By: Jazlyn Moock
New Orleans, 1902.
12-year-old Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, soon to be known as the infamous Jelly Roll Morton, would play the piano. Though, he played in such a way never done before, in such a style so rich with history and generations of emotional fire and passion that the world would never be the same. He played the eternal beauty that is jazz. With the tap of the keys and the brilliance of his brain, Jelly Roll Morton marked the beginning of a revolution in American hearts and culture. Yet, this innovation was also the beginning of a robbery far too familiar for those who’ve faced the sour taste of bigotry.
The deeply diverse and culturally enhanced nature of New Orleans created the perfect storm for jazz. In the once-leading slave port in the country, African tradition remained quintessential and intertwined with the identity and fruits of the city. Since controlled by the more lenient French colonists, the city’s enslaved people were allowed to hold on to their culture, socially gathering every Sunday to dance and perform drumming celebrations. It was near two centuries later in which Jelly Roll Morton had learned the same African musical techniques passed down from one drummer to the next, influencing the foundation of his jazz compositions. The songs reflected all the values and principles that make African music special: improvisation and “call and response,” a technique in which musicians build off each other’s impromptu rhythms and melodies, working together to move along the song and create an inventive, collective sound. Call-and-response succession was also used in work songs of enslaved Africans since the rhythms helped keep their pace while working in fields, distracted them from the mind-numbingly tedious work, and established communication with each other.
However, these powerful musical techniques were exposed to Jelly Roll, not through work songs, but through the mystifying environment of “Mardi Gras Indian” celebrations. Shrouded in secrecy and folklore, African American communities of New Orleans’s inner cities would parade across the city chanting and singing while masked in elaborate Native American attire. Their costumes, overflowing with vibrant feathers and beads were created as a symbol of honor and spiritual connection to the Natives which helped to shield runaway Africans prior to their emancipation. In his teenage years, Jelly Roll Morton was tasked with leading the Mardi Gras parades, hollering and dancing in front of the sea of feathers, music, and close-knit bonds between New Orlean’s diverse people. Among him, the great Louis Armstrong and Lee Collins were also uplifted by these same traditions and shaped by the culturally-packed Mardi Gras ceremonies. In this sense, while immersed in the rich musical and emotional expression of their ancestors’ and the African American experience, these musicians of New Orleans were allowed to create an art form that is undeniably Louisianan and undeniably African. They were able to expel their strife, their pain of being unseen and unappreciated in a way that society could never ignore. With the ivory keys, steel strings, and brass pearls as guides to their own personal identity and discovery, they could reclaim their worth as human beings, capable of creating an entity engulfed in the beauty of pure human expression. Each note was an extension of their voice, a cry of their sorrows blossoming into resilience, strength, and extraordinary talent. Every late-night jam session in the bustling city, an outlet to confront the disturbing realities of an oppressive life. Calling upon the methods of their similarly abused forefathers and foremothers, these musicians could redefine what it truly means to be a proud African American.
White musicians could not help but to quickly take notice of this passionately original explosion of skill and art, eventually introducing the styles of jazz into their own music. Consequently, the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band,” composed of all white musicians, was the first band to record a jazz song in a studio and to profit from not only the work of black Americans but their cultural identity. Historians have affirmed that the band stole the style directly from the legendary New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson, who played with blues queens and kings such as Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, and Louis Armstrong. While some may defend the band on the grounds that music has always been adopted and reinvented from previous forms of musical styles and does not belong to any one race, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band nonetheless imitated the methods of Bunk Johnson and other black musicians, becoming wealthy as a result when the majority of African-American jazz players were refused recording contracts from the white-controlled record labels. Due to the social climate and prejudice of the time, nothing extraordinary or valuable could ever be equated with African Americans in the eyes of the majority; thus, the true innovators and composers of jazz could not reap the benefits of its popularity and wild success.
This discrimination incited by record companies was the beginning of the whitewashing of jazz. The music industry looked to white musicians to fill the high demand for jazz; however, the problem was that whites had difficulty actually playing jazz itself, defined by the improvisation, spontaneous beats, and rhythm intricacy of West African music. Essentially, the essence of jazz was stripped away in the name of xenophobia. Additionally, the commercialization of jazz disfigured its spirit since the music became about its marketability instead of personal expression of emotion and passion. Real jazz players did not perform to entertain the masses, but to aid their own hearts and bring their culture and personality to life for themselves. As a result of the agenda of the music industry, mainstream “jazz” lacked innovation and distinction and became similar to the bland, repetitive, and uniform dancing beats of the time, such as swing music.
Though not even the atrocity of the record labels that exploited African art through soulless adaptation could tamper with the impact that real jazz had on the people of this great nation and the world. The public, thankfully, could still tell the difference between raw, authentic human vulnerability, passion, and pain and wannabe-jazz-player garbage that the radio puked out. No one could ignore the magical works of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, or Nina Simone because the intensity and personality within their music demands attention and appreciation. Above all, the true jazz artists strayed from the norm, creating something fresh for the eager ears of the 1920’s cultural revolutionaries. Sick and tired of the set standards of their society, the people of the ‘20s flocked to jazz as it was one of the only entities unbound by strict structure or rules. Splendidly, the music gave them a similar sense of freedom it permitted the players–white and black listeners alike.
This was the unrelenting power of jazz; a person who would otherwise be shunned in intolerance and indifference could stand upon a stage in front of hundreds of people, captivating the entire room in awe and respect for their utter talent and worth as an artist. Since Americans were so madly in love with jazz, madly in love with a purely African creation, this music was undoubtedly the driving force for racial integration and acceptance.
Eventually incorporating racial issues into songs and directly commenting on their struggles as a suppressed people, the adored musicians of the “Jazz Age” allowed for black voices to be heard, sparking the flame of the civil rights movement, destined to occur three decades later.
“Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, jazz musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls. Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down. And now, Jazz is exported to the world. For in the particular struggle of the Negro in America there is something akin to the universal struggle of modern man. Everybody has the Blues. Everybody longs for meaning. Everybody needs to love and be loved. Everybody needs to clap hands and be happy. Everybody longs for faith. In music, especially this broad category called Jazz, there is a stepping stone towards all of these…Jazz speaks for life.”
- Martin Luther King Jr.