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New Orleans Jazz History
A History of New Orleans Jazz
By Norrie Cox

Jazz music was at first a purely local phenomena of a mostly illiterate down trodden people. It was their "folk music" but it has since grown and spread until now it is the province of peoples the world over. It is impossible to say with any degree of certainty exactly how jazz came into being but we do know some things for sure and using my own reading and conjecture this is what I have come to believe!

When the Civil War ended in 1865 all of the enslaved persons of African descent were suddenly free. In the reconstruction period, that followed, their freedoms were guaranteed by Federal troops and despite having nothing in the way of possessions it was almost certainly a period of much happiness. During the many generations of bondage much of the musical and cultural heritage of their entire race had been obliterated and they were in effect a people without a musical heritage. I believe, and I must confess without much support from written histories, that jazz music evolved as the natural result of rejoicing in this new found freedom. Song and dance are instinctive ways to celebrate and without a native music something had to take it's place.

New Orleans was a unique city. Long before the Civil War it was a bustling sea port where persons of many races lived and intermingled with much less segregation than in other parts of the country. The population was made up of peoples descended from many, if not all of the European nations, new immigrants from all over the world, pure bred persons of African descent, who had earned their freedom and had papers designating them as Freedmen, Creoles, who were of white and black heritage, and a sprinkling of native Americans. After the civil war many thousands of newly freed slaves were absorbed into this mix and their own, plus the various other musical heritages of this polyglot of peoples supplied the raw material that the they drew upon in forging their own new music(s).

The Buddy Bolden Band - 1905

Gospel, spirituals and the blues came first being largely vocal renditions and jazz followed close behind. Most of the jazz histories give credit for it's invention to one man, Charles "Buddy" Bolden, but I suspect that in reality many persons and groups, in and around New Orleans, learned to play and experimented with various combinations of instruments before the new music, around 1890, crystallized into what we would now recognize as New Orleans jazz. Discarded civil war instruments were probably fairly plentiful and the would-be musicians, because of their being outside of the normal education system and unable to afford lessons, came up with a totally new way of playing. They did what came naturally and tried to "sing" through their horns and this together with the remnants of their African heritage resulted in a revolutionary new form of band music. Played without written music and relying heavily upon improvisation, a key component that had survived from their African heritage, it was at first very crude and was not called anything but "raggedy" music. It was looked down upon by everyone except the lower strata of Black New Orleans society that quickly accepted it as it's own and these "fakers or ear" players became local heroes.

Many of the Creoles, because of their lighter skin, had become wealthy professionals and business people long before emancipation, and in some cases even became slave owners themselves. They embraced the European musical tradition of the written note and were active supporters of the arts. They had their own orchestras and groups that provided music for all occasions from society dances to operatic performances and their dance orchestras were in great demand for many purely white functions. In the Reconstruction years following emancipation segregation was unlawful with integration enforced by Federal troops garrisoned in New Orleans but despite this it was still a sad fact of life that the lighter an individual's skin the more opportunities there were for advancement and acceptance. Blues singer Big Bill Broonzy in a 1951 Paris, France, recording sang "If you be white you's all-right, if you's brown stick around but if you're black, huh, huh baby, git back, git back, git back!" and this was the harsh fact of life!

The music of the two African traditions, the somewhat crude improvised folk music of the Black untutored musician who tended to live in the uptown section of New Orleans, and the highly skilled European written tradition of the trained Creoles from downtown, continued side by side until the mid 1890's. Obviously some of the Black musicians learned to read music and we know that there was some intermixing of the two but Creoles were very proud of their white ancestry and generally looked down on the pure negro as inferior and considered improvisation just faking and a poor cousin to their pure interpretation of the written score. The two generally played for entirely different audiences and this state of affairs continued after withdrawal of the Federal troops in 1877 when segregation again gradually reared it's ugly head.

The climax came in 1894 with passage of the infamous "White Act" that classified all persons with any African ancestry as Black and the Creoles, virtually overnight, lost their privileged status. This meant that the Creole musician who wished to continue in the music business suddenly had to lower his expectations and compete directly with his darker skinned cousin for the lower class of job and found, I suspect to his horror, that his musical training was of no advantage in a band that played without music for an audience demanding music based on the blues. Many simply gave up music but those that could, learned to improvise and this combined with their superior techniques made them formidable competitors. Similarly, the folk musician, in order to survive, had to improve his technique and this forced melding of the two resulted in a giant improvement of their music and produced the likes of Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Johnny and Baby Dodds, Bunk Johnson and George Lewis from the Uptown group and Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, Jimmie Noone and Jelly Roll Morton from Downtown.

