Early Slave Music
The slaves who arrived at the African slave markets came from tribes all over Africa. They had been thrown together in the slave ships without regard for tribe or language. In fact, slave-ship captains made a point of not putting slaves from the same tribes together; if the slaves had been able to talk with one another, they also might have been able to plan revolts. The same was true of slave owners in the New World. It was in their best interests that slaves not be able to communicate with one another. The slave-ship captains and slave owners did not understand that the slaves were able to communicate with one another quite well through their music. Through their songs, the slaves shared the rhythms of sorrow and their fears and their hopes. Through the rhythms of their makeshift drums, they communicated their calls to rebellion.
For some time, slave masters did not realize that the drums—which the slaves had made from hollowed-out logs or nail kegs, with animal skins tightly stretched over on end—were being used for communication. They thought that the slaves were just making African music. They knew that these drum sounds carried far, even to the next plantation, but it didn’t occur to them that the drumbeats were a sort of “Morse code” the slaves used to make plans for revolts or escapes. When it finally became clear to the slave masters that the drums were being used as a form of communication, drums were outlawed. However, that didn’t stop the slaves from keeping the drumbeat alive. Instead, they used their feet.
Despite the poor treatment the slaves had received, the land and the culture had become part of them. In spite of the fact that most white Americans at the time did not consider blacks to be their equals, whites had taken into their own hearts certain elements of black culture. By the time the slaves were emancipated, they had given to America not just the sweat of their brows and the strength of their backs, but the seeds of the first truly American cultural gift to the world—American music. Blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll all originated with blacks. White performers and groups—from Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra to the Beatles to Rod Stewart to Boy George— have said that they owe their biggest debt to black music.
New Orleans History
A review of New Orleans’ unique history and culture, with its distinctive character rooted in the colonial period, is helpful in understanding the complex circumstances that led to the development of New Orleans jazz. The city had been founded in 1718 as part of the French Louisiana colony. The Louisiana territories were ceded to Spain in 1763 but were returned to France in 1803. France almost immediately sold the colony to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.
New Orleans differed greatly from the rest of the young United States in its Old World cultural relationships. The Creole culture was Catholic and French-speaking rather than Protestant and English-speaking. A more liberal outlook on life prevailed, with an appreciation of good food, wine, music, and dancing. Festivals were frequent. Governor William Claiborne, the first American- appointed governor of the territory of Louisiana, reportedly had commented that New Orleanians were ungovernable because of their preoccupation with dancing.
The colony’s culture had been enriched by influences not only from Europe but from Africa as well. As early as 1721 enslaved West Africans totaled thirty percent of the population of New Orleans. By the end of the 1700s, people of varied African descent, both free and slave, made up more than half the city’s population. Many had arrived by way of the Caribbean and brought with them West Indian cultural traditions.
After the Louisiana Purchase, English-speaking Anglo- and African Americans flooded into New Orleans. Partially because of the cultural friction, these newcomers began settling upriver from Canal Street and from the already full French Quarter (Vieux Carrée). These settlements extended the city boundaries and created the “uptown” American sector as a district apart from the older Creole “downtown.” The influx of black Americans, first as slaves and later as free people, into uptown neighborhoods brought the elements of the blues, spirituals, and rural dances to New Orleans’ music.
Ethnic diversity further increased during the 19th century. Many German and Irish immigrants had arrived before the Civil War, and the number of Italian immigrants increased afterward. The concentration of new European immigrants in New Orleans was a phenomenon unique in the South.
This rich mix of cultures in New Orleans resulted in considerable cultural exchange. An early example was the city’s relatively large and free “Creole of color” community. Creoles of color were people of mixed African and European blood, often well-educated crafts and trades people. Creole of color musicians were particularly known for their skills and discipline. Many had been educated in France and played in the best orchestras in the city.
In the city, the fact that people of different cultures and races often lived close together (in spite of conventional prejudices) facilitated cultural interaction. For instance, wealthier families occupied the new spacious avenues and boulevards uptown, such as St. Charles and Napoleon Avenues; poorer families of all races who served those who were better off often lived on the smaller streets in the centers of the larger blocks. New Orleans did not have mono-cultural ghettos like many other cities.
New Orleans’ unusual history, its unique outlook on life, its rich ethnic and cultural makeup, and the resulting cultural interaction set the stage for the development and evolution of many distinctive traditions. The city is famous for its festivals, for its foods, and, especially, for its music. Each ethnic group in New Orleans contributed to the very active musical environment in the city and, in this way, to the development of early jazz.
One well-known example of early ethnic influences significant to the origins of jazz is the African dance and drumming tradition, which was documented in New Orleans. By the mid-18th century, slaves gathered socially on Sundays at a special market outside the city’s rampart. Later, the area became known as Congo Square, famous for its African dances and the preservation of African musical and cultural elements.
Although dance in Congo Square ended before the Civil War, a related musical tradition surfaced in the African-American neighborhoods, at least by the 1880s. The Mardi Gras Indians were black “gangs” whose members “masked” as American Indians on Mardi Gras Day to honor them. Black Mardi Gras Indians felt a spiritual affinity with Native American Indians. On Mardi Gras Day gang members roamed their neighborhoods looking to confront other gangs in a show of strength that sometimes turned violent. The demonstration included drumming and call-and-response chanting that was strongly reminiscent of West African and Caribbean music. Mardi Gras Indian music became part of the environment of early jazz. Several early jazz figures such as Louis Armstrong and Lee Collins described being affected by Mardi Gras Indian processions as youngsters. Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have been a “spyboy,” or scout, for an Indian gang as a teenager.
The popular musical forms that proliferated throughout the United States following the Civil War also influenced New Orleans music. Brass marching bands were the rage in the late 1880s, and brass bands cropped up across America. There was also a growing national interest in syncopated musical styles influenced by African-American traditions, such as cakewalks and minstrel tunes. By the 1890s, syncopated piano compositions called “ragtime” created a popular music sensation, and brass bands began supplementing the standard march repertoire with ragtime pieces.
1. Crews on slave ships and slave owners tried to keep the slaves belonging to the same African tribes apart in order to
a. make them feel as comfortable as possible.
b. minimize communication.
c. encourage intertribal interactions.
d. ensure a multicultural blend of slaves.
2. Slave masters outlawed drums when they
a. banned all forms of music.
b. saw that the drums were being made with animal skins and nail kegs.
c. realized that the drums were being used as a form of communication.
d. discovered that slaves were drumming instead of working.
3. According to the passage, which of the following is a true statement?
a. White Americans came to appreciate and love black music.
b. Performers such as Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra were the originators of American music.
c. White Americans never learned to fully appreciate black music.
d. African Americans never connected to the land and culture of the New World.
4. Which of the following was true about New Orleans in the 1700s?
a. African Americans made up more than fifty percent of the population.
b. Slavery was illegal.
c. Festivities were banned.
d. The jovial spirit of the city made it difficult to govern.
5. The musical tradition of New Orleans originated from
a. a unique and varied blend of cultures.
c. the Creole culture.
d. the Louisiana Purchase.
6. One specific African-American contribution to the New Orleans music tradition was
b. marching bands.
c. dancing at Congo Square.
d. Caribbean music.
7. Which of the following contributed to the distinctive culture of New Orleans?
a. easygoing attitudes shared by its peopleb.ethnic diversity and interactionsc. a unique historyd.all of the above
8. Explain why slaves who did not speak the same language were able to communicate with each other through music.
9. Why do you think African Americans honored Native Americans in early Mardi Gras celebrations?