New Orleans is widely seen as the place where Jazz took its first steps. Are there reasons why it had to be New Orleans or could it have happened in any other town?
The indegrients for the new Jazz, the Blues, the Ragtime, Chorals and Marching Bands, to name the most important, where known in many other cities. However, there was a constellation which made New Orleans unique and maybe the only possible place where Jazz could be created.
In the 19th century, New Orleans was a melting pot of multiple cultures, Blacks, Creoles, Europeans and it was one of the, if not the, most cosmopolitan cities in the world with little racial separation.
The Creoles were a very important part of the town in the 19th century. Originated from the West Indies, they were free Americans, lived in the better part of New Orleans and were prominent in the economic and cultural life of the town. Many of their musicians were very well educated, for example in Paris, and played at the Opera House and in chamber ensembles.
Their lives were in stark contrast to the ones of the newly freed blacks, which lived west of Canal Street in the poor part of the town and were uneducated. The musicians west of Canal Street played blues and Gospel music, mainly by ear.
In the 1890ies however, a new law was put in force in New Orleans, which forced the Creoles to move to the poor part of New Orleans. Under the banner “separate but equal”, everybody which was not “entirely white”, was banned from certain areas of the town, but also from Theatres and Opera Houses. This was obviously a tragedy for the Creoles.
On the other hand, it brought the two different music cultures together, here the improvising blacks with their African background and there the formally trained Creoles which had a lot of European influences. Out of this combination of African beat, polyrhythms, separation of melody and beat as well as “call and response” elements from the blues and Gospel, together with the European dance rhythms, harmonies and formal structures, the Jazz emerged.
What role the legendary red-light district of New Orleans, Storyville, played in the development is not entirely clear to me. It seems at least to have offered the bands and musicians a lot of opportunities to play and earn some money.
Could Jazz have been borne somewhere else in the world? I can’t say, but certainly New Orleans, due to the circumstances mentioned above, provided an ideal breeding place.