From Congo Square to Early Jazz

It was in the "back of town" peripheries of the original walled city of colonial New Orleans (known today as the French Quarter or Vieux Carré) that enslaved blacks and smaller numbers of free people of color gathered socially on Sundays, the one day the French colonial Code Noir (Black Code laws) officially prohibited the compulsion of slave labor. The most famed of these spaces became known as Congo Square, an open plain just north of the city's ramparts where gatherings revolved around African-derived music and dance forms such as the calinda and the bamboula. These communions were ultimately tied to celebrations of freedom in which enslaved people could momentarily reclaim their bodies for pleasure rather than objects forced labor. In this sense, Congo Square served as a weekly space of psychic healing and affirmation of black humanity in the face of the dehumanizing violence of enslavement. Despite its forced closure in the mid-nineteenth century, linkages between music, pleasure, and embodied understandings of freedom remain deeply rooted and ongoing facets of New Orleans' African American experience and collective memory.

In conversation with this early music history, interplays of African, European, and Caribbean cultural currents in early twentieth century New Orleans gave rise to a new innovative music style known today as jazz. Drawing on musical antecedents like Ragtime, the Blues, military marching bands, and traditions of Black Church music, and emerging through artistic exchange between black, creole, and "ethnic" white musicians in peripheral mixed-raced spaces like New Orleans's famed Storyville neighborhood, artists like Buddy Bolden, Jellyroll Morton, and King Oliver fashion a music style grounded in the improvisational polyphonic play of European instruments infused with a percussive rhythmic "swing."

Suggested Readings:

· Jerah Johnson (1991) - "New Orleans's Congo Square: An Urban Setting for Early African-American Culture Formation" Louisiana History 32/2 (Spring 1991): 117-157.

· Court Carney - (2006) "New Orleans and the Creation of Early Jazz" Popular Music and Society 29 (3) (July 2006): 299-315.

· Christopher Washburne (1997) - "The Clave of Jazz: A Caribbean Contribution to the Rhythmic Foundation of African-American Music" Black Music Research Journal 17(1) (Spring 1997): 59-80.