In order to understand the importance of the early influences on jazz, it is necessary to provide an historical timeline of the social structures of the city of New Orleans relative to its cultural milieu. A brief overview of the history of New Orleans from its colonial times reveals several changes in territorial ownership which may account for its rich European, African and West Indian cultural exchanges. The timeline of colonial New Orleans reads:
- 1718-Founded by the French
- 1763-Transferred to the Spanish
- 1800-Ceded back to the French
- 1803-Sold by Napoleon to the US (Louisiana purchase)
- 1810-Haitian Revolution brought over 3000 free French-Cubans
- 1815-Site of the Battle of New Orleans
- 1820-1870 became home to Irish, German, Italian, Greek, Croatian, and Filipino immigrants, 2nd only to NYC in European immigration during this time period.
- 1862-Fell to the Union
- 1896- legal racial segregation law passed that defined all persons with any African ancestry as “Negroes”, blurring the lines between Africans, Creoles, and Latin-Americans. Many historians believe this to be a significant factor in the development of jazz. [i]
Colonial New Orleans was the central outpost and shipping port for French and Spanish trades to the new world and was one of the leading port cities for traders during the colonial period. The French and Spanish colony also was home to many “Free persons of Color” during this time that came from West Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Haiti. Many of these free people of color were highly skilled businessmen, craftsmen, educators, writers, farmers, and musicians. Their numbers were said to be about 10,000 by the civil war in 1860. The Mediterranean lifestyle which encouraged a “theatre of life in the street”[ii] was complimentary for the intermingling of the city’s inhabitants and the rich sharing of cultural heritage from European opera to Military brass bands to Latin American dance music to African street drumming. In this rich community of multi-cultural indulgence the roots of jazz emerged. A cultural profile of the colonial New Orleans city might look something like this:
- Culturally more of a Mediterranean city than that of its New England colonial cousins, exhibiting a tolerance for multiculturalism
- French catholic city, an outpost for the French and Spanish
- French, Spanish, Free Slaves, Native and Latin- Americans living in a multicultural environment resulting in many mixed marriages and mixed blood offspring.
Much of the music that developed into jazz came from the diverse cultural styles that were found in the French quarter, known as the “downtown” area, where musical influences from Europe, Latin America, Native Americans, Cuba, Mexico, and West Africa converged and emerged as jazz. Here, people of all these different origins celebrated life together and had many opportunities for musical expression within the Creole community. According to the National Park Service Study Team, the brass bands that were popular in the country in the 1880’s were also a rage in New Orleans. They contend: ”The roots of jazz were largely nourished in the African American community, but became a broader phenomenon that drew from many communities and ethnic groups in New Orleans”[iii]