One of the most unique and culturally rich cities in America, New Orleans has long been one of the great centers of artistic production in the United States. In the cultural history of New Orleans, however, music has played a particularly large and defining role. Here are just a few landmark periods in the extensive music history of New Orleans, and why the city’s influence can still be felt in musical forms the world over.
- The Birth of Jazz
Despite its current popularity as a musical style throughout the world, the origins of jazz music are inseparable from the history and culture of New Orleans. To many people, New Orleans is still simply known as “The Birthplace of Jazz,” and a huge tourist industry has sprung up around the city’s jazz clubs and concert halls to accommodate music fans from around the globe.
To a large extent, jazz music developed within the city as a result of its unique confluence of cultures and intermingling of immigrant and slave populations. When slaves would gather in the area of New Orleans now known as Congo Square in the 18th Century, they would often form impromptu musical groups to accompany celebrations and dances. These groups adapted European military instruments such as trumpets, tubas, and drums to West and Central African musical forms, and although they would not have realized it at the time, these musicians were creating a musical template for generations of future jazz players.
Combining heavily syncopated instrumental rhythms, improvisational techniques, and unique scales from their African homeland with European musical styles and instrumentation, these musicians helped to define jazz music as an art form that transcended borders: In places where people gathered together on Sundays, West African musics were being combined with French, Spanish, Caribbean, and other cultural influences to create a truly global sound.
- The 20th Century and Musical Progress
It was in the 20th Century that New Orleans-style jazz really began flourish in the rest of the United States, however. By the early part of the century, jazz music had spread from Congo Square to the city’s many taverns and brothels. These were places where players like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton would hone their craft and refine some of jazz’s most distinctive elements.
The advent of recorded music was also changing the way that people listened to jazz. The first jazz record was released in 1917, and greater access to gramophones and radios in the 1920s and 1930s introduced the rest of the world to jazz music and led to a craze known as the “Jazz Age.” Players like Louis Armstrong soon became national stars in their own right.
- Jazz Makes Its Mark
Of course, none of this could have happened without the experiments in musical form undertaken by musicians such as “Kid” Ory, Louis Armstrong, Joe Oliver, and other leading lights of New Orleans’ early jazz scene. The improvisational nature of jazz music would go on to influence freewheeling musical forms such as hip-hop, and musicians like Lil Wayne would go on to bear the musical torch for New Orleans in the 21st Century.
In our own time, jazz is regarded as a uniquely American art form, but it is New Orleans that deserves the lion’s share of the credit for determining the primary trajectory of American music over the last hundred years. Without the techniques pioneered by the greats of New Orleans-style jazz, there would be no rock and roll, no hip-hop, and none of the rhythm-based classical music of contemporary composers like Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Without the influence of New Orleans and its music, the world would truly be a lesser place.