Essential Geographies of New Orleans Music

Part 2: Rhythms, Blues, and the Infinite Potential of Congo Square

What comes after jazz? How does a city reprise its collective creation of the Americas’ most original and distinctive art form? Part 2 of this essay surveys happenings in New Orleans music since the emergence of jazz around the turn of the twentieth century. For a take on earlier developments, check out Part 1 before working your way back here. Each of these essays, it is important to note, are highly personal accounts, framed and embellished by my own encounters and experiences in the Crescent City and points south. In this second part, I work to demonstrate how New Orleans drew from its fundamental links with the African Diaspora and Atlantic Worlds to influence many of the major shifts in American popular music over the twentieth century. I hope these brief discussions help set the mood for geographers attending the 2018 AAG Annual Meeting held in New Orleans as the city fêtes its tricentennial. These accounts also provide context for many of the musical acts and styles on display at the French Quarter Fest, the city’s gratis outdoor music festival that coincides with the AAG meeting.

Jazz is not an only child. On the contrary, the birth of jazz as a musical and economic form and force was but one flare-up in a long and gradual process of musical innovation and exchange in New Orleans. As myriad musical forms collected under a broad jazz umbrella, those various styles steadily evolved and expanded in a never-ending flow of accumulation and origination. Sustaining its status as a globally eminent cultural hearth, New Orleans continues to avail its strategic situation at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico to churn out innovative and influential music.[i]

As the jazz sound bubbled up from the streets around the turn of the century, the city’s (in)famous red-light district, Storyville, provided steady gigs for the growing class of New Orleans musicians. And it was during the district’s twenty-year existence (1897-1917) that two of the city’s stalwart musical institutions assumed their distinctive styles. Brass bands typically played rowdy gin mills, restaurants, and saloons, while solo piano players worked the parlor houses of the district’s many brothels and cabarets. Beginning with legendary forebears Tony Jackson and Jelly Roll Morton, piano “professors” remain an iconic leitmotif in the city’s musical culture. Moreover, a sampling of the city’s more prominent pianists helps trace a particular evolution of New Orleans’ musical innovations over the twentieth century, from Jelly Roll Morton to Tuts Washington to Fats Domino to Allen Toussaint; and from Professor Longhair to Art Neville to James Booker to Dr. John.[ii]

As jazz became an international phenomenon in the early twentieth century, New Orleans maintained its outsized influence by simultaneously nurturing its jazz scene and fomenting new innovative expressions. Emanating from Congo Square in the centuries prior, the syncopated rhythms that became essential in early jazz remained the city’s backbeat, and toward the mid-twentieth century provided the foundation for New Orleans rhythm and blues, and in turn, rock and roll. The diasporic habanera rhythms underlying jazz, what Jelly Roll called “the Spanish tinge,” along with the derivatives rumba and mambo, went on to become key elements in the forerunning rhythm and blues of Professor Longhair. First showcased in his 1949 debut, “Blues Rhumba,” the Fess’s rollicking two-hand piano style melded many of the musical innovations that had traveled down the river or across the Gulf to New Orleans. An admirer of both Hank Williams and the Cuban “Mambo King” Pérez Prado, Longhair kept time with Afro-Cuban clave polyrhythms on his left hand, while riffing barrelhouse blues from the upland South on his right. The Fess thus integrated and indeed embodied the far-flung musical traditions that coalesced in New Orleans, uniting the call-and-response blues of the Mississippi Delta with the Afro-Caribbean rhythms circulating in the broader Atlantic World.[iii]

Figure 1: Fats Domino’s home and office on Caffin Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward (Credit: Kent Kanouse, 2009).

Those rhythms and blues later became fundamental in the early development of yet another popular musical form: rock and roll. In retrospect, writers continue to disagree on the exact origins of what became rock music; however, New Orleans looms large in nearly every interpretation. For his part, Elvis Presley famously insisted in 1956 that New Orleans’ own Fats Domino was “the real king of rock and roll” (see Figure 1). Many writers now look back on Domino’s “The Fat Man,” recorded in 1949, along with Roy Brown’s “Good Rocking Tonight” (1947) and Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” (1955), as preeminent contenders for the first unequivocally rock and roll track. Amazingly, each of those records were among the many milestone works recorded and engineered at Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M Recording Studio (see Figure 2). Backed by versatile bandleader Dave Bartholomew and drummer Earl Palmer—an early and prolific progenitor of rock and roll’s signature backbeat, the likes of Ray CharlesSam CookeDr. JohnJerry Lee LewisProfessor LonghairIrma Thomas, and Allen Toussaint all cut sides with Matassa at J&M. Housed in his father’s appliance store at the corner of Rampart and Dumaine Streets, J&M sat just one block down from the site now commemorating Congo Square. In 2010, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame designated the studio one of just eleven nationwide Historic Rock and Roll Landmarks.[iv]

