Tracing the origins of Jazz in the formative years (1895-1917) is not an easy task. Recordings of Jazz did not begin until 1917, and even then the severe technical limitations of the primitive acoustical recording equipment distorted the true sound of the bands as they would have been heard in person. Ear-witness accounts of early Jazz bands of the turn of the century, like Buddy Bolden's band, vary widely. Nothing that they played was written and even if it was, it would be of little value. No musical notation has yet been devised that accurately describes the feel of an improvised performance.
Even the geographic location of the earliest Jazz experiments and the parties involved have been the subject much controversy. Many Jazz writers have pointed out that the non-Jazz elements from which Jazz was formed, the Blues, Ragtime, Brass Band Music, Hymns and Spirituals, Minstrel music and work songs were ubiquitous in the United States and known in dozens of cities. Why then, they reason, should New Orleans be singled out as the sole birthplace of Jazz? These writers are overlooking one important factor that existed only in New Orleans, namely, the black Creole subculture.
The Creoles were free, French and Spanish speaking Blacks, originally from the West Indies, who lived first under Spanish then French rule in the Louisiana Territory. They became Americans as a result of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and Louisiana statehood in 1812. The Creoles rose to the highest levels of New Orleans society during the 19th century. They lived in the French section of the city east of Canal Street and became prominent in the economic and cultural life of the section.
The Creole musicians, many of whom were Conservatory trained in Paris, played at the Opera House and in chamber ensembles. Some led the best society bands in New Orleans. They prided themselves on their formal knowledge of European music, precise technique and soft delicate tone and had all of the social and cultural values that characterize the upper class. In sharp contrast were the people of the American part of New Orleans, who lived west of Canal Street. They were newly freed blacks who were poor, uneducated, and totally lacking in cultural and economic advantages. The musicians of the American section, also called the Back o' town section, were schooled in the blues, Gospel music, and work songs that they sang or played mostly by ear. Memorization and improvisation characterized the west side bands; sight reading and correct performance were characteristic of Creole bands.
Then in 1894 an odious racial segregation law was enacted in New Orleans which forced the refined Creoles to live on the other side of Canal Street. Though this was a cultural catastrophe for the Creoles, they soon gained musical leadership of the American section . It was the musical sparks that flew on the clashing of these very different cultures in the ensuing decade that ignited the flames of Jazz. These happenings are discussed in the numerous recordings of Jelly Roll Morton made in 1938 at the Library of Congress in which he is interviewed by folk music expert Alan Lomax. They are the best documents we have of the process that transformed the many non-Jazz musical elements into Jazz. Jelly Roll, a Creole named Ferdinand LaMenthe at birth, was one of the big movers in the early development of Jazz. He explains in great detail how a Jazz piece like Tiger Rag evolved out of European dance forms like the French quadrille, the waltz, the mazurka and the polka. He also cites the importance of Spanish rhythms in early Jazz, an effect he calls the "Spanish Tinge".
Jelly Roll Morton claimed to be the inventor of Jazz in 1902, an absurd claim to be sure. What is even more absurd is that there is ample evidence to support his claim ! There is no doubt that Morton had isolated a music not covered by the blues or ragtime and that he applied a swinging syncopation to a variety of music, including ragtime, opera, and French and Spanish songs and dances. He also may have introduced the 2-bar break (the precursor to extended solos), scat singing and other improvisational ideas. Basically, the conversion of ragtime to Jazz was quite simple, involving application of a strong underlying 4/4 beat to 2/4 ragtime. But all great ideas are simple once understood. With this device, any music from opera to the blues could be "played hot" as it was described in those days.
The popularly accepted theory that Jazz stemmed from a simple combination of African rhythms and European harmony is in need of a little revision. Both African and European rhythms were employed. African music supplied the strong underlying beat (absent in most European music), the use of polyrhythms, and the idea of playing the melody separate from or above the beat. European music provided formal dance rhythms. Combined, these rhythms give Jazz its' characteristic swing. Likewise, the harmonies and musical ideas of both continents are present, the blue notes derived from the pentatonic scale, "call and response" and unconventional instrumental timbres of African music together with "conventional" harmonies and, most important, the formal structure of European music. The multiplicity of ethnic, cultural and musical conditions needed to spawn Jazz was thus unique to the United States, and specifically to New Orleans. The necessary philosophical impetus for Jazz, i.e. , democracy and freedom of individual expression supported by group interaction, are also American institutions.
Another ordinance which helped Jazz flourish in New Orleans was the establishment, in 1897, of Storyville, the Crescent City's legendary red-light district. From Basin Street to Robertson Street and from Perdido to Gravier, 2000 registered prostitutes plied their wares in dozens of sporting houses. The area was teeming with Jazz bands who usually played not in the bordellos but in the dance halls and dives which dotted the district, places with names like Funky Butt Hall, Come Clean Dance Hall and Mahogany Hall. The sporting houses usually employed a solo piano player, respectfully referred to by the girls as the "Professor". Jelly Roll Morton was once a Professor, much to the consternation of his family who promptly disowned him.
The prominent Jazz musicians born or raised in New Orleans at or before the turn of the century, many of whom worked in Storyville, would take several pages to list and would read like a Jazz Hall of Fame. The preeminence of New Orleans as a Jazz center came to an end in 1917 during World War I as a result of still another ordinance when Storyville was closed by the Navy Department. From these ignoble roots, Jazz went on to later earn the title of America's Classical Music, gracefully making the long trip from Funky Butt Hall to Carnegie Hall in 20 years. It subsequently gained recognition from the Lincoln Center of the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, Congress (don't hold that against it), the President of the United States, most Universities and music conservatories, as well as many classical conductors and the Royal houses of Europe! Vive le Jazz hot !