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Kid Ory's Original Creole Jazz Band - 1922

The first recordings of Black New Orleans musicians were not made until June of 1922 when Kid Ory took his group into the Sunshine studios in California with disappointing results but on April 6, 1923 when King Oliver took his Band into the Gennet studios and cut 9 sides and preserved for all time evidence of this astonishing new music. It's interesting to note that he called his band, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and these sides, and those from two sessions for Okeh in June of the same year, are true jazz classics and in my opinion represent the ultimate in pure improvised ensemble jazz music.

Some time after 1910 bands began to leave New Orleans with several settling in Chicago and it was here that the name jazz became attached to this new musical phenomenon. A group of young white musicians playing in a style reminiscent of the original were heard in New Orleans by a promoter looking for talent. He brought them to Chicago where they were presented at Lamb's Cafe. It is said that a rival cafe owner in an attempt to disparage the growing popularity of the rambunctious group used Jass as a put down in his own advertising in the hope of dissuading people from patronizing his competition. However, it had just the opposite effect, with the prurient and just curious flocking to hear them, since the jass epithet, in slang parlance, had a direct sexual connotation. Tom Brown's Band from Dixieland became, virtually overnight, a huge success and other cafe owners looked for similar bands and another group of white youngsters from New Orleans, came first to Chicago and then to New York where, they were a similar sensation at Reisenweber's Restaurant. On January 20, 1917, as the Original Dixieland Jass Band, they made the first ever jass recording for Columbia but it was their second on February 26th for Victor that was issued first and out sold even the contemporary singing sensation, Enrico Carusso. This ushered in the 1920's jazz age and all subsequent forms of hot improvised music have been labelled as Jazz ever since. It is said that Freddie Keppard was offered the chance to record in 1916 but turned it down because he was afraid other bands would then be able to steal his music! It is interesting to speculate how differently jazz might have developed since it was to be another seven years before the music of Black jazz musicians was finally recorded.

Jelly Roll Morton's Red Hot Peppers - 1926

From this point on jazz became firmly ensconced in the maelstrom of the entertainment industry and as with every business endeavor had to move with the times or go under. Musicians who chose music as a career had to continually adapt and Jelly Roll Morton, a Creole piano player, was one of the first to successfully combine the written and improvised styles into a truly hot jazz music and can be heard with his Red Hot Peppers on three sessions for Victor in September and December of 1926. These two groups together with the Dodds and Ory sessions of July 1926 are the pinnacle of the Classic New Orleans style and have never been surpassed but times and tastes change! In 1924 Louis Armstrong left King Oliver and went to New York where he began to stand the New Orleans ensemble tradition on it's head and on his return to Chicago, in 1927, made a number of truly remarkable recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. These however retain very little of the New Orleans ensemble style and really marked the death knell of it as a saleable product in the entertainment world. From then on, as jazz has evolved into a myriad of styles, it has become the province of the individual soloist rather than of the group!

Luckily, however, our history of New Orleans jazz does not end there! The original tradition survived in and around New Orleans as a truly local folk music played by musicians who chose to stay home rather than join the exodus to the big cities and, as gigs became scarce, took day jobs to support themselves and their families. The music continued to be played in and around New Orleans without significant change through the late 1930's.

Bunk Johnson - 1939

By this time small group jazz had virtually disappeared from the popular music scene and the Swing Orchestra held center stage. As a reaction to the sterility of these large arranged orchestras some fans and musicologists wondered what had happened to the early jazz pioneers and discussions with Louis Armstrong revealed that he had seen and talked to Bunk Johnson during one of his tours through the south. Bunk, who was a contemporary, although somewhat younger, of Buddy Bolden, was tracked down by Bill Russell, a young percussion student, and was directly responsible for Bunk having a second career in music. The letters between them make fascinating reading and the whole story may be read in the extraordinary book "Jazzmen" edited by Frederick Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith that was first published in 1939.