Before co-founding the influential groups the Meters and the Neville Brothers, Art Neville began his recording career at J&M, laying down “Mardi Gras Mambo” with the Hawketts in 1954. The Carnival classic celebrates New Orleans’ enduring camaraderie with the Caribbean and remains a popular seasonal standard. A decade later Neville helped form The Meters, a powerhouse electric rhythm section that drew on syncopated second line rhythms and call-and-response Mardi Gras Indian chants to become an early architect of the style later known as funk (see Figure 2). The Meters became a sturdy foundation of the mid-century New Orleans sound, serving as the house band for Allen Toussaint’s Sansu label and backing renowned New Orleans soul and R&B artists Lee DorseyIrma Thomas, and Dr. John, among many others. As independent recording artists the band released several hits that remain New Orleans classics, including Hey Pocky Way, based on Mardi Gras Indian chants, and Cissy Strut, a gritty funk standard now considered an early milestone in the genre.[v]

Figure 2: The original location of Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Recording Studio at the corner of Rampart and Dumaine Streets in New Orleans (Credit: Jason Riedy, 2012).

The street culture of Mardi Gras Indians came of age with the city’s popular music, from second line to jazz to R&B to funk. Jelly Roll Morton discussed Indian culture with Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in 1938, even rapping the traditional patois chant “T’ouwais, bas q’ouwais [tu es pas coller or two way pocky way]” on which the Meters based their mid-century hit. Later groups of Mardi Gras Indians combined their oral traditions with syncopated electric funk to create a popular and enduring sub-genre. A group led by big chiefs Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux joined bandleader Willie Tee and blues guitarist Snooks Eaglin to record as the Wild Magnolias in 1970 (see Figure 3). Now an acclaimed New Orleans institution, the Wild Mags continue to perform both as a traditional Indian gang and a funk band on the streets and in venues throughout the city.[vi]

The musical origins of the Neville Brothers lie also in Mardi Gras Indian traditions, leaning on their Uncle Jolly (George Landry), a big chief with the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe, for musical inspiration and connections. Backing Landry, the four Neville Brothers – Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril – joined forces with the Meters in 1976 to cut Wild Tchoupitoulas, produced by Allen Toussaint. That record drew heavily on Mari Gras Indian chants, traditions, and performance, and foreshadowed the rise of the Neville Brothers as a national supergroup. Many Indian groups such as Big Chief Juan Pardo and the Golden Comanche and the 79ers Gang continue to record and perform the Indians’ rhythms and rituals, often emphasizing their profound connections to the Black Atlantic. International hits based on Indian compositions and traditions such as Iko IkoHanda WandaHey Pocky Way, and Earl King’s Big Chief remain revered New Orleans standards.[vii]

Figure 3: Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians leads his gang through Central City near A.L. Davis Park on “Super Sunday.” (Credit: Mike Connor, 2015).

As New Orleans rhythm and blues morphed into rock and roll and later funk, other influential offshoots were materializing in the city, elevating two queens to global eminence. “New Orleans Soul Queen” Irma Thomas recorded many of her early soul classics at J&M, and continues to perform as a leading figure in the genre. Civil Rights activist and icon Mahalia Jackson got her start singing in the full gospel congregations of Plymouth Rock and Mount Moriah Baptist Churches in Uptown New Orleans (see Figure 4). From there she went on to inspire millions as the “Queen of Gospel,” combining the soulful Black spirituals of the plantation South with syncopated rhythms she learned to tap out on the wood floors of her New Orleans churches.[viii]

In both the background and the forefront of the rich diversity and complexity of twentieth century New Orleans music, piano players remained iconic. There is perhaps no better single example of the multiplicity and centrality of piano players in the city than the irrepressible Mac Rebennack, known worldwide as Dr. John. A celebrated composer and performer from the 1950s to the present, Dr. John remains distinguished as a standard bearer and keeper of the flame for the storied New Orleans piano professor tradition. As a teenager Dr. John drew early inspiration from Fats Domino, Little Richard, and especially Professor Longhair in the clubs and studios around town. His range as a player, however, transcends R&B to traverse a wide array of styles including rock, jazz, funk, and the haunting voodoo-inspired psychedelia for which he became most distinctive.[ix]

Figure 4: Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church where Mahalia Jackson sang in the choir, 147 Millaudon Street, New Orleans (Google Street View, 2016).

