By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans was already a music city, offering bals masqués, opera and ballet, military parades with brass bands, choral masses, and virtually nonstop street serenading-all of which coalesced to give birth to jazz. Most people think of New Orleans jazz as a single original jazz idiom, or musical style, when in fact it retains distinctive stylistic features tied to festival traditions within a discrete, regional culture. Even today, the musical practices rooted in neighborhood and family affiliations often influence musical styles and trends among traditional and modern jazz musicians more than national market trends.
Traditional New Orleans jazz is band music characterized by a front line usually consisting of cornet (or trumpet), clarinet, and trombone engaging in polyphony with varying degrees of improvisation (without distorting the melody) and driven by a rhythm section consisting of piano (although rarely before 1915), guitar (or, later, banjo), bass (or tuba), and drums delivering syncopated rhythms for dancing (usually, but not always, in common or 4/4 time).
Bands shared a style of playing “hot” dance music that suited the demands of a diverse, music-loving clientele, whether in cabarets, at dance halls, on riverboats, or in the streets. Solo improvisation was not common in New Orleans jazz bands until the mid-1920s, as documented on the recordings of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Clarence Williams’s Blue Five, and Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. These bands engaged in interactive, collective improvising derived from the parade bands and from the collective singing of black sanctified churches. In this highly distinctive style, sometimes referred to as “Classic New Orleans Jazz,” the music of parade and church was adapted to uninhibited dancing. As jazz spread across the United States, touring New Orleans bands began to adopt a more theatrical, extroverted style-known as “hot” jazz in the 20’s — to appeal to northern audiences.