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New Orleans: a Birthplace of Jazz Music

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New Orleans has long been honored with the title of the birthplace of jazz music. Of course that makes sense because when someone mentions the city, thoughts of flavor, music, and soul generally come to mind. So why New Orleans?

It all started with the slaves’ influence and sound being brought to life in Congo Square in the early 1800’s (Jelly Roll). Every Sunday slaves and free African American’s alike would gather to celebrate a day off from the “man” and they would perform a mix of songs from Africa and new music. They would dance to the familiar and new rhythms to their hearts content using call and response methods and a less rigid march. The jazz characteristics of improvisation was also used here, as there was no rehearsal, just a bunch of people singing, dancing, and making rhythms. The Creole people would gather with them, as they were eventually considered the same social class despite being generally well educated. The Creole people were educated because they were fathered by the white man, but eventually segregation took a toll on them and they were not allowed to produce music, so they could only use what they were taught. The unfortunate situation brought in a new sound though. They all put their heads together to create a new mix with a hotter flavor. This team of self-taught and classically trained musicians combining their sounds continued to shape what we now call jazz music (Appell). Though this was a Sunday ritual, the party in New Orleans never stopped and has not to this day. Even today, every March the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation holds a festival in Congo Square open to the public for 2 days for everyone to experience sounds of the Caribbean and Africa just like the old days. There are similar events held every couple of months to showcase the local jazz sounds of today (2016 Congo Square). New and old sounds are appreciated on those days and new artists can show off their talents, perhaps creating more legends that the history books will be writing about in the future.

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This festival is just one of many that the party city holds annually to remember their roots. Mardi Gras is perhaps the most famous of them all, most people have at least heard of the celebration even if they aren’t exactly sure what it is all about, and no it’s not just about catching beads and drinking. The city has a rich French heritage among other, hence the Creole language being a mixture involving French. Mardi Gras literally translates to Fat Tuesday, which is appropriate because it is the celebration before Lent. Lent is observed in Christian denominations as a time of repentance and fasting. So before giving up something they love for 40 days, the people of New Orleans go crazy in the streets for a couple of weeks (What is Lent). Most importantly during the multiple parades and festivities the music filling the air is of the jazz genre. The artists are generally Louisiana natives and the huge celebration goes on for two unforgettable weeks. Other states like Florida have their own versions of Mardi Gras but the true festival lies in the depths of New Orleans.

The traditional music played during Mardi Gras uses a lot of brass sounds and march music. The sounds of Africa pulse through the music and meet the “Latin tinge” brought in by the Mexican Cavalry Band in 1885 (Appell). According to the class text the first official jazz legend hailing from New Orleans was Buddy Bolden also known as “King Bolden”, who had a strong affinity for the trumpet. Unfortunately, there is no recording to speak of of Bolden’s signature sound, just recollection from fans old enough to remember his strong blues that could be heard from miles away. Even though there is no actual record of his talent he continues to be a known jazz icon. He had a slew of devout fans that are known to recall the sound of his trumpet quoted “calling his children home.” The fact that we keep track of these kinds of people based on pure personal opinion and memory means that we cannot surely tell fact from fiction, but even the idea of how famous and talented he was is a good reminder of what this era was all about. The older people remembering him get a twinkle in their eye and smile as they think back to a time where music was everything despite the social injustices that were occurring at the time.

Another respected name of the jazz industry is Jelly Roll Morton, a more common name than Bolden. It is hard to find an article about New Orleans jazz that does not mention him. He was the first actual jazz composer and transitioned the ragtime piano style into a jazz style. He was widely known as the creator of jazz and that title is not easily disproved considering his compositions became early jazz standards, everyone had a touch of Jelly Roll Morton in their music from then on. Morton was quite the character, jumping around as a pimp, gambler, and performer. He is described as a rough fellow running around in the red light district, despite his success. He put together the jazz band the Red Hot Peppers, not to be confused with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and created 16 original compositions for them to record. Even today those records are considered “some of the finest New Orleans-style jazz on record.” (Jelly Roll Morton). Which is a pretty high claim considering all of the music that has come out after it. Strangely enough, he blamed his poor health, just before death, on a voodoo curse. An accusation such as this says a lot about the man and his thought process. It was just different. Perhaps this different way of thinking is what made him such an innovator. No one ever made it into the history books by being boring and thinking inside of the box.

An even more influential name of New Orleans jazz is Louis Armstrong. Armstrong had a rough childhood, as his father abandoned his family and his mother turned to the streets for money. He left school early and began working for a Jewish family, the Karnofskys, who first encouraged him to sing. Things got rough when he was arrested for firing a gun into the air but he did not let this stop his music career, it had only just begun. In the boys home he was sent to he learned to play the cornet and quickly took the world by storm. He became a role model for the children, teaching them about music and such. He influenced great artists after him such as Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald (Louis Armstrong).

The city does not just wait for their famous jazz festivals to revel in their music scene. The night life in New Orleans consists of world class trumpeters, some of them are young and some are in their hundreds. The real life legend, Lionel Ferbos, has recently passed away last year at the age of 103. He played his trumpet at night clubs until the day he died, blowing every last note with great depth, though he knew so few (11 New Orleans Trumpeters). His most regular venue was the Palm Court Jazz Café, but he enjoyed playing wherever he could. To get the most authentic experience as a tourist, visiting a café or club playing live music of any kind will do the job.

Some of the most successful and acclaimed artists of the jazz era were born and raised in New Orleans. The reputation is still going strong and the legends are still being made to this day. The sounds of New Orleans may always sound like trumpets and other brass and wind instruments. The sound was essentially born in Congo Square, and the city has upheld their reputation as the birthplace of jazz thus far. Hopefully the music never dies. Not that they have much competition for the title anyway. So clearly New Orleans is the true birthplace and will continue to parade and party on with their brass band and hot sounds of jazz music forever.

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