After trouble found him in New Orleans, Mac fled to Los Angeles where the libertine spirit of late-60s California gave him license to experiment with New Orleans music in new and profound ways. There Mac serendipitously came under the wing of New Orleans patriarch Harold Battiste who managed to finagle some free studio time between Sonny and Cher takes in 1967. The duo put together a group of veteran New Orleans musicians to explore a visionary musical concept and stage persona based on nineteenth-century voodoo conjurer and man about town, Dr. John Montaigne (or Jean Montanet). A formerly enslaved native of Senegal, Dr. John the elder regained his freedom in Cuba before rising to prominence as a trusted root doctor in antebellum New Orleans. His 1885 obituary in Harper’s Weekly deemed him “the last of the Voudoos,” that is “the last really important figure of a long line of wizards or witches whose African titles were recognized,” and “the most extraordinary African character that ever obtained celebrity” in New Orleans. Studying the legend of Dr. John, Mac discovered a reference to one Pauline Rebennack, arrested along with Montaigne in the 1840s for her involvement in voodoo and other illicit acts. Realizing a likely familial connection, Mac assumed the stage persona Dr. John the Night Tripper, and with fellow New Orleans musicians in exile cut the classic LP Gris-Gris. That album amounted to a profoundly New Orleanian tribute to the Black Atlantic, melding the syncopated rhythms and bamboula dances of Congo Square with the power and grace of Afro-Caribbean spirituality and the lavish costumes, chants, and performance art of the Mardi Gras Indians. The result was a fantastic if somewhat cryptic masterpiece that conjured a range of New Orleans traditions to stake out the eeriest edges of the psychedelic zeitgeist of the 1960s.[x]

After beginning his career as a guitar player and session musician for J&M, a gunshot to the finger forced Dr. John to switch to the piano. His teacher was the brilliant and irrepressible James Booker, whom Mac later called “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Judging from the testimonies of his peers and scattered live recordings Booker left behind, it is clear that he was among the most talented and original piano players the city ever gave us, notwithstanding Dr. John’s tongue-in-cheek qualifiers. Booker was an undisputed piano genius who brought classical heft to New Orleans rhythm and blues while sacrificing none of its soul. Booker could play it all: R&B, jazz, rock, classical, soul, gospel—often in a single performance, while making it feel deliberate and cohesive. In a town distinguished by a long and storied history of world-class piano players, Booker may have been its most versatile and proficient. Tormented by addiction and inner turmoil, the tragic genius and epicure died in the waiting room of Charity Hospital in 1983, far before his time.[xi]

Note: Click at your own risk! The links in the following section contain content some may consider not safe for work (NSFW).

New Orleans’ elaborate musical traditions allow the city’s art to interact with more broadly popular forms in exciting ways. Beginning in the mid 1980s, for instance, bounce arose as a distinctive form of hip hop in New Orleans before eventually gaining international renown. In bounce, typically flashy performers belt out persistent, call-and-response lyrics over hard-charging, circular beats to create a high-energy electronic dance music and a vibrant cultural scene. Performers DJ JubileeMs. TeeCheeky Blakk, and Magnolia Shorty came to prominence in the early scene with hyper-sexualized lyrics and teams of flamboyant twerk dancers. Today queer performance artists such as Katy RedBig Freedia, and Sissy Nobby enjoy international acclaim, and the genre appears poised for an explosion. Notable New Orleans hip hop artists Lil’ Wayne, the Hot BoysMannie Fresh, and the Cash Money record label all got their start in bounce, before pushing its boundaries and climbing the charts in mainstream hip hop.[xii]

Bounce and related forms of New Orleans hip hop arose from roots in the city’s public housing developments, especially the (former) Calliope and Magnolia projects. No Limit brothers Master P, Silkk the Shocker, and C Murder grew up in the former, while Juvenile, Soulja Slim, and “the queen of bounce” Magnolia Shorty, all hail from the latter. Before its demolition and redevelopment in 2014, the Magnolia projects were an important cultural crossroads in the city. Its A.L. Davis Park (formerly known as Shakespeare Park) has served as a historic training ground for second lines and brass bands, and remains an important gathering site for Mardi Gras Indians on Super Sunday. Just across LaSalle Street sits the Dew Drop Inn, a legendary lounge, barbershop, restaurant, hotel, and 24-hour performance venue that hosted a who’s who of soul and R&B acts, including Roy Brown, Dave Bartholomew, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, James Brown, Otis Redding, Little Richard, and so many others in the 1950s and 60s (see Figure 5). The club was a cornerstone of African American society in mid-century New Orleans, serving as a laboratory where late night sonic experiments led to early advances in rhythm and blues and rock and roll.[xiii]

Figure 5: The Dew Drop Inn, at 2836 LaSalle Street, in New Orleans, 1953 (Credit: Ralston Crawford Collection of Jazz Photography, Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University.)

