Street scene from Storyville: the 200 block of Basin Street.

Historical Context of the Development of Jazz

Content by
e/Prime Media & Randy Fertel

Congo Square


Congo Square, located in Armstrong Park near the intersection of St. Peter and N. Rampart Street, was the area designated by colonial and early American authorities for Africans and African Americans to gather for dancing, music performance, and trading. These gatherings were initially sanctioned by the French Code Noir, the 1724 edict that designated Sundays as days off for enslaved people. Congo Square became a vital venue for the continuation of African music and dancing traditions in North America.

Congo Square is often referred to as the birthplace of jazz. However, no direct link exists between the square, which ceased to exist as a public performance space in the mid-1800s, and the development of jazz in the early 1900s. Rather, elements of musical performance in Congo Square survived in local black communities and became integrated into early jazz decades later. Specifically, the vocalization of instruments, the conversational aspect of call and response, collective improvisation, and the use of the bamboula or habanera rhythm became key elements of New Orleans jazz. The bamboula, which enslaved people brought to Congo Square from Africa, was the basis for New Orleans’ unique blues style, and the source of the “Spanish tinge” noted famously by Jelly Roll Morton.

Race in New Orleans

Antebellum New Orleans was home to a diverse group of whites (French-speaking Catholics, English-speaking Protestants, and immigrants from Europe and the Caribbean, among others), enslaved black people, and the largest community of free people of color (gens de couleur libres) in the country. Many of the latter, concentrated Downtown (downriver from Canal Street), were formally educated and maintained a creole identity with a French-speaking, Catholic culture. They tended to embrace Western music traditions such as opera, classical, and military parade marches. Following emancipation in 1863, newly freed black people made every attempt to gain social mobility, while gens de couleur libres generally sought to maintain their separate social institutions and their elevated educational and social achievements.

Black musicians Uptown (upriver from Canal Street) were more likely to be Protestant, more likely to learn music by ear, and were known for playing improvised blues and ragtime. Many early jazz musicians from Uptown, including Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Johnny and Baby Dodds, were descendants of enslaved people from the city and the surrounding rural areas. Some important early Downtown players, including Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, and Freddie Keppard, were attracted to the “rougher” Uptown style of playing. Of course, neither Uptown or Downtown communities were monolithic; Uptown was home to educated musicians including Professors John Robichaux and James Humphries, and Louis Armstrong had some formal training. The development of jazz itself demonstrates the porousness of the Uptown/Downtown boundary.

Early jazz developed in a city where racial segregation in public accommodations, transportation, and education were dictated by law. White musicians, such as the early jazz players born of Italian and Sicilian immigrants, enjoyed a freedom of movement unattainable by black musicians. New Orleans was at the center of early legal battles over segregation: Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that led to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of “separate but equal,” began with activist Homer Plessy’s protest of a segregated railway car here. Many black jazz musicians chafed at living under Jim Crow. In the 1910s, some moved north or overseas to pursue economic opportunities and leave the restrictions and demeaning social order of the South. While segregation was the law of the land, some interracial musical performances did occur in the city.

Cotton Exposition


New Orleans hosted the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in 1884 to publicize the city’s recovery from its economic decline during the Civil War. Held Uptown at Audubon Park, the event featured a variety of exhibits and halls that emphasized Louisiana’s commercial and cultural ties to Latin America and the Caribbean. The Expo made a number of contributions to the development of jazz. Mexico’s national military band played a repertoire that reinforced the Afro/Latin-Caribbean habanera rhythm in New Orleans music. After the Expo, the Junius Hart Music Company published its Mexican Music series, which included the waltz “Sobre las Olas,” a song that evolved into the New Orleans jazz foxtrot standard “Over the Waves.” In another development, Papa Jack Laine, who mentored many early jazz musicians in his Reliance Brass Band, began his professional music career by playing drums at the Expo.

Cuba and The Spanish American War


The Spanish American War occurred during the developmental years of New Orleans jazz. Many local musicians, like Laine’s Reliance Brass Band, which was white, were mobilized for performance in military bands. Some, like the U.S. Ninth Infantry Regimental Band, comprised of many formally trained African Americans, served in Cuba. Some of these men went on to play with jazz musicians after the war, though the influence of Cuban music on early jazz is hard to attribute directly to this contact. The commercial relations between Cuba and New Orleans, the maritime traffic, and the popularity of Cuban sheet music in the city all contributed to the cultural exchange.



