Music in the Big Easy
Since the pleasure-loving French founded a city on the delta in 1718, music and dance have been the heart and soul of New Orleans. In the 18th century, the French and Creoles lived for musicales, balls accompanied by string orchestras, and picnics set to Old World brass bands. Considered the new Paris, La Nouvelle Orleans was the first city in America to stage opera. In the 19th century, proceeds from public balls helped finance the first full-time opera company. Whatever has changed over the last three centuries, the musical heritage remains
The classic are still going strong in an ensemble of companies and programs like the Delta Festival Ballet, N.O. Opera, and Musical Arts Society. In 1991, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra was the only full-time, player-managed symphony orchestra in the U.S. World-class guest performers and conductors support the LPO donating funds, time and services.
Coined in Chicago sometime before 1913, the word ‘jazz’ began as ‘jaz,’ meaning ‘energetic’or ‘vigorous’.
Birthplace of Jazz
West Indian slaves of African descent were the touchpoint of New Orleans music. On Sunday afternoons, slaves socialized in Congo Square (now part of Louis Armstrong Park on Rampart St.), where they performed tribal dances and chants with stirring rhythms to African percussions.
Thousands of citizens, black Creole, and white gathered to watch the spectacles. New Orleans author, Honey Naylor, suggests that Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden, was among the onlookers at the Square and that he mixed those tribal and Creole elements with African American ragtime and spirituals, folk songs, the blues, and even the cries oft he street vendors who once filled the Vieux Carre.
Interpreting them with a European brass sound.( The Irish, Germans, and Italians contributed the brass.) Some time in the Gay ’90s, Buddy put his cornet to his lips and blew hot notes and cool tunes that became the music we call jazz.
He’d invented an American original and a worldwide phenomenon. As with the original African music, the key to jazz was and is improvisation.
In the early days, musicians often started with a blues piece as a reference point and played their way into a new composition. Nothing much has changed there for the greats, except it doesn’t have to start with blues. Jazz picked up momentum in Storyville, where early improvisational masters like King Oliver, his protege, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly roll Morton (the first to set jazz compositions on paper) played.
Lately, a new jazz generation has emerged under the tutelage of patriarch Ellis Marsalis. His sons Marsalis and Branford and his one-time student Harry Connick, Jr., are some of the young lions who have taken jazz in new directions and rediscovered old standards. Their students and proteges are only the fourth generations of what has become an international classic.
Jazz festivals are now held around the world- Montreux, Switzerland to Monterey California. But the home of them all is new Orleans.
The jazz funeral grew out of two traditions.
In west Africa (ancestral home of West Indies and New Orleans. Slaves) tribesmen buried their own with a processional and music. In 19thth century New Orleans, when members of private clubs called ‘benevolent societies’ died, they were given stirring sendoffs at funeral processions lead by marching bands.
On the way to the cemetery, they played slow hymns and dirges to comfort the friends and relatives. Afterwards, the brass bands struck up rousing tunes celebrating the soul’s flight to the heavenly vistas. An unofficial after guard of parade followers, called ‘second-liners’, waved handkerchiefs and umbrellas as they sang and danced with the music.
These days, jazz funerals are usually arranged only for music greats, although the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Faubourg Treme stages an All-Saints Day jazz funeral.
Dixie, Blues, Cajun & Zydeco
Land of Dixie
After the Louisiana purchase in 1803, ten-dollar bills were printed bilingually in French and English. “Dix,’ French for ‘ten,’ was engraved in large letters on the back, and the bills were known as “dixies. “It was either from the land of these dixies or from a corruption of the “Mason-Dixon line” to Dixieland jazz got it’s name. Dixieland style is hard to define. Commonly harder-driving than other forms of jazz, instruments often include a banjo and a tuba, and vocalists are rare. The ensemble musicians take turns improvising in solos. It’s upbeat, with a 4/4 meter, but a 2-beat style, something like ragtime.
Bit of the Blues
The blues may have originated elsewhere, but a blues sensibility runs deeper here than the river currents.
Starting in 1949, Fats Domino took R&B to gold on the hit charts with “The Fat Man” and “Blueberry Hill.” Bluesman Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair ( Fess to his friends), began as a tap dancer, played piano in honky-tonks, and created a style that mixed Latin rumba, mambo, and calypso stylings with an Afro-Caribbean beat interpreted with a percussive keyboard style.
His “Go to the Mardi Gras” became a local anthem.
In the ’60s Creole pianist Allen Toussaint penned hits for Queen of the Blues, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, and Ernie K-Doe. With the invasion of English rock bands like the Beatles and the Stones, the blues were swept aside until the ‘70s, when New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival reintroduced the style to new generations of music lovers.
Cajun & Zydeco Music
Cajuns, who were expelled from Acadia in Nova Scotia in 1755, brought music of French origins with them to Louisiana.
Then it simmered in a gumbo of Native American, Creole, West Indian, British, Spanish, and other European influences. Now, Cajun tunes are primarily thought of as dance music: gallops, reels, polkas, cotillions.
After 1925, the accordion, a German addition, accompanied the fiddles and pumped up the volume to carry across crowded dance floors. Cajun singers pitched their voices high and cried out, both from emotion and to be heard above the din.
The steel guitar and other instruments came a few years later. Mixing the same European and New World ingredients, Creoles threw in African / West Indian rhythms and soulful blues and produced a variation of the Cajun music.
Then, in the ’40s, influenced by Creole compositions, piano accordionist Clifton Chenier formed a band with his brother, Cleveland, who played percussion on the washboard. Cleveland graduated to corrugated tin played with spoons and bottle openers and finally to the trademark Zydeco instrument, the frottoir.
The name “Zydeco” came from a French phrase, “Les haricots sont pas sales” ( The snapbeans aren’t salted).
In Cajun dialect it emerged as Chenier’s signature song: “Zydeco Sont Pas Sale.”