Why Live Jazz Is So Important To New Orleans

December 10, 2014 Phil Wild

Punk rock was getting boisterous, trying to make his point by being louder than anyone else. Pop was pretending not to care, but was dancing provocatively in the corner. Metal was communicating only by deep grumbling.

Such was the scene in New Orleans, as various music genres gathered together to debate which was America’s most important.

“What about the punk scene in Chicago, in Washington, in Seattle?” Punk said forcefully. “That defined the youth of that period.”

“Not in the South!” remarked Country. She strummed her guitar with one arm and put her cowboy boots on the table. “Go to Austin, Nashville – then you’ll see what America was listening to when she grew up.”

Throughout the discussion, one figure had kept a low profile. As was his fashion, Jazz was generally low-key, not self-aggrandizing, but just always…there – a figure in American history that felt no need to justify his own existence.

Jazz is inherently American

A voice came out from a chair near the back. It was rhythmic, soulful like the blues, but melodious. “Jazz is older than all of you, and it started right here in New Orleans.”

Heads whipped round to determine the origin. Jazz paused, and continued, “When you talk about being “American” – well, America was built on the back of immigrants. Just like jazz.”

“When New Orleans rose to prominence as a leading port city, the melting pot of cultures that resulted gave a perfect incubation point for the music that would become jazz. African rhythms, European instruments.”

New Orleans Jazz Vipers at the Spotted Cat

New Orleans Jazz Vipers at the Spotted Cat.

Rock thought he was on solid ground here. “I could claim that too. Rock came out of African blues rhythms. You’re going to have to do better than that.”

Jazz reclined in his chair with a smile. “You did all that when the hard work was already done. Decades later, and British bands have had just a big an influence on rock and roll now as the States ever will.”

The home of jazz will always be New Orleans. It’s always bubbling away, as vibrant today as it was sixty years ago.

Jazz brings people together

Jazz wasn’t done. He was on a roll now.

“We’re at ground zero here in New Orleans too. The very building we’re in, Preservation Hall, is a great example of a place where jazz was used to bring people together. “

“This is the South, remember? Segregation laws were in place until the early sixties. Before then, it was illegal for black people to mix in public with white folk. Jazz halls were one of the few places where, to the owners, the colour of your skin generally didn’t matter.”

They mused over it. The community feel was strong in New Orleans. Was that partly because of jazz?

The Preservation Hall bass drum.

The Preservation Hall bass drum.

“Being one of the most important ports on the Atlantic coast,” Jazz continued, “New Orleans was the point of entry for many slaves in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. While traditionally black and white were segregated, musicians were better than most at seeing past such policies. If you play an instrument, and I play one too, that’s good enough for me.

“What’s more, every time an important jazz musician dies, part of the funeral is a procession from the church or home to the cemetery. This procession is joined by musicians from all over town, playing and encouraging onlookers to dance. The end result is a day that brings the whole community together.”

“Y’all got anything like that?” threw in Country. Some staring at the floor ensued.

The jazz funeral in New Orleans is a representation of the power of music. In an age where many people don’t even know who lives next door, there’s a lot to be said for the spectacle of entire neighbourhoods marching down the street, swaying to the music in the “second line”. In the aftermath of tragedies such as Hurricane Katrina, these strong community bonds help greatly to galvanize people around a common cause.

The “second line” in New Orleans.

The “second line” in New Orleans.

Jazz music has remained pure

“Fair enough, but between rap, hip hop, pop and dance, you’re looking at the majority of the music in the charts for the last 20 years or so,” offered Rap, gesturing wildly. “You can’t ignore that. We’ve been making people rich for decades.”

It seemed like it was Jazz against the world at this point. Murmurs of approval went around the room.

“You’re right,” Jazz conceded. “You’re absolutely right. It’s your strength but also your weakness.”

“Here in New Orleans, when you pick up your father’s saxophone, or your mother’s trumpet, you’re not doing it with dreams of getting rich. Most accomplished jazz musicians are barely able to scratch together a living. You do it because for generations, that’s what your family has done. You play music. And the best thing you can think of as a kid is doing what your parents do, playing up on stage.”

“This ethos means that the music being played is strongly connected to the region and the culture of the place. While other musical genres have become multi-billion dollar industries, jazz has remained more or less the same for its lifetime. It may never be as fashionable as other genres, but it reflects a time and place perfectly. It hasn’t changed. It’s pure musicality, largely unmoved by financial motivations.”

And with that, whether it was boredom, defeat or simply hunger, the debate simmered down and they headed over to Frenchman St for some live jazz.

A parade marches on Decatur St in the French Quarter.

A parade marches on Decatur St in the French Quarter.

While the debate of “most important” is subjective at best and pointless at worst, you would be doing jazz a disservice if you didn’t recognize the special place that it, and therefore New Orleans, has in the American consciousness.

You can’t visit Paris and not have a croissant. You can’t go to New York and not visit Central Park. And you can’t go to New Orleans without checking out some live music. It’s as cultural an experience as you can get.

Getting There

Curious about tapping your feet in New Orleans? G Adventures runs a number of departures encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. Walk in the footsteps of great jazz musicians and check out our small group trips here.

Previous Article
Making your own Inca Trail experience
Making your own Inca Trail experience

Thinking about hiking the Inca Trail? (You should be if you’ve yet to.) With...

Next Article
Eating Your Way Through Ethiopia
Eating Your Way Through Ethiopia

Wanderers-in-Residence Dan and Audrey travelled to Ethiopia and brought back...

Sign Up for our Newsletter

Sign Up Here