In the twenty-first century, as New Orleans continues to innovate new musical forms and styles, the city remains devoted to jazz—its first born. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and other acts based in traditional jazz sounds continue to pack venues in New Orleans and worldwide. So, too, have the Blues continued to travel down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, at times in the form of legendary artists such as Little Freddie King or turning up in distinctive local interpretations like the mystical Acadiana blues of the late Coco RobicheauxNew Orleans R&B Emperor Ernie K-Doe kept the mid-century sound alive with regular performances (musical and otherwise) in his storied Tremé nightclub, The Mother-in-Law Lounge, until his death in 2001. Shuttered in 2010, the New Orleans institution reopened a year later thanks to the efforts of beloved New Orleans trumpeter and bon vivant Kermit Ruffins.

New Orleans royal families such as the Andrews, the Battistes, and the Marsalises continue to rear and train world-class musicians in the jazz and rhythm and blues traditions. Harold Battiste founded the collective A.F.O. (All For One) Records in 1961, the city’s first label owned and operated by African-American musicians. Before his death in 2015, he had educated hundreds of New Orleans musicians in New Orleans as a public school teacher and later on the faculty in the jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans. There he mentored an impressive list of twenty-first-century jazz luminaries, including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard, and pianist Jesse McBride. Hailing from the storied Tremé neighborhood, the Andrews family blurs the boundaries that would otherwise delineate styles of New Orleans music. Cousins JamesGlen David, and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews carry on the traditional sounds of the city from second line to jazz to funk.

Jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. demonstrates both the diversity and complementarity of New Orleans music by interweaving many of the city’s most celebrated styles. Backed by his father—the late Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr.—and Dr. John, Harrison seamlessly melds Mardi Gras Indian chants and percussion with his free flowing, post-bop jazz and Dr. John’s barrelhouse piano on the 1992 Indian Blues. With his Spirits of Congo Square, Harrison presents the collective roots of New Orleans music in the legacies of Congo Square.

In the activist spirit of Mahalia Jackson, Harrison’s nephew Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah “stretches” traditional jazz with hip hop samples and second line rhythms designed to highlight contemporary anti-racist social movements. Local jazz aficionado Irvin Mayfield leads a renowned Latin Jazz group with percussionist Bill Summers. Their Grammy-winning Los Hombres Calientes reaffirms New Orleans’ enduring musical connections to Latin America and the Caribbean. The emerging Tank and the Bangas are among the most exciting groups in New Orleans today. Combing New Orleans jazz, funk, and hip hop with a charismatic slam poetry sensibility, Tank demonstrates, once again, the limitless potential and broad appeal of New Orleans music.

While jazz continues to diversify in infinite directions, brass bands remain essential cultural and economic institutions in the city. Groups such as the Dirty Dozen, the Hot 8Rebirth, the Soul RebelsTremé, and Soul Brass Band perpetually update the tradition with new styles and sounds while maintaining their fundamental connections to the earliest forms of jazz. On any given day in New Orleans, countless brass bands second line through the city’s streets, animating onlookers with a “big noise” that recalls Buddy Bolden at the turn of the twentieth century.

Figure 6: Big Freedia performs at the Congo Square Stage during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 2017 (Credit: William Widmer, Billboard)

In the twelve or so decades following the birth of jazz, a delightful multiplicity of styles and sounds emerged in New Orleans. Despite the ever-expanding diversity and complexity of the city’s music, each of its magnificent innovations emerges from roots in the bedrock of syncopated rhythms and call-and-response lyrical forms given life at Congo Square. Fortunately for us, the essence of Congo Square beats on in two important commemorative spaces: its somber historic landmark in Louis Armstrong Park and as a dedicated stage at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (see Figure 6). On that stage, when Donald Harrison, Jr., masks in Indian regalia to lead his swinging jazz band over syncopated rhythms, and when Big Freedia directs her twerk team with call-and-response lyrics, they all stir a heaping pot of gumbo that first felt the flame in Place Congo, at the back of town, in New Orleans.

To prepare for your trip to the Crescent City, keep the Guardians of the Groove, New Orleans community radio WWOZ streaming in the background at all times. Take an open online course on New Orleans music from Dr. Matt Sakakeeny, Assistant Professor of Music at Tulane University. Listen to an archive of Mardi Gras Indian performances from 1985 and a more recent writeup hosted by Smithsonian Folkways Magazine. Watch a YouTube playlist of recordings of Mardi Gras Indians compiled by the Alan Lomax archive and a mishmash YouTube playlist curated by the author. Once again, I cannot recommend enough A Closer Walk, an interactive website, map, and series of guided tours of the geographies of New Orleans music, sponsored by WWOZ and others. In the city, visit the Louisiana Music Factory to purchase hard-to-find vinyl, CDs, films, etc. Check out the WWOZ Live Wire page for the most comprehensive listings for live music in the city, and then go find some.

