Feature: December 17, 1997
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.
A JAZZ SMORGASBORD
A CITY AS RICH AS ITS MUSIC
Paul Hagar '91 is PAW's senior editor.