In the last edition of Black Music Sunday, we explored the city of New Orleans before the birth of jazz. New Orleans, which is known worldwide as the birthplace of not just jazz, but many of the most famous musicians in jazz history, remains home to an annual jazz festival and a whole host of jazz clubs, as well as impromptu jazz celebrations.
Jazz historians have pointed to a key factor in the city’s history that made it different from most of what would be considered part of the United States: Before being bought by Americans, New Orleans had a highly developed three-tiered racial cultural structure that differed from the rest of the American South.
New Orleans music was and is a gumbo, a richly flavored stew of multiple ingredients. While the word gumbo is derived from the West African word for “okra,” the music that would become known as jazz was a blend of West African and Caribbean rhythms mixed with European classical elements, being played by musicians of multiple heritages: African-French Catholic Creoles and Black Protestant gospel and blues musicians, who created something new and uniquely “American.”
There is no way to cover the birth of jazz in New Orleans and all the players and historical and cultural factors involved in one story, so I won’t attempt to do it today. But we’re just beginning this journey.
Much of what is written about the birth of jazz references Storyville, one of NOLA’s red-light districts, while other histories target specific areas of the city where Creole free people of color (gens de couleur libres) resided—as well as sectors housing Black Americans, both enslaved and free.
The 1947 film New Orleans was the last film produced by blacklisted “Hollywood 10” member Herbert J. Biberman. It is notable for being the only feature film appearance of Billie Holiday.
New Orleans is worth watching for the music numbers if nothing else. As music blogger Pitch Yr Culture writes about Lady Day’s performance of “Farewell to Storyville”:
Billie Holiday stands up, urged on by a sharply-dressed, all-Black audience to “tell it like it is”; Armstrong chipping in with “you get the idea . . . shout some words to it”. Holiday sings, “All you old time queens, from New Orleans, who live in Storyville . . .” The audience begins interjecting, ala church-goers, “That’s right!” Holiday continues, “The law stepped in, and called it sin, to have a little fun . . .” In salute to supposedly lax morality and the socially-uplifting possibilities of miscegenation, a multi-racial population then files out of their hovels into the street, exiting Storyville en masse while singing the just-made-up chorus to Holiday’s song.
Have a watch yourself!
Comedy writer and history educator Erica Buddington took a tour of Storyville this month, inspired by Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea.
Also tied to Storyville was Jelly Roll Morton, a New Orleans Creole pianist who used the stage name “Jelly Roll” (a crude reference to the vagina) in order to keep from being connected to his disapproving middle-class family. In 2013, New Orleans-based author, folklorist, and musician Ben Sandmel profiled Morton feature for 64 Parishes.
Jelly Roll Morton was the first important composer and arranger of New Orleans jazz, as well as an agile pianist, a compelling singer, and one of the early jazz world’s most flamboyant characters. The nickname “Jelly Roll” was derived from sexual slang, and “Morton” was a stage moniker. His given first name was Ferdinand, and his surname has been variously stated as LaMothe, Lemott, or LaMenthe, while his year of birth is either 1885 or 1890.
Whatever the actual details, Morton came from a New Orleans Creole family who did not approve of his musical aspirations. “We always had musicians in the family,” Morton explained “but they played for their own pleasure and would not accept it seriously, and always considered a musician (with the exception of those who would appear at the French Opera House, which was always supported with their patronage) a scalawag, lazy, and trying to duck work.” As a teenager, Morton began playing in Storyville brothels and also traveling around the South as both a bandleader and solo performer. His trademark compositions from this era include “The Animule Dance,” “King Porter Stomp,” and “Original Jelly Roll Blues.”
Although Morton did not single-handedly “invent” jazz, as he often claimed, he ranks among the important defining figures in its initial evolution. Morton’s eclectic approach consisted of a synthesis of ragtime, classical music (including opera), miscellaneous popular songs, and the blues, among other sources. In Morton’s view, jazz was not some revolutionary new entity but rather, an aesthetic, “a style that can be applied to any type of music,” or more specifically, a style that called for “plenty of finger work in the groove ability, great improvisations, accurate, exciting tempos with a kick.” As for his role, Morton stated, “It was I, that’s the originator of jazz… It was in the year of 1902 that I conceived the idea… It was a style which I had that grabbed the world by the throat with a strangle hold.” No wonder folklorist Alan Lomax commented that Morton’s “epic self-praise antagonized even his admirers.”
Galaxy Music Notes documents some of Morton’s major hits:
In 1904, he started touring Southern America, working in medieval music shows along with composing music. He crafted “King Porter Stomp,” “Animule Dance,” “Frog-I-More Rag,” and “Jelly Roll Blues” in this period. In 1910, he was touring Chicago and also visited New York City in the next year. Morton and his partner Rosa Brown performed as a “vaudeville act” before settling in Chicago for the next three years. In 1915, his “Jelly Roll Blues” become one of the foremost jazz numbers to be published. In 1917, he performed “The Crave,” one of his popular tango numbers at Vancouver’s Hotel Patricia nightclub. In 1923, he claimed the authorship of “The Wolverines,” which was also famous as the “Wolverine Blues.” His first commercial recording was also released that year, both as piano rolls and recording.