— Case Watkins, James Madison University

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0029

[i] Grace Lichtenstein and Laura Dankner, Musical Gumbo: The Music of New Orleans (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993); Jason Berry, Jonathan Foose, and Tad Jones. Up from the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II, revised ed. (Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2009).

[ii] Al Rose, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974); Lichtenstein and Dankner, Musical Gumbo. See also Part 1 of this essay for more on Storyville and the emergence of Jazz.

[iii] Quotes in Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax, Music CD (Cambridge, MA: Rounder Records, 2005): Disc 6, Tracks 8 and 9. Lichtenstein and Dankner, Musical Gumbo; Robert Palmer, “Folk, Popular, Jazz, and Classical Elements in New Orleans,” in Folk Music and Modern Sound, ed. William Ferris and Mary L. Hart (Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 194-201.

[iv] John Broven, Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans (Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1988); Rick Coleman, Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock “n” Roll (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2006: p. 246); Jim Cogan and William Clark, Temples of Sound: Inside the Great Recording Studios (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003)

[v] John Storm Roberts, The Latin Tínge: The Impact of Latin American Music on the United States (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979); Alexander Stewart, “New Orleans, James Brown and the Rhythmic Transformation of American Popular Music,” Popular Music 19, no. 3 (2000): 293-318; Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2008). Ned Sublette, Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2004).

[vi] Alan Lomax. Mister Jelly Roll (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950); Berry et al. Up from the Cradle of Jazz.

[vii] Lomax. Mister Jelly Roll; Berry et al. Up from the Cradle of Jazz; David Ritz, Charles Neville, Aaron Neville, and Cyril Neville. The BrothersAn Autobiography (New York: Da Capo Press, 2001).

[viii] Berry et al. Up from the Cradle of Jazz; Jules Victor Schwerin. Got to Tell It: Mahalia Jackson, Queen of Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[ix] Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) with Jack Rummel. Under a Hoodoo Moon: The Life of the Night Tripper (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995).

[x] Quotes in Lafcadio Hearn. “The Last of the Voodoos,” Harper’s Weekly 29 (Nov. 7, 1885): 726–27, reprinted in S. Frederick Starr, ed. Inventing New Orleans: Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2001): 77-82; Dr. John, Under a Hoodoo Moon.

[xi] Quote aired in Lily Keber, Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker (Film: Mairzy Doats Productions, 2016), available on Netflix. Trailer available on Vimeo.

[xii] Matt Miller, Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); Afropop Worldwide, “Shake It Fo Ya Hood: Bounce, New Orleans Hip-Hop,” (podcast, 2017).

[xiii] Berry et al. Up from the Cradle of Jazz; Coleman, Blue Monday. An illuminative and disturbing documentary (NSFW) of C Murder and the Calliope projects is available here. Super Sunday is a gathering of Indians typically held on the Sunday nearest St. Joseph’s Day. The Calliope and Magnolia are two of the four public housing developments that city and federal authorities demolished and redeveloped following Katrina.


Essential Geographies of New Orleans Music

Part 1: Congo Square, Atlantic Exchange, and the Emergence of Jazz

New Orleans is a meeting ground. Situated at the confluence of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, the city connects North America’s most expansive riverine network with the vast Atlantic basin. Its strategic location has long attracted diverse peoples and ideas, whose collaborations have forged extraordinary cultural, economic, and ecological innovations. Prominent among those novel expressions, music remains central to New Orleans’ sense of place. This essay, offered in two parts, surveys the cultural and historical geographies of music in New Orleans. It outlines a rough chronology of the innovative musical cultures that coalesced and continue to proliferate in New Orleans, emphasizing both the singularity of the city’s cultural production, as well as its fundamental connections with the French, Hispanic, and Black Atlantics.[1] This geographical treatment will, I hope, prime attendees of the 2018 AAG Annual Meeting to indulge in New Orleans’ rich musical (and other performative) cultures on display at countless clubs, bars, restaurants, parties, parades, and street corners, as well as the French Quarter Music Festival. Overlapping with the AAG conference and free of charge (!), the lively outdoor fête showcases some of the region’s most celebrated acts and styles. In this first of two parts, I treat the city from its founding in the early-eighteenth century through the emergence of jazz in the early-twentieth century, providing historical-geographical context for the distinct and diverse musical cultures emanating from New Orleans.