Storyville was the infamous red-light district behind the French Quarter, along Basin Street and between Canal Street and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. It operated for twenty years, until the U.S. Navy forced the city to shut it down during World War I. Its name mockingly referred to city alderman Sidney Story, who sought to create the district to control and reform prostitution in New Orleans. (Most of the area was leveled in the 1930s as part of a “slum clearance” project—only three original structures remain today.) The district had a mixture of upscale brothels in mansions, such as Hilma Burt’s and Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall on Basin Street, cheaper brothels with prostitute “cribs” and “pads,” saloons, and dance halls on the back streets. The mansions employed parlor pianists, including Manual Manetta and Jelly Roll Morton, to perform throughout the day and evening hours, while the saloons and dancehalls often hired ragtime dance bands to entertain patrons. The corner of Customhouse and Franklin (today’s Iberville and Crozat Streets) had several notorious saloons such as Big 25’s, where early jazz musicians socialized and had cutting contests.

The first jazz history book, Jazzmen, edited by Charles Edward Smith and Frederic Ramsey, characterized the district as the “birthplace of jazz” because many early jazz artists performed in it. This generalization fostered a misperception of the origins of jazz, propagated by the 1947 film “New Orleans” starring Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, which persists today. In fact, early New Orleans jazz was performed all over the city in a variety of venues and contexts. Certainly, musicians such as Manetta, Morton, Freddie Keppard, and Joe Oliver performed in Storyville. At the same time, jazz performances and dances took place in society dance halls, lakefront picnics, Lincoln and Johnson Parks, lawn parties in Uptown’s Central City neighborhood, as well as in upscale establishments like the Southern Yacht Club and the New Orleans Country Club.

Migration Into New Orleans

Many of the greatest musicians associated with early New Orleans jazz have their roots in rural areas outside of the city. The musical developments of the 1880s to the 1910s occurred while many residents of these small communities sought new economic opportunities and social advancement in New Orleans. King Oliver, Kid Ory, and Papa Celestin, for example, came to the city from south Louisiana’s sugar cane plantation belt. Leon Ropollo, an Italian American from Lutcher, moved to town when his father opened a grocery here. Many of these migrants remained in close contact with their families and friends back on the plantations, and interchange between the city and country was continuous. Railroads and boat excursions in rural areas often featured New Orleans jazz bands for entertainment. Concerts in small towns were important social events that were attended by most residents. Kid Ory first heard Buddy Bolden on a train excursion through LaPlace, and Joe Darensbourg heard Louis Armstrong on a riverboat in Baton Rouge.

Benevolent Societies

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, benevolent societies provided important benefits to their members, including burial insurance and, sometimes, help paying for health care. These societies hired brass bands for special events and parades, and rented their halls for dances where early jazz bands performed. Notable examples include the Masonic and Odd Fellows Association for Uptown African Americans, the Perseverance Masonic Lodge and the Etoile Polaire Masonic Lodge for white Creoles, La Société des Jeunes Amis and La Société de la Persévérance for Creoles of color in the Seventh Ward, and Unione Italiana for Italian, Sicilian, and Albanian immigrants. These societies declined in white communities as insurance companies provided more services. In black communities, which were barred from mainstream insurance, they evolved into social aid and pleasure clubs, sponsors of contemporary second line parades.

World War I


Early jazz historians credited the wartime closing of Storyville in 1917 with the dispersal of New Orleans musicians to other cities such as Chicago. However, some artists were already seeking opportunities out of town by the early 1910s. Others, like Laine and Manetta, were recruited to lead military bands in World War I. Louis Armstrong worked driving a coal cart as part of the “work or fight” mandate for African Americans during the war, inspiring his “Coal Cart Blues.” Jim Robinson, meanwhile, learned the trombone and played in the army band to avoid the hard labor of digging trenches. The mobilization of American troops oversees also helped spread jazz to England and continental Europe.

Migration Out of New Orleans

(c. 1910-1930)

The dispersal of jazz musicians out of New Orleans during the 1910s and 1920s is best understood in the context of the Great Migration, when African Americans left the South in great numbers. New Orleans jazz musicians were part of this movement of black people seeking to improve their economic and social conditions. Jelly Roll Morton was in the first wave of musicians to leave town, seeking both adventure and economic opportunity as he moved to Chicago and then to the West Coast. Bassist Bill Johnson moved to Los Angeles in 1911, and in 1914 invited members of the Original Creole Orchestra, including cornetist Freddie Keppard, to travel nationally on the vaudeville circuit. They are considered the first proto-jazz band to tour outside of New Orleans.

