New Orleans Jazz In A Nutshell: From Bolden To Armstrong

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and the home of many of its pioneers. New Orleans jazz is a forerunner of the many forms of jazz music we know today.

In this article, we will look back at the birth of jazz music in New Orleans. Who were the pioneers and ambassadors of the genre? And how did ethnicity play a role during the turn of the century?

Before we dig into the history of jazz music, we need to be aware of New Orleans’ history. The State Louisiana was bought from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase resulted in a lift of the trade restrictions and, the arrival of the steamboat enhanced commerce as New Orleans became an important hub for cargo. This economic boost made the city more popular what caused its population to grow exponentially.

The success of New Orleans did not last. The American Civil War, political corruption, and the arrival of the railroad had their impact on the city. Trading hubs in America start growing elsewhere and, it did not take long before New Orleans was in debt. By the time jazz music emerged, the city was in recession. The population, which was exponentially growing, started to decline. Tropical storms and hurricanes were frequent, and New Orleans began to flood. The city had no sewer system what caused an unpleasant and excessive number of insects. It was so bad that musicians reported they had to wear masks during performances. New Orleans’ problems caused its death rate to be 60% higher compared with other major American cities.

The neighborhood that is claimed to be the birthplace of jazz is Storyville, a red-light district in New Orleans. Although, not all music historians agree to this and studies have shown that jazz music emerged and developed all over New Orleans. There are records of the music being played at dancehalls, on boats, in parks, and on the street. Some claim that it would have even been more complex for the music to be played in Storyville as, according to reports, police raids happened there more frequently, and it were the African American musicians who were arrested first. Donald Marquis’ study of Buddy Bolden, an important and decisive figure in jazz music, shows that he and many other jazz musicians drew their inspiration from the church and not from the nightlife in New Orleans. Pastors who sang in Baptist Churches had a similar rhythm to the jazz rhythm of that time.

In New Orleans, concerts “on-the-move” happened frequently, for example, at funerals. Because of the high death rate, there was a high demand for these parading brass bands. Marching brass bands, such as Excelsior Brass Band or Onward Brass Band, were active during the 1880s. Their formation started with trombones in the front, followed by the bass, tubas, and baritones. In the next row, you find the alto horns and the clarinets followed by the trumpets. At the end of the parade, we find percussion instruments. These marching brass bands would play a variation of music genres including quadrille, polka, 2-step, mazurka, etc. Parades were common in America but what makes these New Orleans brass bands unique is that their performance was an invitation to dance. They would call it second-line parades, where the dance audience is the second line and the brass band the first. You became part of the community, a tradition that flew out of circle dancing at Congo Square.

At the turn of the century, ragtime music was popular in New Orleans, mainly thanks to the contributions of Scott Joplin. Ragtime is a form of piano music that uses syncopation of the weaker beats. Syncopation is a small interruption in the rhythmical flow by making some accents fall off-beat. In short, syncopation is created by the beats between the beats, and they are fundamental for the musical structure of ragtime (and boogie-woogie that emerged simultaneously in Texas).  A result of ragtime’s popularity was that musicians start using syncopation in traditional compositions to play them in a more “ragged” fashion.

Who played a key role in the birth of New Orleans jazz, and is considered the first jazz musician, is Buddy Bolden (born Charles Joseph Bolden). Buddy Bolden was an American cornetist who learned to play music at school and in church. Unique is that, unlike many other musicians, Bolden didn’t start his career by joining a brass band. Instead, he joined a string ensemble and earned money by playing at dancehalls.

At the end of the century, his band got noticed thanks to Bolden’s use of syncopation, his ability to improvise, and his use of blues structures. I like to think that Bolden’s focus on blues was the biggest contribution to jazz until Louis Armstrong changed the course of the genre. Bolden was an example for many other musicians and one by one all of them start experimenting with syncopation and improvisation. The growing pool of musicians doing this is described as the birth of jazz in New Orleans. This practice of using syncopation in melodies from different music genres caused styles to blur and blend. The music would get more similarities in rhythm and structure what was another important milestone in the creation of jazz.

