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.
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 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.