In 1942 Bill Russell, Dave Stuart and Gene Williams travelled to New Orleans where they met with and, on June 11, 1942, recorded Bunk with musicians of his choice that included George Lewis on clarinet and Jim Robinson on trombone. The music is somewhat rough but has a vitality that is truly incredible and once again brought New Orleans ensemble playing into the limelight. Bunk had quit playing in 1932, after his horn was smashed on the band stand during a fracas that resulted in the stabbing death of leader Evan Thomas, and was eking out a subsistence existence as a truck driver in the rice fields of New Iberia. His teeth were in terrible shape but his mouth was fixed up by Sidney Bechet's dentist brother, Leonard, and he got his lip back in shape practising on a trumpet and a cornet, both in poor condition and purchased with $25 sent by the Lu Watter's Yerba Buena Band. He later received a nearly new Selmer trumpet, that he played until the end of his life, donated by a young Louis Armstrong admirer, Bill Rosenberg. George, who had also been in the band on that fateful night in 1932, and Jim were virtually unknown outside of New Orleans although Jim had recorded with Sam Morgan's band in 1927.

Henry "Kid" Rena

The session almost did not take place because they were unable to find a studio that would allow a "colored" band to record but eventually a room above Grunewald's Furniture Store was made available and Bill's equipment set up. The afternoon of June 11, 1942 was typical of those of a hot humid Louisiana summer and the occasional intrusional sounds from the street through the wide open windows were also captured for posterity. These recordings, released on Jazz Man, provided the fodder for a worldwide revival of interest in early New Orleans jazz but it should be noted that these were not the first recordings of the revival. Earlier, in August of 1940, Heywood Hale Broun had organized a session to record a group under the direction of Kid Rena on trumpet which were issued on Delta. The music is uneven and does not have the spark of the Bunk session and did not arouse the passion in the listener that the Bunk's were to do two years later. They are however of great historical importance and have the first recorded example of clarinetist Alphonse Picou playing his now famous solo on "High Society".

Gene Williams recorded Bunk again on October 2, of the same year and then Bill Russell cut the first of his remarkable "American Music" series, on May 16, 1943, with the Climax session under George Lewis' leadership which to me are the epitome of the true, so called Archaic style of Uptown New Orleans ensemble jazz music.

There is an apparent dichotomy here as I earlier described the King Oliver recordings "as representing the ultimate in pure improvised ensemble jazz music." The Lewis and the Oliver styles both grew on the same roots but the Oliver reordings are of a highly organised professional band while those of Lewis still retain the highly emotional folk content of the original. In later years, as Lewis toured widely, his bands also largely lost the folk content and, as Oliver did after 1923, began to feature the players as solo instrumentalists.

Yerba Buena Jazz Band - 1942

Now to the revival! In the late thirties, trumpeter, Lu Watters, who was a professional musician got tired of playing standard music for dancers and decided to recreate the music of the Classic jazz era and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band began it's successful career. Service in the Navy during WWII was an interruption and the first two years were very precarious financially but Lu persisted and in retrospect we can see that this was the geneses of the New Orleans jazz revival. The instrumentation of the band was modelled on that of the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and with the two trumpet line up, of Watters and Bob Scobey, was a very powerful band. For whatever reason they did not recreate the hallmark four beat rhythm of a true New Orleans ensemble preferring instead a heavy two beat, with the first and third beats emphasized, using a tuba in the rhythm section. Later, Turk Murphy, the excellent Kid Ory styled trombonist, left to form his own band, where the rhythm became lighter and more four beat oriented. Turk and his band remained true to the Classic tradition right up to Turk's retirement shortly before his death in 1987 and many many bands all over the country modelled their style his. It's interesting to note that very few actually based their style directly on that of the original pioneers!

Lu Watters' work does not seem to have been connected in any way with that of Bill Russell, but the two came together in San Francisco at the historic concert put on by Rudi Blesh, Bill Colburn, Clancy Hayes and others on May 9, 1943. Part of this concert is available on American Music Records (AMCD-16). Bunk later appeared every Sunday afternoon for several months with members of the Watters Band as "Bunk Johnson And His Hot Seven" and in the following year replaced Lu and recorded 13 tracks as "Bunk Johnson with The Yerba Buena Jazz Band" in the Spring of 1944 (eight of which are available on Document Records JPCD-1929-2). Altogether Bunk spent some 18 months on the west coast and although he and Lu had a healthy respect for each other they apparently never actually played together. Information for parts of this paragraph was taken from John Buchanan's book "Emperor Norton's Hunch".