Buddy Bolden was known for playing loud. He played so loud that he was not allowed to practice inside the house so instead, he practiced on his porch. Neighborhood children would gather around them to listen and start calling him “The King“. Hence the nickname Buddy ‘King’ Bolden. He would often play at a concert hall in New Orleans called Odd Fellows and Masonic Dance Hall (or Eagle Saloon). Before the concert, Bolden would stick out his cornet and do what he called “calling his children home”. He played so loud and, his reach was so far that people from the surrounding streets gather at the building to listen. This became his trademark and, the habit got also described in the lyrics of Buddy Bolden’s Blues (also called Funky Butt):

“Thought I heard, buddy bolden shout, Open up that window, and let that bad air out, Open up that window, and let that stinky air out. Thought I heard buddy bolden say”

Lyrics to Buddy Bolden’s Blues

Buddy Bolden’s career was short. He had a drinking problem and struggled with his mental health. He was arrested multiple times and was placed in an asylum after he was declared mentally insane. Unfortunately, there are no recordings in existence. There are some rumors that Bolden made some phonograph cylinder recordings. So far, none surfaced. Thirty years after his death, his music appeared in print and, musicians started to record his work. However, the sound of jazz evolved and, the question is if these later recordings correctly represent how Buddy Bolden’s music originally sounded.

If Buddy Bolden was the inventor or creator of jazz music is up for discussion but, we can conclude that he was an important and decisive figure in the transformation.

Buddy Bolden’s transformation was further built out by many musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Joe ‘King’ Oliver, Willie Gary ‘Bunk’ Johnson, Edward ‘Kid’ Ory, and later Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.

Jelly Roll Morton (born in New Orleans as Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe) was an American ragtime and jazz pianist, composer, and producer. He is considered one of the greatest jazz arrangers and many claim his contributions exceed Buddy Bolden’s. Morton’s jazz gave it a sense of itself via his melodic constructions using improvisation and musical breaks. His first income was as a producer but, in the 1920s he started to focus more on his own music. Jelly Roll Morton’s career peak around the time the jazz age began. He brought together musicians, including Kid Ory, and they called themselves Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers. They made several well-rehearsed recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1924, he recorded his composition titled King Porter (A Stomp). The song was recorded together with the iconic New Orleans musician King Oliver and features a duet between King Oliver’s cornet, and Jelly Roll Morton‘s piano.

Other recordings he made during that decade were in partnership with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, an influential jazz band featuring white musicians. Their recordings are of historical importance as they countered segregation of African American and white musicians in the recording studio.

Jelly Roll Morton’s career declined during The Great Depression in the 1930s but grew again in 1938 thanks to a letter he wrote to Downbeat Magazine (an American magazine devoted to jazz and blues). The letter they published opened with Morton’s words: “It is evidently known, beyond contradiction, the New Orleans is the cradle of jazz, and I myself happened to be the creator”. He continued the letter by listing his contribution and emphasis on how challenging it was to record his compositions. He would mention that after him, many imitated his music. If his statements are true, is up for discussion. However, it is a fact that his legacy lies in his unique compositions, recordings, and commerce. He earned his place as one of the most influential pioneers for the New Orleans jazz style.

As recording technologies progressed, it became easier and more popular to record music in the 1920s. Not everyone from the early generation of jazz musicians had the luxury to record their music. The first band to record jazz music in 1917 was, surprisingly, an all-white ensemble called the Original Dixieland Jass Band (later revised to Original Dixieland Jazz band). The group attracted a global and wider audience by playing at dance halls in Chicago and New York City. The American recording industry was fundamentally positioned in the northeast, and mainly in New York City. They were offered a recording contract by label RCA Victor (Victor Talking Machine Company) and recorded “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” in 1917. We can ask ourselves if the band are key contributors and if their importance was based on merits. Critics called out that the band is playing stiff and unconvincing, some even claim they are not playing jazz. It’s my opinion that, although they were not the best jazz musicians of their generation, they did play an important role in the commercialization of the music. They did not shape or help create the music as pioneers but instead, spread it like ambassadors.

Despite the fact that the music originated in New Orleans, and that most musicians were born there or elsewhere in Louisiana, a lot of its further development took place in Chicago and other Northern cities. Louisiana-born musicians, with strong musical roots in New Orleans such as Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong, would all move to the north at some point in their lives. The reason was not directly related to musical opportunities but to the fact that northern cities were more tolerant of African American communities. Over almost 7 decades, starting in 1916, millions of African Americans moved from the south to the north in search of a better life. This event is known in history as The Great Migration (also called The Great Northward Migration or The Black Migration). Another example of musicians that moved north are the Thomas Brothers, they moved to Chicago where they influenced a whole new generation of boogie-woogie pianists. Also, “white” jazz bands from New Orleans moved or traveled to the northern cities. Their intentions have nothing to do with tolerance of African American communities but, are based on commerce. Record companies in northern states were more interested in the music genre and provided more recording opportunities.

The Great Migration had without a doubt influence on the distribution, development, and importance of African American music.

