The musical style originated in New Orleans and known as America’s most significant original artistic contribution is jazz. Today, traditional New Orleans Jazz — often in a slick commercialized form that only vaguely resembles its original African American sound and spirit — is heard in French Quarter nightclubs, festivals, and private functions for locals and tourists. 

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While  jazz’s role as early 20th-century dance music is often noted, less known is its underlying role as a symbol of American democracy and resistance to racism. Jazz was a musical and social revolution that provided an exciting new musical style that accompanied every function imaginable from sports events and dances to picnics, boat rides, parades, and funerals.

It is not a coincidence that jazz began in New Orleans during the 1890s — the same decade as the monumental Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case, which upheld the separate but equal doctrine. Both the legal action and jazz were responses to a new wave of Southern racism, Jim Crow laws, and anti-Black violence that devastated the local African American community.

Legendary Uptown cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden and others were the first to initiate the revolutionary jazz style by improvising popular music, especially ragtime songs, marches, hymns, and blues. The pioneering jazz cornetists, clarinetists, and trombonists used emotional bent tones, vibrato, growls, shouts, and call and response that was practiced in local Black churches. Rhythm sections consisting of banjo, bass, sometimes piano, and drums combined a steady driving beat with African-derived rhythms that gave the music an exciting seductive pulse and foundation.

The characteristics and performance of the mainly instrumental jazz were, in part, a reaction to the racial hostilities of the times and an expression of the hopes, needs, and desires of the city’s diverse and vibrant African-American community.  A key element of early New Orleans jazz is collective improvisation, with each instrument playing freely within a specific role. Jazz performance espoused freedom of individual and group expression, equal participation, and the incorporation of diverse ideas.

Portrait of jazz great Ella Fitzgerald, New York, N.Y., ca. Nov. 1946 Credit: Library of Congress

Jazz versions of songs, including European-style marches — with their many musical rules, multiple sections, and changes of volume and mood — were converted to the local Black musical language. A standard written march played in the improvised New Orleans style could have bent tones of the blues and off-beat Black folk rhythms. With a nod to African American societal goals, the idea was not to destroy the musical laws, melody, or harmonic structure of songs, but to reinterpret or relax the rules to allow for free expression and more varied personal and collective interpretations. 

As we still struggle with racism and the idea that Black lives matter today, early New Orleans jazz demonstrated a way to resist and overcome the societally imposed invisibility of Black people and their humanity. A main objective was for every musician to develop and use his or her own highly personal individual sound and expression. Having an instrumental tone and phrasing that were as unique as one’s handwriting or facial features gave visibility to the invisible, a voice to those silenced, respect to the disrespected, and recognition of those who were ignored.

The personalization of musical sound and improvised jazz expression was a way of communicating, demonstrating, and publicly expressing feelings and emotions that could be dangerous to do openly with words. New Orleans jazz was often competitive and led to many musical battles or “cutting contests” that allowed people to compete and win on a regular basis – something elusive for Black people in the public arena. One example was when two bands on advertising wagons tried to outplay each other, and the resulting crowd would declare a victor. 

While jazz could be a method of expressing freedom, escapism, gaining respect, and demonstrating creative intelligence for musicians, those positive elements  were used in Black community social club parades (second lines), church parades, and funerals accompanied by jazz-playing brass bands.

These were ways in which hundreds or thousands at a time could temporarily take over the streets under the guise of celebration. Club members, bands, and countless anonymous second liners shared in these ceremonies that fostered strength, bonding, coping, self-respect, and massive creative celebration of common heritage and condition. These African-inspired processions gave voice to those whose spontaneous creative individual second-line dancing paralleled and were mutually inspired by the emotional jazz music that expressed their collective lives, emotions, spirit, and humanity.

Portrait of Sidney Bechet, Freddie Moore, and Lloyd Phillips at Jimmy Ryan’s Club, New York, N.Y., ca. June 1947 Credit: Library of Congress

By the 1920s, jazz had become part of America’s popular music and was played and recorded by people of all races and backgrounds. Still, the music’s greatest and most influential figures were Black New Orleans musicians like Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Sidney Bechet whose music portrayed the essence of American freedom.

The original meaning of jazz shifted more toward its artistic, dance, and entertainment aspects in the rest of the nation, but the music’s emphasis on individuality, fun, and deviation from conventionality was a main inspiration for the rebellious youthful spirit of the 1920s’ “Jazz Age” America. 

Ironically, the more authentic Black style of traditional New Orleans jazz is an international cult music played and followed by people of all ages today.  The valuable social lessons of jazz from its original purpose — especially concerning freedom, respect, democracy, diversity, individual and collective development, bonding, and heritage are lessons that could be of great value to today’s youth, as well as the rest of this nation during these socially difficult times.

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Dr. Michael White is an award-winning New Orleans-born jazz clarinetist, composer, band leader, and historian. He is also a professor and Endowed Chair at Xavier University of Louisiana.