Here’s his signature “Jelly Roll Blues.”
As music critic Colin Fleming wrote at JazzTimes in March:
Morton played in brothels, and if ever there was a fellow to bridge the gap between low and high art, it was he, while positing that they weren’t that different at all. This was an era when jazz was cheap and lowdown—or so believed the more delicate element in American society—but you couldn’t deny Morton’s talent. I think of him like I do Buster Keaton in his 1920s prime. Screen comics are almost never singled out as timeless artists like the dramatists, but that was one apple cart that Keaton overturned and busted up for firewood in his way, just as Morton did in this first crucial, full-flowering era of jazz; only he’d pelt you with a few of the apples too, so you’d be reminded with whom you were dealing.
He sang like a bluesman, played piano with the chops of an Art Tatum—when he wished—and put the barrel in barrelhouse, for he came at you hard, rolling downhill, and when his music hit you, you stayed hit.
Get hit with the “King Porter Stomp.” You know you want to.
Morton also “jazzed up” European classical music.
Pianist and jazz historian Billy Taylor talks about going to see Morton live in D.C. in this National Visionary Leadership Project video.
Another major Creole figure in the birth of jazz was Sidney Bechet, born in New Orleans in 1897.
Ben Sandmel writes about Bechet for 64 Parishes:
Clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet was one of the first great soloists of traditional New Orleans jazz. Renowned for his lyrical, swinging phrases, emotional blues sensibility, and ample use of vibrato, Bechet continues to exert vast influence on the traditional jazz scene in New Orleans and elsewhere. He is especially lionized in his adopted homeland of France.
Born in New Orleans on May 14, 1897, Bechet grew up in a middle-class Creole family who preferred mainstream European music to the African-Caribbean sounds that were then evolving into jazz. The latter was often dismissed as low-class, underscoring a common dichotomy within the New Orleans black community at the time. “Us Creole musicians,” Bechet’s older brother Leonard stated, “always did hold up a nice prestige.” Even so, Bechet’s family was very supportive of his budding talent, which became apparent at an early age. One childhood incident is especially instructive. When Bechet was ten, his mother threw a birthday party and hired a band that included the great jazz cornetist Freddy Keppard. The band also featured a respected clarinetist named George Baquet, who arrived late. Sidney, too shy to perform in public, played along from another room, and everyone assumed they were hearing Baquet, the adult professional. Baquet was soon giving Bechet lessons, as were other prominent figures, including Lorenzo Tio, Jr., and Louis “Big Eye” Nelson. Although an avid pupil, Bechet was resistant to formal training.
As an adolescent, Sidney Bechet began performing in public with his brothers’ Silver Bell Band. Next he joined the Young Olympians, a venerable outfit that is still active at this writing, and then moved on, yet again, to play with cornetist Bunk Johnson in the Eagle Band, a group once led by Buddy Bolden. Soon Bechet was working with Clarence Williams, a Louisiana pianist/composer/entrepreneur whose work encompassed blues, ragtime, early jazz, and show tunes. Williams took the teenaged Bechet on a tour that eventually led to a European tour in 1919 with violinist and composer Will Marion Cook. Bechet’s masterful, articulate improvisations were praised by the Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet, who called him “an extraordinary clarinet virtuoso” and praised his “extremely difficult” solos for their “richness of invention, force of accent, and daring in their novelty and the unexpected.” This was a remarkable endorsement at a time when jazz was largely scorned in classical music circles.
Bechet’s autobiography, Treat It Gentle, was published posthumously, about a year after his 1959 death.
Hauntingly, Bechet referenced his own mortality, noting: “I am an old man now; I can’t keep hanging on. I’m even wanting to go; I’m waiting, longing to hear my peace. And all I’ve been waiting for it the music.”
A 1997 documentary, which has the same title as his autobiography, tells Bechet’s story, adding other people’s memories of the legend.
Sidney Bechet: Treat It Gentle (Kultur), a joint venture by the BBC and Netherlands Television, was produced in 1997 to celebrate the centenary of the legendary saxophonist’s birth. This 57-minute film tells the musician s life story from Bechet’s perspective, with Bill Fredericks acting as the narrator. The first half follows him from his birthplace in New Orleans to his move to Europe. Director Alan Lewens blends rare archival performance footage with new scenes filmed at historic locations. The interviews include musicians Wynton Marsalis and Bob Wilber (who tells a very funny story about Tallulah Bankhead) as well as Bechet’s son.
The entire film is available on YouTube!
I could sit here and post and discuss Bechet tunes ‘til next week but never do his repertoire justice, so I’ll just post one of my favorites here, and promise more in the comments.
Dear reader, please understand that I know I’ve barely scratched the surface of New Orleans jazz. Again, we’ll continue the exploration on future Sundays, and of course will have more in the comments today—and I look forward to your contributions.
Now you’ll have to excuse me for a few, I’m going to be cooking some gumbo today.