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AmPopMusic: Before it was Jazz - AmPopMusic
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Before it was "Jazz" - New Orleans

A Cross-pollination of Cultures

It has been said that jazz is the only true American musical genre. Other styles, folk, country & western, pop, rock ‘n roll and musical theatre all have strong heritages to the folk, pop and stage music of Great Britain and Europe.

But it would be erroneous to present jazz as a style which had no parents. The influences of African culture, Latin American rhythms and European harmonies and song forms all played an important part in the unfolding of the style.

Whereas the exact birth time of jazz is somewhat uncertain, the birthplace can be most certainly stated as New Orleans, Louisiana. New Orleans, which in the late 19th century arguably was the most cosmopolitan city in America, was a fascinating cross-pollination of cultures.


Port of New Orleans, 1840s, artist: Henry Lewis

Originally settled by the French in 1718, then given to the Spanish in 1763, given back to the French in 1801, but ruled by the Spanish until France sold it to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans had a French-Spanish blend of cultures which made it unique from any other city in the United States.

Although slavery was a part of the culture and lifestyle of New Orleans, it is important to note that under Spanish rule, many slaves were given free status and rose to the upper levels of society, some even owning businesses and their own slaves. Also during the Spanish rule, the marriages between French or Spanish white men and light skinned women of color became common, creating an upper class called “creoles of color”, separate from both white and black cultures. These free creoles of color were raised in an elite, educated, prosperous lifestyle which included an emphasis on education, the arts and all the cultural activities that money could provide.

It is understandable, then, that the Creoles living in New Orleans in the mid-1800’s had a desire to emulate the classical arts that were then prominent in Europe, specifically Paris. In addition to their own symphony, they supported three opera houses, several schools of musical learning and dozens of private music teachers instructing in piano, violin and voice.

In addition, German and English immigrants, French-Canadians (called Acadians in Canada, shortened to Cajun in Louisiana) and Euro-French (which was the foundation of the city-based Creole, French/African, culture) also populated the area in and around New Orleans. Add the influence of the Spanish culture, the African slave trade and the close proximity of the Caribbean, Latin American cultures and its easy to see that New Orleans was a microcosm of almost every culture in the Western Hemisphere.


New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, April 1867 – Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper

New Orleans was also a major shipping port and entry point for many of the African slave ships traveling to America in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Before landing in North America, many of the ships paused in the Caribbean islands with the purpose of allowing the African slaves to acclimatize before continuing on to various ports in North America. While in these island ports, the influence of Spanish culture was fused into their way of life. During these stops, the slaves heard rhythms and tasted food which they then brought to their final destination.

This is not to say that while in Africa they did not have their own indigenous music. Music, in fact, was an integral part of their lives. The celebrations of life, the stories of tribal history, and the passages of life and death were all recorded in songs and chants. Music was not so much a diversion as a basic element of life. Music was not an artistic activity of the select, it was a communal function of the many.

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    Study Units

    An Overview

    Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

    Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

    Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

    Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

    Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

    Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

    Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

    Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

    Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

    Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

    Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

    Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

    An Overview

    Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

    Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

    Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

    Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

    Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

    Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

    Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

    Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

    Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

    An Overview

    Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

    Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

    Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

    Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

    Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

    Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

    Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

    Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

    Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

    Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

    Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

    An Overview

    Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

    Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

    Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

    Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

    Ch. 5: Western Swing

    Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

    Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

    Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

    Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

    Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

    Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

    Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

    Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

    Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

    Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

    An Overview

    Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

    Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

    Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

    Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

    Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

    Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

    Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

    Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

    Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

    Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

    Ch. 11: Hard Bop

    Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

    Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

    Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

    Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

    Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

    An Overview

    Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

    Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

    Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

    Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

    Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

    Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

    Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

    Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

    Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

    Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

    Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

    Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

    Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

    Ch. 4: Rock is Named

    Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

    Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

    Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

    Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

    Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

    Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

    Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

    Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

    Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

    Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

    Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

    Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

    Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

    Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

    Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

    Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

    Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

    Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

    Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

    Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

    Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

    Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

    Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

    Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

    Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

    Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

    Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

    Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

    Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

    Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

    Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

    Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

    Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

    Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

    Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

    Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

    Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

    Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

    Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

    Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

    Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.