Feature: December 17, 1997

American Classical
An alumni college in New Orleans explores the roots of jazz
by Paul Hagar '91

IN HIS BOOK JAZZ, AMERICA'S CLASSICAL MUSIC, jazz historian Grover Sales describes this uniquely American musical form as "a bouillabaisse of sound from every culture washed up on these shores." Last April, a group of us savored this rich soup at an alumni college in New Orleans directed by Anthony Branker '80, a professional trumpeter and a visiting associate professor who teaches jazz at Princeton and directs the university's jazz ensembles.
Our three-day immersion in the culture and history of jazz and the city that gave birth to it began on a drizzly Friday morning with a walking tour of the French Quarter. This was my first visit to New Orleans, and its famous section looked much as I had pictured it from photographs. The low-rise, Spanish-style buildings with their decorative iron grillwork contrasted sharply with the gleaming commercial towers of the adjacent downtown. We passed by the building, at 722 Toulouse Street, where Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire, as well as many other plays and short stories. Just beyond this literary landmark was Storyville, a neighborhood whose history is integral with jazz. Once the city's red-light district, it was ironically named for Sidney Story, a moralizing city councilman who in the late 19th century campaigned to make prostitution illegal outside the 12-block area.
Storyville's leading business played a crucial role in the development of jazz, especially for piano players. As our tour guide, Roberts Batson, explained, "Jazz grew up at the same time as Storyville, because the brothels provided some of the best-paying jobs for top performers." Looking around at the closely packed buildings, it was easy to visualize a humid summer night with music pouring onto streets swarming with sailors, and ladies of the evening lounging on the balconies above.
That evening we gathered at the Pelican Club, a restaurant in the French Quarter, for a lecture by Branker. In an informal game of Name That Tune, he began by playing some recorded pieces on a tape deck and asking us to identify the artists and titles. He wanted to give us a sense of the range and depth of jazz, and the different styles were indeed striking--from the complex interplay of the Lincoln Center Jazz Ensemble's "New Orleans Suite," to the atmospheric, sexually charged tone of vocalist Cassandra Wilson's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," to the smooth, relaxing sound of Brazilian pianist Elaine Elias's "Girl from Ipanema."
"Listening to those recordings," said Branker, "you can see how jazz affects the intellect, heart, soul, and body." Whatever form it takes, he added, jazz is fundamentally a fusion of European melodic traditions with African rhythms--"emblematic of the American heritage. It is Africans and Europeans adopting each other's styles, while adapting to each other's cultures. From this interaction, a brand-new culture was formed." According to Branker, the etymology of "jazz" is itself a reflection of the music's origins: the term is similar both to an Elizabethan word meaning "to uplift or invigorate" and to jaiza, an African word meaning "a rumbling of distant drums."
As Branker told us in a subsequent lecture, the base ingredient of jazz is the Negro spiritual, which drew white Protestant hymns through the "African filter" of the call-and-response work song. Spirituals were typically slow songs that emphasized interpretation by individual artists, who improvised and embellished around the central melodies, just as jazz musicians do today.
Spirituals came out of the culture of blacks who worked the plantations around New Orleans as slaves, and who following the Civil War migrated to New Orleans seeking work as laborers. Another black culture, that of the Creoles (a term with various meanings, but used here to mean the mixed-race descendants of free blacks and 18th-century French and Spanish settlers) also contributed to jazz's beginnings. Creoles had their own, more middle-class musical traditions. Often trained in classical forms, able to read music, and playing a range of brass, wind, and percussion instruments, they looked down on the rougher sound of self-taught rural blacks, with whom they had little cultural or social contact. That changed in the 1890s, when newly enacted Jim Crow laws segregated New Orleans and made Storyville a ghetto for any music played by African-Americans. Institutionalized racism brought together the two traditions, integrating the musical training of Creoles with the tonal coloration, growls, polyrhythm, and polyharmony of poor blacks. The result was early jazz.