New Orleans and its musical cultures are perhaps best understood through the city’s complex connections to the African diaspora, its experiences within the French and Spanish Colonial Empires, and its relations to fluvial networks and ports throughout the mainland Americas and the Caribbean. After founding the city in 1718, France ceded New Orleans to Spain in 1762. The city spent four formative decades under Spanish control, undergoing significant demographic, urban, and economic growth. Napoleonic France briefly regained control of the city in 1803 before selling it to the United States just three weeks later in the Louisiana Purchase. As the colony changed hands over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a steady flow of enslaved Africans continually replenished profound African influence in New Orleans and its environs. Those fundamental influences continue to manifest in the city’s rich cultural and economic development, especially by way of its music.[2]

The historical-geographical hearth of musical culture in New Orleans (and, it could be said, of the US as a whole) is Congo Square—the first and only sanctioned gathering place for enslaved people in the antebellum United States—beginning as early as the 1740s (Figure 1). Located just outside of the original city walls, near the grounds of the Tremé Planation, Congo Square originated as a Sunday market where enslaved Afro-descendants and indigenous people gathered to trade in goods they themselves had grown, gathered, and hunted. The weekly gatherings soon became an extraordinary venue for cultural exchange where hundreds of people mingled, cooked, drummed, worshipped, danced, and sang. Spirituality was fundamental in those musical and rhythmic expressions, as drumming remains essential in the syncretic religions that developed among Afro-descendants in the New World, among them Vodun in Haiti, Santeria in Cuba, and Voodoo and Hoodoo in New Orleans.[3]

Beginning in the French period, Congo Square and its weekly assemblies survived and evolved through Spanish control and later the city’s integration into the United States. By the early nineteenth century, visitors documented crowds numbering more than 500 practicing distinct forms of African drumming, singing, and dancing. The humble outdoor market became a historic nexus crucial for the preservation of African cultural forms, as well as the eventual creation of novel hybrids mixing, as just one example, Senegambian-style banjos with drumming from the Kongo. Congo Square thus remains an important site of African-American cultural and economic resistance where enslaved people of African descent, despite the horrific brutalities of slavery, laid the rhythmic foundations for what eventually became blues, ragtime, jazz, country, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip hop, and countless other American musical genres. As prominent New Orleans jazz musician, educator, and advocate Wynton Marsalis proclaimed, “The bloodlines of all important modern American music can be traced to Congo Square.”[4]

A plaque commemorating Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park where the French Quarter and Tremé neighborhoods meet at Rampart and Orleans Streets (Photo credit: K.D. Burns, 2012).

While many New Orleans traditions trace their beginnings to Congo Square, the various groups collectively known as Mardi Gras Indians maintain a particularly firm link to the traditions forged there. Melding West African, Indigenous American, and European Catholic traditions, the Mardi Gras Indians celebrate the pre-Lenten Carnival (and a few other dates) by creating, costuming, and parading in lavish handmade regalia adorned with thousands of sequins, beads, and feathers (see Figure 2). Keepers of extravagant musical and material traditions traceable to Yoruba and Haitian Afro-creole antecedents, the Indians remain influential community leaders in many neighborhoods of New Orleans. (See Part II of this essay for more on the Indians’ musical influence).[5]

New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians “masking” in the Lower Ninth Ward. Image courtesy of House of Dance and Feathers, a local museum (consider visiting and supporting them).

New Orleans’ distinct musical traditions began to coalesce during the Spanish period (1763-1803) when colonial trade and administrative networks linked the city with Vera Cruz, Tampico, and especially Havana, then the seat of the Spanish American colonies. Military-style marching bands provided the basic instrumentation and arrangements for the region’s music, as well as public spectacles. When Spanish Governor Miro received a delegation of Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian chiefs in 1787, he wooed them with a ballroom dance and an extravagant military parade.[6]

The following decade, refugees fleeing the Haitian (Saint Domingan) Revolution—roughly equal thirds White creole, enslaved, and free people of color—began streaming into New Orleans. Bringing with them African-inspired spiritual and musical traditions forged in the French Atlantic, the refugees doubled the city’s size by 1810. To keep up with the abrupt population growth, New Orleans quickly expanded its footprint north of the original city into former lands of the Tremé plantation, creating the faubourg (neighborhood) of the same name, where many Haitians and other émigrés eventually settled.[7]

