make up the center pieces, the mass of the puzzle.
But what is in this mass of puzzle pieces which make up the image of jazz? As we have read about and discussed in class, this puzzle’s composition is richly diverse. The multicultural roots of the city allowed for a more tolerant atmosphere towards the African slaves and their everyday lives, including their self-expression through music, song, and dance. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he opens his chronicle of jazz by introducing us to Congo Square, a place designated by the city of New Orleans for the purpose of allowing slaves to gather and perform (3-5). This tolerant (compared to most other cities) view of the slaves allowed for a more dynamic cultural mixing to occur. As Professor Stewart put it, “You just know there is someone [a non-slave] standing back, tapping their foot [to the music at Congo Square].”
Storyville 1907, Wikimedia Commons
Gioia also notes the role of two very different institutions, the Storyville brothels and the churches of New Orleans, in the creation of jazz. Stereotypically, jazz has been tied up with the “contagion of vice” in New Orleans, but as Gioia shows, the “ties with the house of God” were just as important, if not more so (31). He goes on to elaborate on all the general occasions that jazz performances occurred at, such as community activities and fundraising events, clarifying that the two extremes of the bordello and the church were not key factors in themselves (32). As I have already stated, it is my opinion that there is no small, local-scale, specific, key factor in the creation of jazz, but rather it was the large-scale, unique situation of New Orleans that created an environment which allowed for jazz.
So, like a puzzle’s center, the people of New Orleans who make up the picture of jazz are not simply a jumbled mess – the people, their art, and their lives have to fit together just right to make the image come together.


  1. Your analogy of the jigsaw puzzle was very fitting for the idea of New Orleans. Each piece of the city makes up the whole, including its location, historical background, and social and economic infrastructures. Jazz could not have developed in such a way that it did without each aspect influencing its growth. One other piece of the puzzle that Gioia talks about on page 32 is how jazz could have developed even without the Storyville districts but it would have been “unthinkable” without the extraordinary local passion for brass bands that lay at the core of the city. I think it is very important to remember this as part of the center of the puzzle that is New Orleans.

  2. I definitely agree that it is difficult to pinpoint any particular instance or factor that contributed most to the development of jazz in New Orleans, and I like the way you addressed this problem from several different angles, since it would seems possible that jazz could have come about from a particular location in the city, such as Storyville. The individual interactions between members of the classes in New Orleans during this time definitely contributed to the middle of the jazz jigsaw.

    I also appreciated the inclusion of the New Orleans puzzle for visual effect.

  3. I think your right to put strong emphasis on the location of the city and how its ties to the Mississippi River allowed for the economic boom that really sparked the huge influx of all these different peoples and their cultures. It really was the perfect time and place for everything to come together and the tolerance in New Orleans was far more evident than probably every other city in the South. And yes, your metaphor of the jigsaw puzzle is fitting.

  4. I enjoy your analogy of New Orleans as a puzzle. I believe that it is fitting seeing as New Orleans not only was a mixture of many different culture, but also a mixture of many different people. Gioia suggested though, that the one thing that set New Orleans apart was its deep seeded passion for brass instruments. The emergence of jazz is more like an atom. Everything you have mentioned is included as parts of the atom, but New Orleans passion for brass is what is keeping it held together.