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bands musicians brass creoles

New Orleans was always one of the most international of all American cities. Founded in 1718 it was ruled by France until 1774, by Spain from 1774 to 1800, and by France again from 1800 to 1803 before finally became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In addition to a large black population, by the 1800s the city had many citizens of French or Spanish heritage, plus there were many immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Cuba, and Haiti, all contributing to the city’s culture. The many different nationalities each had their own music that over time blended together. It has often been said that jazz is a combination of West African rhythms with European harmonies and instruments. Due to the mixture of many cultures, New Orleans was one of the few places in the world where jazz could have been born.

In New Orleans as early as 1817, slaves were allowed to congregate in Congo Square on Sundays to sing, play percussion and string instruments, and dance wildly in circles later named a “ring shout.” This rare bit of freedom, which continued as a tradition for years after the Civil War, uplifted the spirit of the slaves and was one of the few opportunities for them to be creative and to experience music with others. It also showed that their African culture and the legacy of their rhythms both managed to survive, despite the attempts by slave owners to destroy them. While New Orleans would be segregated deep into the twentieth century, it had a slightly Page 8  more liberal attitude toward race relations in the 1800s than most of the South, with whites listening to the “barbaric” music of the blacks, and vice versa.

Military bands were a popular form of entertainment throughout the 1800s, and due to the very musical nature of New Orleans day-to-day life, brass bands became plentiful throughout the Crescent City. By the 1880s white, black, and Creole brass bands were a constant in New Orleans, playing for parades, parties, weddings, funerals, and a variety of social functions.

Creoles were mixed-race citizens who were part French and part black, having their own French-oriented culture separate from darker-skinned blacks, and even their own language. For a time they had greater opportunities in New Orleans than blacks, and that included classical music training. With the passage of the Louisiana Legislative Code in 1894, Creoles were classified as blacks, and their former privileges were taken away. Suddenly the only way Creoles could make a living in music was to play with the blacks, who did not have the technical musical training but had something much different and special: the ability to improvise. Creoles could teach black musicians conventional technique and musicianship, and African Americans showed Creoles how to put their own personalities into the music and be creative.

Most black musicians of the 1890s in New Orleans did not read music, having learned to play by ear. Although it is not known precisely when jazz was first played, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine it occurring when brass band musicians in the 1890s began to improvise on marches, adding blue notes and speechlike phrases. The early jazz musicians were very aware of ragtime, often using similar musical structures with multiple themes and syncopated rhythms, but jazz headed in a different direction.

The music in New Orleans was primarily ensemble oriented, with the improvising sticking close to the melody and the chord changes being fairly basic. Musicians were rated high if they had a pretty tone, knew how to infuse the music with blue notes, were expressive, never lost sight of the melody, and could get audiences dancing.

The typical jazz band, the ones playing at parties and social functions rather than parades, developed a set instrumentation with each instrument having its function. The cornet played the melody and the lead, the trombone offered percussive harmonies, and the clarinet created a second lead and a countermelody. Usually there was also a banjo or guitar, a tuba or bass, and drums operating as a colorful percussion, with some bands also including a violin or a saxophone. Only on rare occasions did a jazz group include a piano at this early stage. Brass bands that performed at parades and funerals had many more horns and separate musicians playing snare bass and bass drums.

The earliest known jazz musician was cornetist Buddy Bolden, who formed his first band in 1895. He became famous locally for his powerful sound and his ability to play the blues, but his reign as the first king of jazz was tragically brief, and he never recorded. Bolden was plagued by bouts of insanity in 1906 and the following year was committed to Jackson Mental Institute, where he spent his last twenty-four years, completely forgotten.


Many of the early jazz history books center on Storyville, the New Orleans legal red-light district from 1897 to 1917, where prostitution and large, fancy bordellos were plentiful. Storyville did offer steady employment for a variety of pianists, including the jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, who were not part of the marching brass bands. These pianists sought to be one-man bands, often adapting the music of jazz groups to their instrument and developing a separate but complementary tradition. It is inaccurate, however, to state that jazz was born in Storyville or that the closing of the district in 1917 directly led to an exodus of musicians from the city. After all, large jazz bands, if they had been hired for Storyville, would have shattered the mood of bordellos.

New Orleans was unique in American history in that music was a major part of everyday life. Not only were there brass bands for all occasions (parades, parties, celebrations, and funerals), but most corners had street musicians and singers, willing to entertain for pennies. No day went by without live music being heard, and it spawned an atmosphere where many talented players learned their craft. Among the key stars of the period were cornetists Freddie Keppard and King Oliver, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetists Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds, bassist Bill Johnson, and drummer Baby Dodds, all of whom would get to record in the 1920s. There were also dozens of now-forgotten but once-popular early jazz players whose accomplishments are lost to history.

By 1910 the New Orleans brass bands, the most famous of which were the Excelsior, Eureka, Onward, and Imperial, had a repertoire dominated by jazz originals, blues, and traditional melodies. The parade rhythms generated by these bands would have a major impact on virtually all of the music to come out of the city in future generations, though they would not be captured on record very well until the 1940s.

Most New Orleans musicians of the era were part-time players who had day jobs. There was plenty of work in music, although it did not pay much. Music was everywhere in the Crescent City.



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about 4 years ago

check your legislative law 111. It did not define race. This is a common error - persistent but an error.
Read Dr. jerah Johnson's article Jim Crow Laws - Popular Music Journal Oxford Press

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over 5 years ago

this is all fake!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!