Part 1 | New Orleans: From Congo Square to the Early Brass-Band Tradition

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For Part 1 we explore how the African roots of jazz are reflected in the rhythms, spirit and tonal colours of America's definitive musical artform.

Jazz is the sound that for many defines American music. It has evolved and spread to form the foundation of most popular musical styles as well as retaining its own myriad artistic directions and offshoots.

The African roots of jazz are reflected in the rhythms, spirit and tonal colours that have their origins in African culture, infused by a counter-cultural spirit that signifies the protest from those forcibly removed from their home and brought into the deeply traumatic existence of those sold into the transatlantic slave trade.

Part 1 | New Orleans: From Congo Square to the Early Brass-Band Tradition
Stowage of the British slave ship Brookes under the regulated slave trade act of 1788.

Slaves from Africa and the West Indies were imported to work as labourers on plantations, and, entangled in suffering, they brought black culture with them to foreign lands. These expressions of oppression and injustice, through what became known as spirituals and work songs, began the development of African American music in America.

Work songs established rhythm and singing through synchronization. Defined by a succession of call-and-response sequences, this ceremony provided a rhythm that helped slaves keep their pace while working in the fields. Similar to spirituals, work songs became vessels for deep feelings of distress and torment, where slaves improvised lyrics to voice their true feelings, in a discreet yet powerful manner.

Congo Square

In Louisiana’s French and Spanish colonial era of the 18th century, enslaved Africans were commonly allowed Sundays off from their work. Although ‘Code Noir’ (the defined conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire) was implemented in 1724, giving enslaved Africans the day off on Sundays, there were no laws in place that gave them the right to congregate. Despite constant threat to these congregations, they often gathered in remote and public places such as along levees and in public squares.

At a clearing called “La Place Congo”, various ethnic/cultural groups of Colonial Louisiana traded and socialised, but it was not until 1817 that the mayor of New Orleans issued a city ordinance that restricted enslaved Africans to congregate at only the one location: Congo Square. As African music had been suppressed in the Protestant colonies and states, the weekly gatherings at Congo Square soon became a notable site for visitors from elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, most likely due to the immigration of refugees (some bringing enslaved Africans with them) from the Haitian Revolution, New Orleans received thousands of additional Africans and Creoles in the early years of the 19th century. These groups reinforced African traditions in the city, in music and scores of other areas.

Part 1 | New Orleans: From Congo Square to the Early Brass-Band Tradition
Dancing in Congo Square (1886). E.W. Kemble illustration depicting slave dances in New Orleans 40 some years earlier.

It is here that observers would have heard the beat of the bamboulas and wail of the banzas and seen the array of African dances that had survived. There were a variety of dances that could be seen at the gathering of Congo Square, including the Bamboula, Calinda, Congo, Carabine and Juba. In fact, the rhythms played at Congo Square can still be heard today in New Orleans’ jazz funerals, Second Line marches and Mardi Gras Indians parades.

The musicians used a range of instruments from a variety of cultures, including drums, gourds, banjo-like instruments, and quill-pipes made from reeds strung together like pan-flutes; as well as European instruments such as the violin, tambourine, and triangle. Gradually, the music in the square gained more European influence as enslaved English-speaking Africans became exposed to European music. This mix of African and European styles helped create African American culture.

The history of jazz can also be tracked alongside the genesis of recording equipment, giving us a library of incredibly rich recordings to appreciate tracing right back to the early 1900s. These documents allow us to hear the authentic sound of those early American musicians, unlike the greats of early Classical music, whose work is recorded purely as notation. This sits well with the acknowledgment that jazz is best passed down aurally, and a musical expression that has always meant more than the  symbols on a page.

The New Orleans Brass-Band Tradition

Following the abolition of slavery and the end of the American Civil War, New Orleans was a unique melting-pot of peoples and cultures. The formal structure of the British-style band associated with military units and formal parades, parties, and gatherings, began to shift when black musicians were hired to play in the brass bands of New Orleans. The popularity of the sousaphone as the bass foundation of brass bands gave musicians experimenting with the format the ability to escape ballrooms and formal parlours, taking their music to the streets. This is where the traditional African rhythms played for decades in Congo Square and other neighbourhoods of the city began to merge with the marches of more formal parades.

Part 1 | New Orleans: From Congo Square to the Early Brass-Band Tradition
A traditional New Orleans brass-band take the the street in 1955 (The John Bernard Photographic Archive at THNOC, 1999.41.3.5)

A traditional New Orleans brass band is made up of cornet, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, sousaphone, snare drum and bass drum. The music features interwoven melodies played by the cornet, clarinet and trombone whilst the sousaphone and percussion play a jaunty 2-beat feel. 

