Jazz mixed cultures and sounds along the Mississippi, and an American art form was born

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Todd A. Price, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong

As the National Museum of African American Music opens its doors, journalists from the USA TODAY Network explore the stories, places and people who helped make music what it is today in our expansive series, Hallowed Sound.

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Saxophonist Donald Harrison, when he listens to the earliest jazz recordings, hears even older sounds. In the playing of those Black musicians from the early 20th century, Harrison discerns elements forged in New Orleans’ Congo Square.

A public market most days, on Sundays it was the one place in the South before the Civil War where Africans, both free and enslaved, could sing and dance in public. Here, the rhythms of Africa, played openly and with abandon, mingled with the musical forms of Europe.

“The incredible part to me is, even though the players today don’t have a consciousness of that, some of those things are still at the root of what we call jazz music,” said Harrison, 60, who began his career with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers in the 1980s.

New Orleans jazz legend Donald Harrison poses at the entrance to Armstrong Park where Congo Square is located. Harrison is the Big Chief of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, which keeps alive the traditions of Congo Square.
New Orleans jazz legend Donald Harrison poses at the entrance to Armstrong Park where Congo Square is located. Harrison is the Big Chief of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, which keeps alive the traditions of Congo Square.

He’s since made music that incorporates R&B, Latin rhythm, hip-hop and the chants of New Orleans’ Black masking Indians, the small groups that emerge on the city’s streets a few times a year in elaborate, handsewn feathered headdresses and costumes.

“Great innovations in music often come from port cities where diverse cultures mix together. And New Orleans was both a major port hub and the most culturally diverse city in the world during the period when jazz came into existence,” said Ted Gioia, music historian and author of “The History of Jazz.”

‘Music everywhere’

New Orleans was always one of America’s most musical cities. Opera was staged there starting in the 18th century. The large population of free people of color included many trained and accomplished musicians. And folk forms such as blues were in the air.

“Even before there was jazz, there was music everywhere, dancing everywhere,” said David Kunian, curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

During the last 100 years, Jazz has evolved and changed with the times. In the early decades of the 20th century, it propelled dancers across the floor. In the middle of the century, as bebop reigned, jazz became increasingly cerebral, veering more toward art than entertainment, a music to appreciate rather than dance to. It could whisper with the quiet dignity of Miles Davis’ modal album “Kind of Blue” or vibrate with the intensity of John Coltrane’s saxophone. It absorbed R&B and the rhythms of rock in the 1970s fusion age.

“Jazz musicians today still adhere to the same values that originated in New Orleans: a commitment to spontaneity, a willingness to draw on other styles of music, and especially a desire to have cross-cultural dialogues built on mutuality and respect,” Gioia said. “I hope jazz never loses those qualities. But I doubt it ever will.”

Today, a rapper or a string quartet — or both — might be as likely to appear on a jazz album as a saxophonist, trumpeter or double bassist.

“Jazz is one of those terms like love, it means many different things to many different people,” said Michael White, 65, a traditional jazz clarinetist and professor at New Orleans’ Xavier University.

Jazz eventually became a music of connoisseurs, but in New Orleans it remains a popular art form. Brass bands play jazz at funerals and behind floats at Mardi Gras parades. High school students perform for tips on corners of the historic French Quarter. And when the Saints score a touchdown, the PA at the Superdome blasts a jazz tune and everyone dances along.

“New Orleans is the only city, in my estimation, that has a jazz culture that permeates the whole city,” Harrison said. “It started as an African American experience, but now everybody has joined in.”

The trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2019 for his score to Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman,” first heard jazz on the streets of New Orleans during second line parades, that uplifted mourners after funerals and energized the weekend celebrations of African American social clubs.

“I thought that was the norm around the country,” Blanchard said.

Jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard at his home on Bayou St. John in New Orleans. Photographed on Wednesday, September 16, 2020.
Jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard at his home on Bayou St. John in New Orleans. Photographed on Wednesday, September 16, 2020.

When Blanchard, 60, was in high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — the same school that would later produce Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty and the actor Wendell Pierce — he would detour after class to Bourbon Street, telling his mom that he had extra work.

“I would go down and stand on the outside of the Famous Door and I would listen to Emery Thompson,” Blanchard said. “That was the big one.”

Every so often, Thompson would see Blanchard with his horn case and call him up to play.

