Imagining 20th century music without New Orleans is like imagining painting without Picasso. The city has a rich and varied musical tradition, but it is above all the birthplace of jazz.
From its foundation, New Orleans was the most cosmopolitan of American cities, the place all the cultures came together. It had the first opera house in the US.
But above all it was the place where different African cultural traditions mixed together to create possibly the most fertile seed-bed for musical innovation ever known.
That process began soon after the American Civil War. The end of slavery saw thousands of ex-slaves thronging into the city looking for a better life.
What they found was a racist and segregated city, but at the same time a cultural climate freer and more diverse than anything that existed elsewhere in the US.
From about 1880 onwards, thousands of blacks would gather in the city’s Congo Square for dances, powered by a combination of African drums and classical instruments. As different groups of musicians competed to inspire the dancers, it became a laboratory of musical invention that at some point came to be known as jazz.
One of the earliest products of this ferment was ragtime piano, which was to become the first distinctively American popular music. It was also the first time that white musicians would reap most of the benefits from a black-invented form of music, and far from the last.
The bars and brothels provided steady work for the piano players who had developed ragtime. But far more important were the marching bands, which were to become one of the defining images of the city.
It also created a fundamentally new type of musician. The first generation of New Orleans jazzmen were the first professional black musicians. Although most of them had to work at other jobs in order to survive, their aim was to live from playing music.
Ever since the birth of jazz, there have been complaints about the commercialisation of New Orleans, often contrasted to a mythical “authentic” golden age, which misses the point that the commercialisation was necessary for the development of jazz.
For the musicians, this was the necessary first step towards being treated as artists and having the freedom to fully develop their art. This wouldn’t have been possible outside New Orleans’ highly developed entertainment industry.
Black jazz was first recorded in 1922, but a generation of musicians had come and gone before then. The most legendary of these was the trumpeter Buddy Bolden, the man who Louis Armstrong cited as his greatest influence. We can only imagine what they sounded like in what was the high noon of New Orleans jazz.
For by the time that most New Orleans musicians were recorded, they weren’t from New Orleans any more. The First World War led to the “great migration” of blacks to the north, and many of the musicians followed their audiences.
Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet—all of them spent their careers outside New Orleans, but their different musical styles each retained that particular lilt and vitality that’s characteristic of the city.
That raucous celebration of diversity is New Orleans’ greatest gift to the world, and whatever may happen to the city itself, it’s a legacy that will not die.