Who had the biggest impact on the development of jazz music is without a doubt, Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans. As a young boy, he was good at two things, singing and getting into trouble. This last one had to do with his background, he was born into a troubled family. A life-changing incident in Armstrong’s life was his arrest in 1913. He was arrested on New Year’s Eve for firing a gun in the air to celebrate. His punishment, what would turn out to be a blessing in disguise, was 18 months in the Colored Waif’s Home for boys, a reform school in New Orleans. Armstrong would not look back to his time there as a bad experience, on the contrary, he credits this time for turning him into a musician. Before his arrest, Armstrong already played the cornet but the school offered structure and discipline. He joined the school’s brass band and toward the end of his stay, became its leader.

By the time he was released, The Great Migration caused many New Orleans-born musicians to leave the city. The lack of musicians created opportunities for Armstrong to earn money as a musician. He joined several celebrated bands, including Kid Ory’s group where he replaced Joe ‘King’ Oliver who moved to Chicago. Armstrong grew as a musician and started to make a name for himself. King Oliver took an interest in him and in 1922, he invited Armstrong to join his band in Chicago. Armstrong joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Oliver became a mentor for the young Louis Armstrong.

Armstrong was the second cornet in the band, Oliver was first. His job was to provide supporting harmonics for Oliver. A job where perhaps Armstrong was not the best choice. It became clear that his powerful tone and rhythmic sensibility would unwillingly overpower Oliver’s cornet. Oliver did not allow for instruments to dominate the collective ensemble. This couldn’t be an easy task for a young cornetist who would later become the greatest soloist in jazz music.

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made several recordings and although these recordings have poor sounds quality (because of recording technology limitations), they are representing a perfect example of the New Orleans Jazz style.

Louis Armstrong would later close the book on the traditional New Orleans Jazz style when he transformed and changed the course of jazz music.

Jazz Album Cover Designs That Inspire – Part 1

My record collection is growing every day and what attracts me to purchasing an album apart from the music is the sleeve design.

For this post, I dove into my collection and hand-picked my favorite jazz covers.

Giant Steps – John Coltrane

1960 / Atlantic 1311 / Marvin Israel (design) / Lee Friedlander (photo)

What makes the design of this album sleeve so good is that you immediately recognize it. The red text and frame are unique for this album. The photo itself, taken by Lee Friedlander, is an upwards close-up of John Coltrane doing what he does best.

Marvin Israel, the artist behind it, knew how to frame it. These are the words of famous photographer Robert Frank in the documentary “Who is Marvin Israel” (Doon Arbus). The documentary brings to light the life and work of the artist. Marvin Israel worked as a freelance art director for Atlantic Records from 1957 to 1963 so, Giant Steps is far from the only sleeve design he did. He painted several abstracts of famous jazz musicians such as Charlie Mingus (Atlantic 1416) and Milt Jackson (Atlantic 1417), and he designed the cover for the albums: Joe Turner Sings Kansas City Jazz (Atlantic 1234), Charles Mingus’ The Clown (Atlantic 1260), and Ornette Coleman’ The Shape of Jazz To Come (Atlantic 1317).

Afro Blue – Dee Dee Bridgewater

1974 / Trio Records PA 7095 / Katsuji Abe (design & photo)

If you’re a fan of 70’s soul-jazz, there is a big chance you have this record sitting on your shelf at home. Afro Blue, the debut album from Dee Dee Bridgewater, is not only one of my favorite albums for listening to, but also the artwork inspires curiosity. This is how I got familiar with the album, I spotted the cover, got curious, and bought it.

The cover design and photography on the backside are credited to the Japanese photographer Katsuji Abe. Abe was a designer for Trio Records and Whynot Records during the 1970s. He also published several books including 50 Jazz Greats From Heaven (1995).

The Black Saint And The Sinner Lady – Charles Mingus

1963 / Impulse! AS-35 / Joe Lebow (design) / Bob Ghiraldini (photo)

This powerful release from Charles Mingus, where he takes on the role of composer and band-leader, consists of a single continuous composition that is written as a ballet. The record is among the most acclaimed jazz records of the 20th century thanks to Mingus’ perfectionism and ability to improvise.

The sleeve design is from the American designer Joe Lebow who worked for different record companies during his career. He used the photography of Bob Ghiraldini who was specialized in photographs of jazz stars. The cover features Charles Mingus in front of a white wall and above him, you read his name, the title, and the words: “From the poem: Touch my beloved’s thought while her world’s affluence crumbles at my feet

Love Matters! – Jowee Omicil

2018 / Jazz Village ‎33570118.19 / Yannick Le Vaillant (artwork) / Renaud Monfourny & Sylvain Cherkaoui

For this album, Haitian-Canadian Jazz musician, Jowee Omicil, impressed us with this gatefold cover design. It gives you a direct impression of the music you can expect. The photographs include a lot of light and color, what is in contrast with his previous album, Let’s Bash! (Jazz Village 33570120.21)

The artwork is by the graphic designer Yannick Le Vaillant, who is a true master when it comes to cover design. The photography used for the artwork is credited to 2 artists. The first is the French photographer Renaud Monfourny, who captures the cultural scene with his portraits of musicians, actors, and writers. The second is the French photojournalist Sylvain Cherkaoui.