“Musicians here create an environment in which they help you get better,” said Gwen Thompkins, host of “Music Inside Out” on the New Orleans NPR affiliate WWNO.

Nicholas Payton performs in the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Nicholas Payton performs in the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton, 47, also learned some of his earliest musical lessons on Bourbon Street. Payton, who rejects the label “jazz” and calls his genre-hopping work “Black American music,” came from a musical family. When he was young, his father, Walter Payton, would take him along to work, which meant sipping Shirley Temples at the Maison Orleans while dad played.

By the time he was 9 years old, Nicholas Payton performed alongside his father with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, a leading traditional brass band founded in 1938. The members all pitched in and paid him $10. By the time he was 12 years old, he had a summer gig, playing with Danny Barker and Shannon Powell at the Famous Door.

“Danny kicked off the first tune, and the owner sees this 12-year-old kid on stage. ‘Hey, hold on. Who's this kid? He's too young to play in a bar,’ he says. Danny was like, ‘Oh, don't worry about it.” Then he took off his fedora and slapped it on my head. “Just put my hat on him, and nobody will be able to tell how old he is,’” Payton said.

The kid played with the trio all summer. And he still wears fedoras.

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A family affair

By New Orleans standards, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah picked up the trumpet late.

“I was very fortunate to have my uncle (Donald Harrison), because he had played with Miles Davis and Art Blakey and Lena Horne. He was able to help me fill in some gaps, because I started so late as an 11 year old,” said Adjuah, 37.

New Orleans is populated by musical families, the most famous one being the Marsalis family. Ellis Marsalis, who died from complications of COVID-19 in April, was a pianist and educator who trained Harrison, Blanchard and Harry Connick Jr. He also trained his own children. The most famous of Marsalis' sons, who transformed jazz in the 1980s, are Branford and Wynton. The former is a Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist and composer whose latest project is the soundtrack for the Netflix film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The latter founded the Jazz at the Lincoln Center program in New York and remains its artistic director and leader of its jazz orchestra.

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U.S. jazz trumpeter Christian Scott performs on stage during the Nice's Jazz Festival on July 17, 2018 in Nice, southeastern France.
U.S. jazz trumpeter Christian Scott performs on stage during the Nice's Jazz Festival on July 17, 2018 in Nice, southeastern France.

“The sheer number of musical families is pretty close to being uniquely New Orleans,” Thompkins said. “That gives many New Orleans musicians the confidence to pursue music.”

By the time Adjuah was 13, the local musicians were buzzing about the kid who had mastered the complexity of bebop. That year, Adjuah headlined his first show at Snug Harbor, one of New Orleans’ leading jazz clubs.

Adjuah now lives in New York, which became the center of jazz in the 1930s.

“New Orleans might be the greatest jazz city in the world, but it has always struggled to keep its best musicians from leaving town,” Gioia said.

Adjuah joins a long list of New Orleans jazz musicians who found success once they left. King Oliver, one of the founders of jazz, moved to Chicago. Louis Armstrong's early, essential recordings were also made in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton, who boldly claimed he invented jazz, went to California.

“For one reason or another, whether it’s lack of resources, lack of vision or racial insensitivity, New Orleans never established a musical industry other than live music,” Thompkins said. “The gift that New Orleans keeps giving is sheer talent. New Orleans musicians have an opportunity — up until the pandemic — to play live as many nights of the week as they would like. And it’s only live performances that can really hone your talent.”

Adjuah who also has lived in Boston, Paris and Los Angeles, said every city has talented musicians. But jazz players from New Orleans always stand out.

“One of the differences in New Orleans is that you learn the music from the beginning. By the time you get to the contemporary thing, you’re armed with all of that information,” he said.

For White, jazz’s deep connection to New Orleans is more than musical history. He looks back to Armstrong, the poor boy whose life changed in 1912 when he was arrested for firing a gun in the air on New Year’s Eve. Armstrong was sentenced to Colored Waifs Home for Boys. There he learned to play in the reformatory school’s band.

Armstrong, before he became the beloved gravel voiced singer of “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World,” changed jazz, White said, by making the improvised solo central to the music. Improvisation, White said, is at the core of how New Orleanians cook, dance and live. That spirit of improvisation is why jazz has remained vibrant, letting it morph and embrace new influences.

“Louis Armstrong contributed the concept of possibility,” White said. “He opened the door to endless creative possibilities in the music.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Orleans created jazz by mixing cultures along the Mississippi