Why New Orleans Jazz Is Special

Published: 26th June 2015
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Jazz is particular to America and is often associated closely with the city of New Orleans. But why is it so?

All styles of traditional jazz (swing, Kansas City, dixieland, Chicago, west coast) are unique for any number of reasons, but New Orleans is often thought of as first and foremost in the genre. This is mostly because New Orleans is where it all started. While most Americans were dancing to military marches in the late 1800s, New Orleans was moving more to the sounds of voodoo rhythms and drums. Of course, you don't have to travel far to also feel the strong influence of Delta Blues that combine those famous drumbeats into the style now known as "rhythm and blues" - but that's getting ahead of the story! Rhythm and delta blues, together with the sounds of gospel hymns from early 20th century churches, put together by the local musicians of New Orleans created the style that first came to be known as "jazz."

The first jazz greats are not always famous or taught in history class. But from Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong, the genre has continued to hold the interest of contemporary great musicians, such as Ellis Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, and Harry Connick Jr. When Papa Jack Lanine's band circa 1885 played, it was noticed that he did so in "ragged time." It has been said that these musicians who were playing in various tempos invented the next genre, called "swing." This may be so, but Papa Jack was also a well-known 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. Jazz spread like wildfire from Chicago to New York, all the way from Kansas City to the West Coast. Many musicians continued to evolve the form and left their mark on the evolving style (and still continues today!). New Orleans jazz is alive and well in the city of New Orleans and across the world.

New Orleans has also attracted some of the world's greatest musicians for centuries, which is probably why the genre was able to really take off here. In the 1920s, such great bands as Papa Clestin's Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, A.J. Piron's New Orleans Orchestra, the Sam Morgan Jazz Band and many others all called New Orleans home. While these musicians may not be as famous as Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong, the truth is that the musical scene in New Orleans has always been a fertile place for creative musicians, and a place where all those lovers of syncopated swing sound known as New Orleans jazz will always have a home.


Jimmy Maxwell is founder and Executive Director of the Louis Armstrong Society Jazz Band. He proudly promotes Louis Armstrong songs through the historical and entertaining show, "Salute to Satchmo" as well as other types of New Orleans jazz concerts at public and private events across the country. 

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