Born in New Orleans, antebellum piano prodigy Louis Moreau Gottschalk grew up studying music with his grandmother Bruslé and her enslaved nurse Sally, both natives of Saint Domingue, before travelling widely in the Caribbean and Latin America. His piano composition “Bamboula, Danse des Nègres” (1848) drew on African-inspired folk traditions from the Antilles, and melded seamlessly with the rhythms of Congo Square. Written in Martinique in 1859, his “Ojos Criollos, Danse Cubaine” (Creole Eyes, Cuban Dance) blended Afro-Cuban rhythms with European melodies to foreshadow ragtime by three decades. By the mid-19th century, many widely popular musical styles—from minstrel show tunes, ragtime, and cakewalks to Cuban habanerarumba, and son clave—all shared syncopated two-hand piano riffs made popular by Gottschalk. Those rhythms served as a foundation for later styles, including jazz, and live on not only in New Orleans’ second line parades and Mardi Gras Indian gatherings, but also the comparsa and conga processions of Cuban Carnival.[8]

Essential to the city’s musical traditions, brass bands were already integral to public life in New Orleans by the early nineteenth century. In 1838 the daily Picayune proclaimed a “mania in this city for horn and trumpet playing” derived from military bands and processions. Following the Civil War, that instrumentation combined with African-inspired funeral celebrations to lay the groundwork for New Orleans jazz funerals and second lines. Adding to the mix were post-abolition waves of African-American workers who migrated to the city in search of economic opportunities, bringing along their canon of work songs, spirituals, and blues from the Mississippi Delta. There the sacred call-and-response musical aesthetic of the Plantation South encountered the widely popular dance craze known as ragtime, and together began filtering through New Orleans’ traditional brass instrumentation and syncopated African rhythms.[9]

By century’s end, changes in the city’s legal frameworks would unwittingly galvanize the music scene in New Orleans, and provide the final ingredients for the musical gumbo that would coalesce as jazz. After the landmark Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson codified racial segregation into a strict binary, mixed race creole musicians found themselves officially classified as Blacks. An unforeseen consequence of that terrible ruling was the integration of the city’s brass bands, unifying creole musicians and their classical training with the more freewheeling styles of the city’s Black blues musicians. The following year, in 1897, the New Orleans city council created the city’s red light district where prostitution, drugs, and gambling were regulated and confined. The rough-and-tumble Storyville district provided steady gigs for brass bands and piano players at the end of the nineteenth century. Located in the Faubourg Tremé just two blocks from the site of Congo Square, the district became ground zero for a revolution in American music (Figure 3).[10]

Postcard showing view of Storyville; New Orleans: C. B. Mason, [1904–8]; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1979.362.16

Emanating from New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century, the novel improvisational styles that would collectively become known as jazz emerged from essential connections with the Mississippi Delta, Latin America, and the Caribbean. First visiting the city as part of the New Orleans World’s Fair of 1884–85, several Mexican bands and musicians became legendary for their lasting effects on the city’s musical cultures, including the introduction of the saxophone, bass plucking, and original compositions. Members of the Onward Brass Band, then among New Orleans’ most prominent marching bands, traveled to Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Among them were trombonist Willie Cornish and alto horn player John Baptiste Delisle, musicians that also played with Charles “Buddy” Bolden, a (the?) forerunning jazz musician. By the turn of the 20th century, jazz pioneers Bolden, Joe “King” Oliver, and Jack “Papa” Laine were collaborating with musicians with strong ties to Cuba, such as Manuel Pérez and Manuel Mello.[11]

The second generation of New Orleans jazz musicians could still discern the Afro-Latin influences fundamental to the jazz sound. Citing what he called “little tinges of Spanish,” New Orleans pianist Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, himself a descendant of creole Haitian émigrés, credited habanera rhythms as essential elements in New Orleans jazz. Another member of the second generation, the great Louis Armstrong, got his start in Storyville where he played in bands led by Kid Ory and King Oliver. Their repertoire included “New Orleans Stomp,” a popular dance tune steeped in complex Afro-Caribbean rhythms and time signatures.[12]

Jazz thus emerged in New Orleans as a delicious gumbo of ragtime, Delta blues, and the diasporic rhythms of the Afro-Caribbean. Despite continuous growth and innovation, most New Orleans music still derives from fluid blends of syncopated rhythms celebrated in Congo square and countless Afro-Caribbean communities with Eurasian instrumentation and melodic forms. The genius of New Orleans’ music springs not from the spontaneous epiphanies of a few talented individuals, but instead crystallizes from the city’s fluid connections to other places. At the confluence of the French, Spanish, and Black Atlantic Worlds, New Orleans has long provided an inclusive venue for the integration of diverse cultural forms.