*Renaud Monfourny is misspelled on the record sleeve

Miles Ahead – Miles Davis

1957 / Columbia 1041 / uncredited

Miles Davis released his second collaboration with Gil Evans in 1957. The original release of this record features a photograph of a white woman and child aboard a sailboat. Miles Davis was dissatisfied with this choice and complained to Columbia Records‘ executive producer George Avakian. No clear reasoning was given to him but in the early 1960s, a picture of Miles Davis was used on the cover (although reissues with the original cover are still being released).

Displaying a white woman on African American album covers was done quite frequently during the 1950s and 1960s. This was done with the sole purpose to easily reach and sell to the white audience as they thought it was a more attractive display. Other examples of this are the soul records Otis Blue from Otis Redding and Arthur Conley’s album Sweet Soul Music.

I prefer the cover featuring Miles Davis. It gives a stronger indication of what he does and who he is. The original cover is playing with the title, Miles Ahead, but does not reveal what to expect.

Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon Swanee River)

One of my all-time favorite boogie-woogie piano songs is Swanee River Boogie performed by Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings. Ammons plays a steady and repeating boogie baseline with the left hand, accompanied by the adaptation of the melody from Old Folks at Home (also known as Swanee River) with the right hand.

Swanee River Boogie – Albert Ammons And His Rhythm Kings

Old Folks at Home was written by the American composer Stephen Collins Foster in 1851. The first publications of the work would credit Edwin P. Christy, who commissioned the work, but this was later corrected and Foster received full credit for his song.

Stephen Collins Foster, who was uneducated in music, learned to write music as a young boy using the singing of his sisters as the main source of creativity. The phrase ‘Swanee River‘ was added to the song out of a lack of inspiration. Foster wanted to name a river in his lyrics, and it was his brother who suggested the Suwannee River, a river that runs through south Georgia into Florida. To fit in the melody and dialect of the song, he used Swanee River instead. It’s interesting to know that Stephen Foster was born in Pennsylvania and he never set foot in Georgia or Florida, hence he never saw the Suwannee River.

Ernestine Schumann-Heink – Old Folks at Home recording from 1918

In 1935, the composition would become the official state song of Florida. However, the original lyrics were altered. The lyrics were written in an African American dialect and would contain references to slavery and plantations. The dialect was modified into “dictionary-English” and the song was renamed after the river’s official name, Suwannee river. Also, words such as “plantations” were removed to eliminate any reference to plantation work.

Part of the original lyrics versus the 2008 revision

Over time, many great versions of the song were recorded. The song survived all decades and was re-shaped each time a new genre emerged. The title would often be adjusted to have a better fit into the new genre it’s being played in (Swanee River boogie, Swanee River Hop, Swanee River Rock, etc.).

In the early years of the 20th century, the song was incorporated into the foxtrot, ragtime, and Dixieland scene of the south. Pianist Fletcher Henderson recorded his version called Swanee River Blues. The song is not played like a classic blues song but more in a march-like Dixieland rhythm.

The song gained a lot of popularity during the 1930s thanks to the swing era. Jimmie Lunceford and His Orchestra recorded a popular big band version. Remarkable was the Swanee river-melody is no longer exclusively played on the piano but different instruments were used. Also, Django Reinhardt et le Quintette du Hot Club de France (although he is a Belgian musician) recorded his version on the guitar, he’s supported on the violin by Stéphane Grappelli.

Belgian jazz guitarist, Django Reinhardt and le Quintette du Hot Club de France

Albert Ammons recorded his boogie-woogie piano version in 1946 together with His Rhythm Kings. He named the song Swanee River Boogie. The song was released at the peak of the genre. The success of boogie-woogie music in America was a direct result of the ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert. A concert that brought together the many forms of African American music that were developed over time, including boogie-woogie.

Boogie-woogie and blues music further evolved into jump-blues, rock-and-roll, and rhythm-and-blues and these genres would keep on covering Swanee River. Fats Domino released his version called Swanee River Hop, this version sounds a lot like Ammons’ boogie-woogie version. Even the legendary Ray Charles played the song and named it Swanee River Rock.

Even today musicians play their own interpretation of the song. Hugh Laurie released a very interesting modern version of the song in 2011. You can find it on the album Let Them Talk. Although the piano and vocal intro by Hugh Laurie gives you a boogie-woogie feel, the band is bringing an extra layer to the performance, the song now also has aspects of folk music and gypsy jazz.

Hugh Laurie’s performance of Swanee River in New Orleans