With evidence of the rich cultural and ethnic background of colonial New Orleans, it is not surprising that the city would become the perfect nesting area for the formation of jazz; yet many historians overlook the multicultural contributions and use the vagueness of the term African-American to describe jazz. As confusing as this may seem, it is even further ambiguously noted in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture that “Jazz in the South was created and exported by Blacks and Whites, by musicians of every background- only to conclude that ‘jazz was created by Black musicians from a multi-ethnic culture.”[i] One possible explanation for this ambiguity may have to do with the ruling of the white segregationists. The ruling of Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 which legalized racial segregation and forced the Creole and African-American cultures to converge had a great deal of influence on the development of jazz. Prior to the passage of this law that labeled everyone with any African blood as Black, downtown Creoles and uptown Blacks existed in separate environments. Aside from their cultural differences, they had different opportunities for employment, different levels of education, and played different styles of music. This law now caused the White community to view both groups as African-Americans. According to Christopher Washburne,
“The passage of this law was a threat to Creole cultural identity and caused them to remain a tight community. The African-Americans, however, perceived the law as an opportunity to immigrate North to escape the prejudice and the hardships of the South; they were consequently more enthusiastic to travel than the Creoles. This difference may provide the reason why the Creole influence on the origins of jazz, which includes Spanish, French, Haitian, and Cuban traditions, has not been systematically explored.”
The lassie-faire attitude of tolerance and multiculturalism that existed in New Orleans in the mid- eighteenth century was instrumental in providing a hotbed for the incubation and birth of jazz. Many scholars equate the Mediterranean atmosphere of the city as a prime reason for the multitude of musical experiences possible, where French Opera houses co-existed with neighborhood street bands and brothels. Such diverse cultural musical opportunities existed nowhere else in the country at this time. Races intermingled and many mixed blood people were born into this new civilization. The resulting Creole people represent an amalgamation of many different cultural influences. Their music, which spread like a wild fire after the Jim Crow segregation laws forced many Negroes to migrate North to escape the hardships of the South, had actually existed for years before in the city at the mouth of the Mississippi. Not until the first recording of the ODJB in 1917 was the world fully cognizant of the treasure of the Euro-Latin-Afro music from New Orleans- Creole or Dixieland Jazz.
As we move forward in the twenty-first century, it is imperative that we take a closer look at our past presumptions and re-investigate the historical narratives that have come to represent who we are and where we come from. This philosophy is fitting in the history of jazz, where popular theory has not changed in thirty years despite several accounts that provide evidence of omission. Perhaps a further investigation into the cooperative enculturation of the people that identified eighteenth and nineteenth century New Orleans will serve as model for multicultural understanding in an ever shrinking Global community. In this spirit, more research is needed in the history of jazz, which has been labeled “America’s classical music.” The complex contributions of many diverse people who inhabited New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century should not be overlooked, but further investigated as we seek to understand what jazz is- a metaphor for life in the city where its roots took hold over one hundred years ago.
[i] Ibid.: 35.