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New Orleans Jazz

While Jazz is considered an American art form and particular to New Orleans, the question is often asked “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.”

The first jazz greats are not always famous or taught in history class. But from Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong, the genre has continued to hold the interest of contemporary great musicians, such as Ellis Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, and Harry Connick Jr. When Papa Jack Lanine’s band circa 1885 played, it was noticed that he did so in “ragged time.” It has been said that these musicians who were playing in various tempos invented the next genre, called “swing.” This may be so, but Papa Jack was also a well-known clarinetist, teacher, and mentor to many of the early jazz musicians.

Another factor in the early New Orleans sound was the importance of improvisation. In classical music the goal is to play the same songs without varying from one note each time play a piece. Now as for jazz, the idea is to use the melody line as a guide and then to play extemporaneous passages based on that 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. From Chicago, to New York and from Kansas City to the West Coast, New Orleans jazz spread like wild fire. The long list of musicians who each left their stamp on the evolving jazz style continues to this date. New Orleans jazz is alive and well in the city of New Orleans and across America.

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.