The Evolution of New Orleans Jazz

Louisiana's cultural capital  is known for many things: Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, the battle for legal sports betting that Florida is also fighting. But the most influential thing to come out of the crescent city is jazz. The music’s history is as complex as its rhythms. Let’s examine the history and evolution of New Orleans jazz.  

The Melting Pot

New Orleans has always been a valuable port city. Founded in 1718 as part of the French Louisiana colony, France surrendered it to Spain in 1763. After getting it back in 1803, France sold it and the Louisiana purchase to the United States. The combination of ever-changing colonial rule and the large presence of African slaves by 1721 sets the stage for a melting pot of cultures, ideas, and art forms.

Brass and Blues: The Origin of Jazz

By the 1880s, brass bands were all the rage in the U.S. Formally trained musicians would fill concert halls with trumpets, drums, and trombones. Locals used them for special  occasions like weddings or funerals. Locals used them for special occasions like weddings or funerals.  African American benevolent societies encouraged public participation in the processional process. This involved dancing in the streets, which fed into red-light district dance halls. And later, main street restaurants and clubs were full of fast-paced brass music.

Outside of processional music, the rise of improvisational blues in late 19th century New Orleans by musicians like Charles “Buddy” Bolden brought untrained musicians to the center of attention. Bolden would take familiar dance songs and blues melodies and speed them up.   Blues and Jazz share instruments, and both have a foundation in the deep south's black spirituals. 

Jazz Leaves Louisiana 

The city’s love of brass music and diverse population made it the perfect place for jazz to thrive, but it didn’t stay there forever. Jelly Roll Morton, one of the earliest jazz piano players, left New Orleans and  began touring the U.S in 1907. His efforts and the first-ever commercial recording of jazz in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, made it an international sensation. 

Beyond Bolden and Morton

Some of the most popular players who came out of  New Orleans jazz include Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bichet, and Nick LaRocca. While they were commercially successful, they didn’t do it to make money but to express themselves through a new art form. New Orleans jazz became the basis for many contemporary dance and music movements, including swing in the 1930s and 40s. Even with the rise of electronic instruments and synthesizers, you can always count on the Big Easy to stick to the fundamentals: bright brass, improvisation, and the celebration of a multilayered city.