From that point, a large wave of musicians began to leave the city. In 1914, Sidney Bechet started touring nationally, and by 1919 he was in Europe. In 1916, the members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band departed New Orleans for Chicago at the invitation of café owner Harry James. In 1918, King Oliver moved to Chicago and toured on the vaudeville circuit, and Kid Ory moved to California in 1919 after receiving threats from New Orleans club owner Pete Lala. Drummer Paul Barbarin moved to Chicago in the 1920s to work in a meat packing plant, a job available to African Americans after World War I disrupted the influx of European immigrants.

A number of important musicians such as A.J. Piron and Papa Celestin toured nationally or regionally but stayed based in New Orleans, taking advantage of the local dance market. In the 1920s, automobiles provided musicians with greater mobility, and helped expose audiences all along the Gulf Coast to the jazz style.

The First Jazz Record


The Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s “Livery Stable Blues,” recorded for Victor Records in New York in February 1917, is considered the first jazz recording. It was an immediate hit, and sold over a million copies. The song’s foxtrot 4/4 rhythm distinguished it from ragtime songs, which were composed in 2/4 time. The band’s vocalization of their instruments was a was another distinguishing characteristic of New Orleans jazz, in which horn players used implements like mutes, cups, or hats to make their horns “talk” expressively. On “Livery Stable Blues,” the trombone imitated a donkey bray, the trumpet mimicked a horse neigh, and the clarinet sounded like a rooster crow. The record’s success created a demand for jazz bands internationally. When the Original Dixieland Jazz Band traveled to England after World War I, their recordings preceded them. Louis Armstrong recalled that even while the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was in New York and England, he bought their records in New Orleans.

Piron-Williams Publishing Co.


The Piron-Williams Publishing Company of New Orleans was considered the most successful African American-owned music publishing company in the United States during its heyday from 1916 through 1919. Owned by musicians/composers Armand J. Piron and Clarence Williams, the company was located at 1315 Tulane Avenue, now the site of the Tulane University Hospital. The Piron-Williams company published several songs that sold well and continue to be performed as jazz standards. Their song “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,” which was originally composed by Louis Armstrong and sold to the company, was a national hit in 1919. Other published songs, such as “Mama’s Gone Goodbye” and “Royal Garden Blues,” have been recorded by numerous well-known artists. After Williams relocated to New York in the 1920s, Piron established his own publishing company, which was housed at the Knights Of Pythias Temple at 234 Loyola Avenue, the largest African American-owned office building in the South at the time.

Early Jazz Recordings in New Orleans


In 1925, record companies began making trips to New Orleans to record local bands and profit off of the jazz craze that swept the nation. While none of these recordings became national hits, they stand as significant documents of the style and sound of jazz locally. In January 1925 Okeh Records became the first company to record in New Orleans when they did sessions with the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra and the Halfway House Orchestra (rendered Half-Way House Orchestra), two of the most popular jazz dance bands at the time. Victor Records, which had recorded A.J. Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra in New York during 1923 and 1924, decided to record the band in New Orleans and made a trip down south in March 1925. In September, Columbia Records recorded the Halfway House Orchestra as well as the New Orleans Owls, another popular local white jazz band.

Columbia made several recording trips to New Orleans in the late 1920s, and recorded Sam Morgan’s Jazz Band, one of the most popular on the Gulf Coast, during 1927. The recording session of the Jones and Collins Astoria Eight at the Unione Italiana in November 1929 is considered to be the first racially integrated one in the city’s history—the African American Jones and Collins band used white clarinetist Sidney Arodin.

The Rise of Big Bands


As jazz developed a more modern sound in the mid-1920s, the New Orleans style began to decline in popularity. In this transition, soloists and vocalists became more pronounced and orchestras got larger, a harbinger of the big band and swing era to come. Ironically, New Orleans native Louis Armstrong helped bring about this change: His Hot 5 and Hot 7 recordings from the mid-1920s made vocals and individual instrumental solos more prominent. At the same time, big bands and orchestras such as Paul Whiteman’s and Fletcher Henderson’s became more popular, and the dance marketplace moved toward their smoother sound. The New Orleans collective improvisational style never completely died, however, as smaller combos such as Teddy Wilson’s groups and Bob Crosby’s Bob Cat’s sub-group continued to play it in the 1930s. With the “New Orleans revival” of the 1940s, the form enjoyed a resurgence of popularity, and “Dixieland” jazz became a popular tourist attraction in New Orleans after World War II.

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