The Uptown Archaic style did not catch on with young bands to the same extent until the 1960's, possibly because many of the New Orleans originators were still alive and performing. Then, bands such as the Hall Brothers Jazz Band and the Magnolia Jazz band, developed into very good authentic sounding uptown revivalist jazz bands but the genre never generated the same enthusiasm and support here as occurred in other countries. Special mention must be made of "Big" Bill Bissonnette who with his Easy Riders Jazz Band was instrumental in recording many of the New Orleans pioneers. His excellent book "The Jazz Crusade" describes his part in the revival of the 1960's and is "must" reading. The Hall Brothers Band was also important in bringing many of the native New Orleans musicians into the spotlight at their own long lived Emporium Of Jazz in Minnesota.

Narvin Kimball

Today there are many bands containing excellent musicians playing in the "Traditional" jazz style but only a handful that play true to the New Orleans Uptown Tradition. The revivalist genre has spread worldwide but the truly folk aspect has almost been lost. Now that all of the pioneer players, with the notable exception of Narvin Kimball, are no longer with us the tradition in New Orleans is kept alive by a cadre of resident and foreign born musicians but the number in the U.S.A. who strive to keep it alive dwindle every year. However, mention must be made of the excellent bands of young musicians centered around Clint Baker, a talented multi instrumentalist, out on the West coast and the slightly older Pittsburgh group, the BoilerMaker Jazz Band centered on the Constantino brothers, and there may be others unknown to me, but it remains to be seen whether they will remain true to the uptown New Orleans tradition. It is a real dichotomy that a truly gifted musician who starts out enamored by the beauty and originality of New Orleans music finds that as he develops his talent he feels a compulsion to move on to something different. This is understandable and perhaps is how it should be, since jazz is a constantly developing medium and as long as we are able to get young people interested in playing in the early jazz genre we will be able to enjoy it in live performance.

Allan & Sandra Jaffe at Preservation Hall - early 1960's

After the death of Bunk Johnson it seemed that the revival would fade away but with the opening of Preservation Hall on June 13, 1961 it was back in full swing. It had never really died with many individuals such as Grayson Mills with his ICON Label and even some from abroad such as Barry Martyn with his MONO Label, came to New Orleans to preserve the work of many of the surviving musicians but actual work was scarce. The Hall provided regular nightly gigs and perhaps more importantly enabled thousands upon thousands of tourists to hear the music for the first time. Soon the Preservation Hall Jazz Band(s) began touring and by the late sixties were in demand worldwide. Now that all of the original artists have passed on the Hall still presents New Orleans flavored music seven nights a week and the tourists still crowd in but the musicians do not have their roots firmly planted in the same soil that nurtured their forebearers. William Carter's excellent book "Preservation Hall" describes the history of the Hall and of the musicians who played there.

Ken Colyer

Finally, some thoughts on how the genre became a world wide phenomena. Classic jazz, both live from visiting Americans and on foreign labels was heard in many countries from around 1917 and some soon had their own jazz and hot dance bands but the Uptown style was not heard until the Bunk Johnson, George Lewis and Kid Rena records mentioned above became available during and immediately after WWII. These were so different to anything locally available and before long teenage musicians, particularly in England, were trying to emulate these wonderful sounds. In retrospect one can see that it was a revolt against the cloying sentimentality of popular music at that time and in England it seemed, until it was trounced by the music of the Beatles, that it would become the popular music of the day and indeed several recordings of these revivalist bands made their way into the Top Twenty lists. However, Trad Jazz, as the output of these myriad bands came to be called, had none of the subtlety of interplay between the instruments and the rhythmic complexity of the original and it was left to such stalwarts as Ken Colyer, who strived to preserve the freewheeling collective improvisation of the Uptown style of Bunk Johnson and George Lewis, and Cy Laurie, Humphrey Lyttelton and Steve Lane that of the classic downtown style as exemplified by King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton.

Today there are many bands in foreign countries that produce very good music true to the traditions of both the Uptown (Archaic) and Downtown (Classic) styles and although this country continues to excel in the innovation and performance of comtempory styles of jazz one has to wonder why so little attention is given to preserving the original genre. Our Orchestras continue to play the music of the largely European classical masters, with a Symphony Orchestra in virtually every major city, while our own unique truly home grown product is revered around the world but largely ignored here. I suspect that if we dug deep enough we would find that the explanation is race related but the music is well able to speak for itself and, I suspect, will one day be given the true respect that it deserves.

Norrie Cox

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