The Video/Audio below is an excerpt from the 4th show of my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name. The episode is about Early Jazz, the importance of New Orleans in Jazz’s birth, and the will to survive the often brutal mechanisms of racist culture. The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then. The excerpts present about 6 to 10 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows and links to all excerpts.
I wish I could pronounce the “ou” combination like Australian and some English and Canadian folks do, especially in the word “out,” but it escapes me no matter what I seem to try. And the same goes for New Orleans. So below in the excerpt of Show #4 on Early Jazz and New Orleans there’s a twinge of regret every time I hear myself say “New Orleans” so crisply, with that bright “e” sound not present in the lovely drawl of those who can say the name of that iconic town correctly. It doesn’t make much sense to say the Blues originated in this or that town, and while Jazz certainly was born in several important locations, New Orleans was so special that it does make some sense to call it jazz’s birthplace.
It was, for one thing, a heavily Catholic town with a creole essence that made the blending of races and cultures seem normal and gave those Creoles greater freedom to move through many more levels of society. There was a greater economic laissez faire, too, that gave even slaves greater freedom, at least in their off hours. And when soldiers who served in military bands returned from the Spanish-American war and sold or hocked their instruments, these fell into the hands of blacks who had previously been confined more to string instruments, and the brass bands and marching bands that formed soon turned out the music that shortly became jazz.
When the U.S. took over, so much changed, especially as intense segregation ramped up during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. In many ways, though, even these horrendous times couldn’t stop the new music from fermenting and growing.
In the show below we don’t begin with New Orleans, though, but with the tremendous musical activity of the late 19th Century: military bands, brass band novelty tunes, jug bands, minstrelsy, Cake Walk music, and, especially Ragtime. But perhaps most important we talk about the appropriation of Black culture, that phenomenon—ongoing and powerful to this day—the template of which was set in this time period just as jazz was born. We spend some time on minstrelsy because it was through this music and entertainment and the very process of minstrelization that dominant white culture both embraced black culture and took it over while shutting blacks out, stereotyping them and using myriad ways to keep them “in their place.” Musically, minstrelsy began that supremely ironic situation where blacks had to conform to white standards of the music they had created. Later, Ragtime’s popularity once again put blacks on the losing end. Because the music was fairly easy to write down and its rhythms were easier because of their closeness to marching band music, it was easier for whites to play and quickly spread, especially after the perfection of piano rolls and the player piano. Soon it often seems that Ragtime was a white music blacks only participated in, or, at best, a black music that only reached perfection in white hands.
Ragtime was also much less vocal. At the beginning of this post there’s a picture (above left) of James Reese Europe’s military brass band (Reese stands at far left). The band caused a sensation in Europe because of the tremendous vocal qualities of its music. There are stories of people inspecting their instruments to see if they were the normal. They were. But the musicians playing them and the importance of the Blues and of the human vocal sounds of the Blues were not normal. Once again, the vocal quality of jazz—its obsession with human voices—made the difference in its instrumental sound. More than that, it once again testified to the survival of the human urges for freedom, equity, and dignity. Voices and Freedoms. Both were so hard to keep alive in the earliest days of jazz.
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