It would probably be fallacious to suggest that every city in the United States is alike; probably even to propose that every city is similar. But something one can be reasonably sure of is that there is no city in all of the United States of America quite like New Orleans, Louisiana. Forged in the blood and sweat of slavery it is a city where the cultures of Africa, Spain, France and other parts of Europe collided and though once dominated by the proverbial “Caucasian” now fairly reverberates with the cultural topography all its own in its “Africanness” and Creoleness – both in the flesh and in the spirit. You could comfortably put that down to the unbroken spirit of the black man (and woman) who, forever conquered and changed by Christianity, secretly melded the Christian God and the communion of saints into the pantheon long held sacred in Vodun, Serer, Dogon and Yoruba among others handed down by the ancestors from The Motherland, Africa.
Much as “they” tried, the Black man would never be broken; not in flesh and never in spirit. The secrets of his heart first found expression on Sundays in Kongo Square (Congo Square or Place Congo as some of its citizens also called it). This defoliated area, now within Louis Armstrong Park, is located in the Tremé-Lafitte neighborhood of the city of New Orleans, just across Rampart Street north of the French Quarter. Sundays meant release from the cruel toiling for the then-master; a time for free-spirited complaining to God by invoking the spirit in the traditional manner; with loud reports of drums, singing and dancing to sanctify the spot where God would come down to address his and her problems. It was a long time – centuries even – before God listened to their supplications.
Meanwhile, however, the rhythm down below had begun to vibrate and throb with a song so powerful it penetrated the deepest secrets of the Divine and as the plaintive call bounced back from the heavens over many Sundays, epic modern storytelling was born and began to grow until it became as powerful as the Judaic Psalms. Soon an African version of the psalter was created as well. The sound of baleful complaint became mixed in
with the celebration of life – of freedom, if only for a few hours on Sunday – came to reverberate through the square. The rhythmic codes eventually evolved into a more complete song, viscerally exciting when more instruments were added to the frenzy – brass, woodwinds, and strings and eventually the piano – and infinitely more sophisticated. There was no name for it, but it was the creation of the African, which was soon adopted by the Spanish-American and the Creole in across New Orleans.
There was no name for it until the brash Creole pianist Ferdinand LeMenthe who called himself Jelly Roll Morton declared that he had refined all of its elements – rhythm, melody and harmony – into a singular idiom of his own making. This he called jass. What began in bawdy whore houses and jook joints eventually spread to more respectable coffee shop in New Orleans. From Congo Square to the rest of Tremé-Lafitte through the rest of the French Quarter and from Storyville, Marigny, Algiers and Canal Street Jelly Roll’s proverbial “Jass” spread like wildfire. A new epic idiom was born when that first plaintive supplication – The Blues – melded with the coded backbeat of the snare and the big bass drum, the trumpet, trombone and tuba; the saxophone, clarinet and the piano, finally the violin, banjo and guitar, contrabass and finally the drumset; and Jazz – the epic idiom as we know it – was born.