Brass bands soon became integral to the culture of New Orleans and could be seen playing in cabarets, dance halls and salons throughout the city. One tradition that has become synonymous with the city is the ‘Second Line’. Derived from an African tradition of ‘honouring the dead’, musicians would follow a funeral procession of (the first line) and would play range mournful, spiritual and celebratory music, turning the occasion into an event that the whole community could participate in.

Jazz Dancing (The Development of Swing)

New Orleans had a thriving social scene. Musicians were expected to play quadrilles waltzes, marches and mazurkas at social gatherings, parties, weddings, funerals as well as Mardi Gras and Easter celebrations.   

Early jazz had one huge factor that contributed to this popularity. It had a very unique rhythmic propulsion that created an infectious push and pull of strong against weak beats. This would later be known as ‘Swing’ and it was crucial to the development of this new music. Early jazz also incorporated syncopations of ragtime and a blues sensibility that made it appealing to a dance audience looking to shake off old 19th century social dances and embrace new, exciting musical styles.  

An intro to Swing Dance. Taken from the documentary: JAZZ 2000.

Swing would define pre-war and wartime American music and its popularisation of jazz-standards marked it as its first genuine pop-music. It was inevitable, therefore, that many musicians and jazz fans would find this popularity distasteful. The antipathy towards swing wasn’t just rooted in a disdain for the mainstream, but as a continuation of the dilution of the polyphonic improvisation of New Orleans jazz, in favour of orchestrated arrangements and, increasingly, Tin Pan Alley pop song structures. 

In its most authentic state, Swing largely took Fletcher Henderson’s strain of big band jazz as its starting point, so its genesis at least was certainly more African-American in demographic. Louis Armstrong had played in Henderson’s band, and Duke Ellington had started out in a similar big band ensemble, The Washingtonians. Along with Cab Calloway and Luis Russell, these men formed the cornerstones of early swing (which we’ll return to later!).

Early Jazz Icons

Jelly Roll Morton

From its very beginnings, Jazz has always had ambitious and unique personalities leading the way. None more so than one of its earliest composers, pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Although he famously made dubious claims to have been the creator of jazz, he certainly was a pioneer and innovator at the very start of the jazz movement.

His compositions were influenced by Ragtime, Afro Caribbean music and European dance music styles. Morton’s contribution was to arrange the New Orleans marching bands style for piano. He also introduced the use of ‘breaks’ in his compositions. A ‘break’ is a musical figure where the band would stop momentarily to give one musician, usually clarinet or trumpet a few beats to play a melodic line that would propel the band into the next section of the piece. Morton was able to adapt this practice and incorporate it into his piano pieces. One of his most well-known compositions ‘King Porter Stomp’.  

Joe ‘King’ Oliver

New Orleans has always had a rich tradition of Cornet bandleaders from Buddy Boldon to Freddie Keppard and Buck Johnson. Most celebrated among them was Joe ‘King’ Oliver who’s clipped melodic style proved to be popular. He led and performed with some of the greatest bands of the late 1910s. He was an innovator in sound production and a pioneer in the use of a range of mutes to create new textures and colours.

Jazz Travel

Sidney Bechet | the Southern Syncopated Orchestra in Europe

Another outstanding talent to come out of New Orleans was clarinettist Sidney Bechet. He was a member of Will Marion Cook’s South Syncopated Orchestra and travelled to Europe following the end of the First World War playing a programme that included classical music, ragtime, spirituals and early jazz. His virtuosic contribution was singled out by Swiss music critic Ernest Anserwet, who recognised his genius at the very beginning of his career. He would later travel to London where he picked up the instrument that he become famous for playing – the soprano saxophone.

Joe ‘King’ Oliver | The ‘Great Migration’ to Chicago

From the 1920’s jazz was on the move. 6 million African Americans fled the segregation and harsh conditions of the south to seek opportunities in the North in a period known as ‘The Great Migration’. With New Orleans becoming a city in decline, many musicians made the journey and settled in the southside of Chicago. Among them was Joe ‘King’ Oliver whose performances at ‘Lincoln Gardens’ established his Creole Jazz Band as an audience favourite. He would later call for his young protege’ Louis Armstrong to join him in Chicago. Musicians from all over would flock to see the new music taking shape and Chicago would become the next epicentre for the evolution of jazz.


Next weeks’ instalment includes the incredible influence both Lil’ Hardin and her husband Louis Armstrong had on jazz culture as it spread from its home of New Orleans to the northern cities of Chicago and New York.

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