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Dixieland Jazz: Innovation in New Orleans Music History

Dive into the history and origins of Dixieland Jazz in New Orleans.

New Orleans is undoubtedly the birthplace of jazz. As the magic of jazz brought about a new period in music history, and legends emerged, jazz quickly took on many forms and incarnations around the country. The originators and pioneers in New Orleans kept the original seed alive in what came to be known as “Dixieland Jazz.”

New Orleans was the right place and the right time for jazz. Immigrants to the city in the late 19th century brought their traditions of brass bands with them: marching in parades, providing music for funerals, performing at community events. Most of those bands were all-white, however, and others were limited within specific ethnic communities (Italians, Croatians, Germans, etc.). Black musicians had fewer outlets through which to express themselves, so they took to the streets. These musicians experimented with the sounds of the brass bands and began to improvise. Since they weren’t bound by European tradition or style, the end result was something new that would help shape the history of New Orleans.

Then Storyville came along. The city’s infamous red-light district created a demand for musicians that the marching bands couldn’t supply. Men with day-jobs couldn’t stay up all night, and playing music in bordellos wasn’t a very respectable gig. The elegant houses of Storyville started with perhaps a solo piano player, then added a trumpet, then a trombone for some bottom. The standard continued to shift and the bands picked up a stringed instrument, like a banjo, a drummer, and some deep base, such as a tuba or double bass.

White European musicians, black musicians, bordellos, very few rules, and a need for expression: it was a gumbo that helped shape New Orleans music and the careers of some of the best musicians in the country, such as “King” Oliver, Buddy Bolden, and Louis Armstrong. A wonderfully rich fictional account of life and music in Storyville to check out is Louis Maistros’ novel, The Sound of Building Coffins.

Jazz caught on and spread rapidly up the Mississippi River to Memphis, St. Louis, and ultimately, Chicago. Ships and trains carried musicians all the way up the east coast to New York, as well. New Orleans musicians left Dixie behind them, but took their Dixieland Jazz along on the adventure. Some of them, like Edward “Kid” Ory, got all the way out to Los Angeles, where Hollywood got a taste of Dixieland. As these men spread out across the country and jazz left the cradle, the music changed with them.

“New Orleans style,” or Dixieland Jazz was incredibly popular through the 1920s, but the 1930s saw a new musical movement appear on the scene: swing. Many of the jazz musicians merged into larger combos, eventually creating the big bands of the late 1930s and 1940s. The older Dixieland musicians who started it all began to retire. Some musicians didn’t let go of the traditional sound, though. Kid Ory played on the radio in the 1940s, most notably on Orson Wells’ program, creating a re-discovery of Dixieland Jazz.

New Olreans history
Trumpet player “Sharkey” Bonano (center, with microphone) and his band in 1950. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

As the Jim Crow era in the South drew to a close in the 1960s, many black musicians stepped away from the term “Dixieland” because of its racial overtones. Younger New Orleans musicians picked up the style, playing second line parades and jazz funerals. A trip down Bourbon Street in the 1970s would bring the classic sounds to your ears as you walked past club after club. By the 1970s, Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street was a decade old and gave some of the old-timers a place to play and continue traditional jazz.

The resurgence of brass bands in the 1990s motivated those playing in the traditional style to pass on what they learned to a new generation of New Orleanians, like The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which is recognized worldwide. Other efforts, such as the New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp, nurture the style, keeping it current and classic at the same time. New Orleans jazz has been kept alive by new legends throughout the ever-changing musical current in the Crescent City.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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