Latinos in New Orleans Jazz

Historian and archivist Bruce Raeburn digs deeply into the cultural origins of jazz, unearthing lots of details regarding how early jazz was being performed by musicians of Caribbean, Hispanic and/or Latino descent. In his research at Tulane's Hogan jazz archive, he found that around one-quarter of the first generation of jazz performers were Hispanic and/or Latino. This finding makes plausible Robin Moore and Alejandro Madrid's recent argument that the influence of late-19th century Cuban and Mexican musical practices permeate early jazz to an extent often unacknowledged. [link to Mexico/Cuba/New Orleans musical circulations page]

But the music of "Spanish" people that Jelly Roll Morton acknowledges when he describes "The Spanish Tinge" is not just identified with Cuba and Mexico. Iberian Spaniards and Portuguese, Spanish-speaking Canary Islanders, Filipinos, Hondurans, Panamanians and Puerto Ricans were also living in New Orleans in the "crazy quilt" neighborhoods such as Tremé, the 7th Ward, and the lower French Quarter. In this setting, reinvention and cross-fertilization came relatively easily. The rhythmic bag of tricks that included Afro-caribbean rhythmic cells such as the tresillo and the habanera spread through the city, responding to the demands of the dancing public.

But Raeburn's research suggests that only acknowledging the clave-derived rhythmic elements as part of the Spanish tinge barely scratches the surface of how Hispanics and Latinos influenced the development of jazz. Here are just a few of the contributions of some of the most well-known players:

“Chink” Martin

Chink Martin, a Mexican-Spanish tuba and bass player, grew up in the lower French Quarter in an area that was populated, around 1907, mainly by Mexican and Spanish people. Chink contributed considerably to the transition of the rhythm backbone of ragtime to that of jazz, but without any of the asymmetrical clave-based habanera or tresillo rhythms. Instead, he is credited with moving from playing two bass notes a measure (the oom of an oom-pa bass rhythm) to playing four bass notes (four-on-the-floor). In his own words, his approach was considered "strange in those times; all other bass players played only two beats per measure, which was the proper way for a bass in a ragtime band to play; I decided the sound was too empty, so I began playing four beats, and filling out the chord…playing that style two or three years after he began playing the bass." This opened the door to the subsequent development of the walking bass that has since become such a prominent element of modern jazz.

Luis Carl Russell

Russell was an Afro-Latino who was born in Colombia, near Bocas del Toro, right before it became part of the newly independent Panama. As a teenager, he performed music for American soldiers on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Just as jazz was beginning to be recorded, and coalescing as a genre, Russell miraculously won the lottery, allowing him to fulfill his dream of moving to New Orleans to become a jazz musician. After spending a few years in New Orleans and absorbing the emerging jazz idiom there, Russell moved up to Chicago and then New York City to play with King Oliver. In Harlem, he set out on his own and became a bandleader and arranger. From 1935-1943, Russell's orchestra played as Louis Armstrong's backing band.

Kid Ory

Trombonist Edward “Kid” Ory was one of the most important jazz band leaders in New Orleans after 1910. Although he is often described as black in accounts of jazz history, his father was white, the descendent of French-Alsatian immigrants, and his mother was Afro-Spanish and Native American. As Raeburn points out, Ory was as Hispanic as he was black, although he was a speaker of creolized French. Ory as an individual represented the same kind of ethnic and racial diversity that could be found in many of the bands described as "black" under segregation.