Creole and Concert Music

Focusing on music during the colonial and antebellum periods, we might expect that the city was most associated with the famed slave dances at Congo Square, which laid the foundation for jazz. But while these dances were a spectacle that received their share of commentary, most people associated New Orleans with opera and ballroom dance. In the 1820s, a pair of émigrés from Saint-Domingue organized the first permanent opera company in the country and established New Orleans as an elite cultural center through celebrated tours to the Northeast. In 1827, when their troupe visited New York and gave the Northern debut of no less than 30 operas, the praise was unanimous. The New York American gushed, "This company is as good as those heard in the provinces of France and superior to those heard in the Capitals of Europe outside France."

At home, attendance at the opera reflected the diversity of the city's inhabitants. The French were partial to the company at the Théâtre d’Orléans in the Vieux Carré while the Americans flocked to the St. Charles Theater. Each company offered segregated seating for free people of color: in 1820, white patrons of the French opera house could purchase a season subscription for 60 dollars while gens de coleur libres paid 50 for their section. The musicians were predominantly European immigrants but also included Creoles of mixed European and African ancestry as well as American carpetbaggers.

Concert music also flourished in halls offering separate seating for whites, free people of color, and slaves. Among the city's many symphonic offerings there was the Negro Philharmonic Society, a full orchestra founded by black classical musicians. These were mostly French-speaking Creoles like Edmond Dédé, a violinist and composer who attended the Paris Conservatory and was part of a deep pedagogical tradition that included European and Creoles teachers and students.

Nearly every travel account of nineteenth-century New Orleans testifies to the city's penchant for ballroom dance. William C.C. Claiborne, the first American governor, recoiled at the countless private dances, subscription dances, society balls, public dances, and taxi dances where New Orleanians intermingled. After one month in the city, the governor wrote to Secretary of State James Madison and apologized for "calling your attention to the balls of New Orleans, but I do assure you, sir, they occupy much of the public mind."

Ballrooms were spaces where racial, ethnic, religious, and national identities were negotiated to the tunes of the latest contredanses. For example, in his monumental book – Music of New Orleans: The Formative Years -, historian Henry Kmen recounted a ball soon after the Louisiana Purchase where antagonisms between Americans, Creoles, and the French ancienne population played out on the dance floor: The Americans were agitating for the Virginia reel and the jig in place of the waltz and cotillion. To prevent just this the Creoles, for their part, turned out in force. Both sides carried arms to the conflict…Addressing the angry Americans, a [creole woman] cried: "We have been Spanish for thirty years and the Spaniards never forced us to dance the fandango; neither do we want to dance the reel or jig." The municipal authorities ruled that there should be a set order of two French quadrilles, one English quadrille, and one waltz in turn, while Governor Claiborne ordered that an officer and 15 troops be present at every public ball.

There were also "quadroon" balls, where elite white men danced with creole women as a preface to concubine arrangements known as plaçage, and "colored" balls that were theoretically restricted to blacks but were continually crashed by whites. A weekly ballroom schedule might include a night for whites only, another for white men and creole women, and a third for free colored only, but the ordinances enacted to maintain these boundaries were virtually ignored. The Globe Ballroom was closed in 1855 for allowing "tricolor" balls, and police raiding a free colored ball in 1834 found that two-thirds of the men they arrested were slaves.

The echoes of these musical pasts cannot be fully measured in the jazz, brass band, blues, and funk of latter-day New Orleans. These are the styles that come to mind today when we ask ourselves "What is New Orleans?" But for patrons at the Théâtre d’Orléans or the Globe Ballroom, just as for spectators at Congo Square, the city's musical reputation was built on the sheer plenitude of offerings and their freedom of accessibility.

- Matt Sakakeeny