Upon arriving in America, the slaves who lived in New Orleans in the later part of the 19th century were given at least one minor freedom which was denied other slaves throughout the south. On Sunday afternoons, perhaps as an acknowledgement of the day of rest, African slaves were allowed to gather in a common area with others from various households.
This common area, given the name Congo Square, was located on the north edge of the French Quarter, where the white creoles and creoles of color lived. Between the French Quarter and the area further away from the port where the poorer immigrants, free slaves and Cajuns lived was Congo Square. It was the site for weekly communal gatherings built around chanting, singing, dancing and the playing of various homemade rhythmic instruments such as gourds, tambourines and rhythm sticks. While those on the outside of the circle tapped, pounded, clapped or shook gourds to a variety of rhythms, sometimes with repetitive sung or chanted lines of melody, individuals took turns in the middle of the circle whirling, dancing and singing out a contrary line of music.
The frenetic energy of the gathering may have seemed at times to be chaotic, but the independence of individual within the framework of the group was unlike anything previously seen or heard in elite classical Western European music. It was a part of what jazz was to become.
By the time young Louis Moreau Gottschalk, son of German immigrants, visited Congo Square in the 1870’s with his Jamaican nursemaid, a primitive type of banjo had joined the purely rhythmic instruments being played by the celebrants. Within two decades, Gottschalk had established himself as a first-rate composer in the European classical tradition, yet incorporated the sounds and rhythms of Congo Square and New Orleans into his piano and symphonic music. The energies and rhythms of songs like “The Banjo” and “Danse des Negres” brought syncopated rhythms and melodies to audiences in London, Paris and New York City.
Gottschalk’s “The Banjo” performed by Steven Mayer
In addition to the classically oriented music of the New Orleans upper class, there were also community bands. Primarily made up of brass instruments like trumpets, trombones and tubas, these community bands were sponsored by local groups such as the Catholic church, fraternal organizations like the Elks or Masons or even the town fire department. In some cases, plantation owners hired music teachers to teach their hired hands to play instruments in order to have live music available for dinners, balls and social events.
The popularity of brass bands began during the mid-18th century when civil war bands traveled with the troops. At one point, there were over thirty army bands based in and around New Orleans, playing at military functions, patriotic celebrations and town social events. Most of these brass bands played at outdoor gatherings, where, in the days before the invention of sound amplification, the music needed to be loud enough to carry over a large area. When the dances or social events moved indoors, a smaller “string band” consisting of cornet (or trumpet), violin, guitar, bass and piano or some combination could provide music for a more intimate gathering.
At the end of the 19th century, John Philip Sousa’s marches provided lively and easily accessible repertoire for community bands across America, including those in New Orleans. These bands were made up of former military instrumentalists, but also common folk who purchased cheap military instruments after the civil war.
But not all the bands were military in nature with organized rehearsals and written arrangements. New Orleans was also the home to pickup, street corner instrumental groups called “spasm bands.” Using common instruments such as washboards, tambourines, ukuleles or banjos, spasm bands would interpret common pop songs of the period, giving their own unique spin to the sound. Predating the street corner “doo-wop” groups of the 50’s by decades, the spasm bands were more about creating an energetic, loud instrumental sound than any sort of tight vocal harmony. The term “spasm” finds a similar root of meaning as the origin of the word “jazz”, both of which described a type of musical energy had, to the early performers, sexual connotations.