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What Makes New Orleans Jazz Special

While Jazz is considered an American art form and particular to New Orleans, the question is often asked “Why?”

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In all styles of traditional jazz (Chicago, swing, west coast, Kansas City or dixieland) New Orleans Jazz stands out for a number of reasons. First and foremost, New Orleans is where it all started. While most of Americans were moving their feet to military marches in the late 1800s, New Orleans was moving to voodoo rhythms and drums. Of course you didn’t have to travel far to have the influence of Delta blues to combine those drum beats into rhythm and blues but that is getting ahead of the story. The combination of rhythm and delta blues merged with the sounds of gospel hymns coming out of the churches of the early 20th century. This gumbo of sounds put together by local musicians in New Orleans created the very first jazz.

Although Buddy Bolden is considered one of the first jazz men, he was surpassed by people such as Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. It’s not a far leap from the days of those stars to the current flag waivers such as Ellis Marsallis, Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. When Papa Jack Lanine’s band circa 1885 played, it was noted that he did so in a “ragged time”. It’s been said that the musicians played in various tempos and that made it “swing”. Perhaps so, but Papa Jack was also a consummate clarinetist, teacher and mentor to many of the early jazz musicians.

Another factor in the early New Orleans sound was the importance of improvisation. In classical music the goal is to play the same songs without varying from one note each time play a piece. Now as for jazz, the idea is to use the melody line as a guide and then to play extemporaneous passages based on that melody and chord structure.

New Orleans jazz is often referred to as “hot jazz” or “early jazz”, a style of music that led to the Lindy Hop dance in Harlem some years later. The unique cultural environment of New Orleans in the late 19th and 20th centuries with vestiges of Spanish and French colonial roots mixed with the influences of Africans freed from slavery cannot be over stated. Simply put, there’s no place like New Orleans.

By 1917, the early pioneers of jazz were taking their music on the road. From Chicago, to New York and from Kansas City to the West Coast, New Orleans jazz spread like wild fire. The long list of musicians who each left their stamp on the evolving jazz style continues to this date. New Orleans jazz is alive and well in the city of New Orleans and across America.

Furthermore, many of the great musicians stayed at home in the 1920s which lead to such great bands as Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, A.J. Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, The Sam Morgan Jazz band and many others. None of these musicians became famous in the manner of Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton, but the truth is the musical scene in New Orleans remains fertile ground for creative musicians united by a common love of that syncopated swing sound known as New Orleans Jazz.