New Orleans will forever be associated with jazz, yet the soundtrack of the contemporary city is more complex. While people of all ages continue to enjoy an ever-expanding array of expressions falling under the jazz umbrella (e.g. Dixieland, trad jazz, Latin jazz, avant-garde jazz, jazz-funk, and various fusion sounds), New Orleans remains devoted to a grand diversity of musical genres and styles, such as brass bandsR&Bsoulfunkrock and rollheavy metalhip hopbounce, and even zydeco—an upbeat Afro-French creole dance music from west of the Atchafalaya. In part two of this essay (coming early 2018) I discuss several of those musical traditions as they emerged in New Orleans since the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the artists and styles on display at the 2018 French Quarter Music Festival (Figure 4) that overlaps with the AAG annual meeting.

New Orleans blues guitarist Little Freddie King jams with Big Chief Juan Pardo of The Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians at the French Quarter Festival near Woldenberg Riverfront Park, 2015. Photo credit: Zack Smith, courtesy of French Quarter Festival.

Further reading and listening: To begin your preparations for New Orleans, be sure to live stream WWOZ, New Orleans community radio and self-proclaimed “Guardians of the Groove.” For more on New Orleans music, see the works referenced in the notes below and the following resources: recordings posted online by the Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, a YouTube playlist of recordings of Mardi Gras Indians compiled by the Alan Lomax archive; and a YouTube playlist of New Orleans music compiled by the author. Finally, I cannot recommend enough A Closer Walk, an interactive website, map, and series of guided tours of the geographies of New Orleans music, sponsored by WWOZ and others.

— Case Watkins, James Madison University

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0013

[1] With those terms I follow a wealth of scholarship on the interconnected Atlantic Worlds, especially their connections to the African diaspora, the French and Spanish colonial empires, and the territories and communities they helped shape. See Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993). Douglas R. Egerton et al., The Atlantic World: A History, 1400 – 1888 (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007). William Boelhower, ed., New Orleans in the Atlantic World: Between Land and Sea (London: Routledge, 2010).

[2] Andrew Sluyter et al., Hispanic and Latino New Orleans: Immigration and Identity Since the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015). Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995).

[3] Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2008). Michael Crutcher, Tremé: Race and Place in a New Orleans Neighborhood (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010). Freddi Williams Evans, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (Lafayette: University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, 2011).

[4] References in note 3. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Impressions Respecting New Orleans: Diary and Sketches, 1818-1820, ed. Samuel Wilson Jr. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951). Quote on the jacket for Evans, Congo Square.

[5] Michael P. Smith, “Behind the Lines: The Black Mardi Gras Indians and the New Orleans Second Line,” Black Music Research Journal 14, no. 1 (April 1, 1994): 43–73. DOI: 10.2307/779458 Michael P Smith, Mardi Gras Indians (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 1994). Richard Brent Turner, Jazz Religion, the Second Line, and Black New Orleans (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

[6] Charles Gayarré, History of Louisiana, Vol. 3 (New York: Redfield, 1885). William Schafer, Brass Bands and New Orleans Jazz (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).

[7] Sublette, The World that Made New Orleans. Crutcher, Tremé.

[8] S. Frederick Starr, Bamboula! The Life and Times of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). Jack Stewart, “Cuban Influences on New Orleans Music,” Jazz Archivist 13 (1999): 14–23. Turner, Jazz Religion. Sublette, The World that Made New Orleans.

[9] Schafer, Brass Bands. Sybil Kein, “The Celebration of Life in New Orleans Jazz Funerals,” Revue Française D’études Américaines, no. 51 (1992): 19–26. Donald E DeVore, Defying Jim Crow: African American Community Development and the Struggle for Racial Equality in New Orleans, 1900-1960 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015).

[10] Al Rose, Storyville, New Orleans: Being an Authentic, Illustrated Account of the Notorious Red-Light District (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1974). Charles Hersch, Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007). City leaders demolished Storyville in 1940 to make way for the New Deal era Iberville Housing Projects, which are currently being redeveloped as mixed-income apartments.

[11] Jack Stewart, “Cuban Influences on New Orleans Music.” Jack Stewart, “The Mexican Band Legend: Myth, Reality, and Musical Impact; A Preliminary Investigation,” Jazz Archivist 6, no. 2 (1991): 1–14. Jack Stewart, “The Mexican Band Legend–Part II,” Jazz Archivist 9, no. 1 (1994): 1–17. John McCusker, “The Onward Brass Band in the Spanish American War,” Jazz Archivist 13 (1998-1999): 24-35. Schafer, Brass bands.

[12] Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax, Music CD (Cambridge, MA: Rounder Records, 2005): Disc 6, Tracks 8 and 9. Stewart, “Cuban Influences.” Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (New York: Da Capo Press, 1986).