WITH A BASIC understanding of the elements that created jazz, we spent part of our second day at the home of Kevin Mackey '71, who hosted a reception for the group. Our alumni college was taking place the same weekend as the annual French Quarter Festival. Mackey's second-story apartment overlooked Jackson Square, where the festival was centered, and his balcony afforded us a ringside seat for the activities below. Before long, most of us drifted down to take part in the fun and to partake of the music and food. The festival bills itself as the "World's Largest Jazz Brunch," and we sampled a smorgasbord of cajun food, including whole boiled crawfish; a variety of gumbos--thick soups of tomatoes, seafood, and okra (which is thought to have been brought to America by African slaves); eggplant jambalaya (a cajun stew); shrimp étouffée; "dirty rice" (a reddish-brown jumble of peppers, onions, chicken, and rice); spicy Andouille sausage; and more common carnival foods like corn dogs, cotton candy, and poor-boy sandwiches.
On a tour of different musical groups I tagged along with Branker, hoping to learn from his practiced ear; we were joined by Dave DeFreese '91, an associate director of the Alumni Council and the college's administrator, and his wife and classmate, Jeanine Doré. The music was in full swing, and we listened to the Dukes of Dixieland play half a set, before heading out toward the riverfront, where a number of other musical acts were performing. The Pinettes, a septet of young women who call themselves "America's only female brass band," reminded us of the role that brass bands played in the development of jazz. A century ago, brass bands had provided most of the popular music in cities across the nation. In the black communities of New Orleans, an improvisational style became popular as bands played so-called "head music," with jazz's trademark embellishments on a central melody.
On two stages nearby, the Zydeco Twisters and the Volunteers (the U.S. Army Field Band), played rock and roll, which not surprisingly (if somewhat disappointingly) attracted the largest crowds. Rock is an outgrowth of black-based rhythm-and-blues, and like jazz it too traces its origins to African roots (particularly the call-and-response work song). By the time of rock's emergence in the 1950s, jazz had evolved into a number of distinct styles. Over dinner that night at Arnaud's, a popular restaurant off Bourbon Street, and in a lecture the next morning, Branker discussed where musicians have taken jazz since it emerged from the fleshpots of Storyville a century ago, and gave us some sense of where it might be going in the years ahead.
He talked about ragtime, which sparked America's first popular-music craze at the turn of the century, and its descendant, swing, which was even more popular in the 1930s and 1940s. This was the era of giants like Louis Armstrong (the only jazz artist to have equal influence as a musician and a vocalist), Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Benny Carter. Since World War II, jazz has mutated further--into bebop, hardbop, free jazz, fusion, and various nouveau styles.
According to Branker, performance styles in jazz have became more varied since the 1960s, when the general public abandoned it for rock and roll. Today, he said, "artists are required to be chameleons who can play many different styles. It's a necessary evil, in order for musicians to appeal to the widest audience possible." At the same time, he added, there are fewer opportunities for experimentation and on-the-job training. "Musicians are learning in school settings, rather than on the street or at club jam sessions--those situations don't exist anymore." Still, he is encouraged by the emergence of new artists, like trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who show that jazz has lost none of its creative power.

DRIVING TO the airport to return to Princeton, I passed skyscrapers and the Superdome. This uniform, late-20th-century urban landscape seemed far removed from the funky French Quarter, and nowhere hinted at the richly varied city we had come to know. If jazz is a bouillabaisse, as Green says, then New Orleans is not unlike its cuisine--a kind of gumbo of African, American, and European ingredients further flavored by the cultures of Latin America and Asia (the city's most recent immigrants are Cuban and Vietnamese). Even the city's geology reflects this mix. Beneath it lies 60 feet of silt washed down the Mississippi from the old French and Spanish colonial territories, which became American with the Louisiana Purchase, in 1803. New Orleans's cultural deposits are similar, creating a city that's crowded with influences and a musical form that is no less complex.

Paul Hagar '91 is PAW's senior editor.