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  • Jon Sheckler

The Missing Link of Jazz History - Introduction: The Blind Spot

Mythology looms largely in all music history. If anything, music history is the study of individual genius and its influence. Great musical movements can be traced from person to person over centuries, like how we can trace similarly to a family tree how Mozart influenced John Cage, linking styles through marriage until the originators are revealed. Without these named masters, music history would be as murky and grey-toned as regular history.

Jazz proves to be no exception. Musicians joke about “The Jazz Gods,” musical beings who smite the heretics who don’t follow the rules of the genre. Charlie Parker is a promethean figure who gave Jazz the fire of Bebop only to be greatly punished by his personal vices (like Prometheus, Parker's drug addiction dealt much of its damage to his liver). Miles Davis could have been Zeus, the greatest of all gods, but was equally vain and ultimately flawed. The stories of Buddy Bolden are less factual tellings and more in the style of American myths, and Louis Armstrong might actually be Dionysus, the god of wine and joy, who never lived on Olympus because he was constantly traveling among the people. He was so traveled and joyous that he became the most loved god.

But what happens when the creation myths no longer have thier protagonists? What if the story continued without a lead character? What happens when the movements don’t have leaders and the faces don’t have names, and we are faced to explain how Jazz was really formed?

In this personality void, music historians fall back on their basic training and assumptions. They look at the United States’ South during Reconstruction and find all the elements to create what they had been hearing as “Jazz.”.

The heard Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong play the Blues.

They heard the European melodies shared with African rhythms.

They saw the newly freed sharecroppers in northern Mississippi were singing what they was called “the Blues” and had done so since the days of slavery.

They heard Ragtime using the Traditional March form by including the trio sections.

They had all the information they needed to declare that Jazz came from a “melting pot” of influences that were created to entertain but had roots in West Africa.

They could declare that Europe had given Jazz its melodies, its harmonies, and its forms.

It was assumed that those singing Blues in Mississippi and Alabama could travel deeper south to New Orleans and bring their music with them. They knew about Congo Square, knew about the other music in the region and could declare that these styles blended together with European forms of music to create Jazz.

They heard Rag bands in Washington D.C. and New York and could declare that Ragtime was a significant element of Jazz.

They could declare that in America, much like Europe, music and culture could freely travel across a single country or region. This was even more likely in the American South because there are no known geographical obstacles to make traveling difficult. No mountains like the Alps, no large rivers, no oceans to cross. There aren’t even cultural differences to discuss because the South shares a common language, economy and religion.

If you listened to Jazz in 1917 or 1915, or looked at Jelly Roll Morton’s sheet music in 1910, it all makes sense. But, that is the problem with how Jazz history is told. All these things are true if Jazz is born in 1910. But by then, Jazz was already an established genre in New Orleans. There were even clubs opening around the city dedicated to the new music. Jelly Roll Morton wrote the first Jazz composition in 1905. Buddy Bolden led the first known Jazz band in 1900. Second line parades were heard and seen even earlier, perhaps even as early as the 1880’s. So, this changes the narrative of Jazz history if we consider what Jazz is before 1900 as it strips away some of the European influence that is overtly attributed to the music. Even Ragtime seems to be more influenced by and not influencers of jazz.

All of the music of the American South that is discussed are African American art forms but the reality of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras is hardly discussed in most history courses. Between 1866 and 1873, there were dozens of race riots and race related massacres throughout the American South. There were six riots of note in the New Orleans area alone that ended in racial violence. In 1874, there was an attempted insurrection in New Orleans by ex-confederate soldiers intent on reigniting the Civil War. A major part of the Black Codes and Jim Crow restrictions on African Americans were vagrancy laws. Any black citizen could be arrested and jailed for minor offences, including “disobedience.” Some cities in Louisiana had laws stating that a newly freed person must have written permission to leave the city or town and had to have a white escort at all times. Many lynchings (a obscuring euphemism for murder committed by a group of people) went undocumented, uninvestigated, or unpunished, leaving many racist murderers free to continue to commit these heinous acts.

The question becomes this: In post-Reconstruction and the Jim Crow South why would a free person of color, in a time of government sanctioned racism and institutional complicity towards racial violence, move deeper into the south? For Blues music to travel to New Orleans and interact with Jazz, there must have been a vehicle to get it there. However, there is no logical explanation for free people of color to travel to New Orleans at this time in history In fact, there was a mass exodus of African Americans from the south to the north, thus establishing historically black neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The severity of this era is largely forgotten about in music history due to the Western European lens most music history is viewed through. During this time, music was freely shared in Europe despite incredibly disruptive wars, but Europe largely never had to grapple with this depth of racial strife and weaponizing of the legal system and government. If music was freely shared in the American South as it were in Europe, the traditions of Congo Square should have been exchanged throughout the region with pockets of influence in the major southern cities. If Blues came down from northern Mississippi, the shared African music of Congo Square should have traveled up the Mississippi River or across the Mississippi delta to co-mingle with local styles and genres. But, there is no jazz in the American South except for in New Orleans between 1890 and 1910. If the South is viewed as it was in the late 1800’s, the “melting pot” theory loses its luster.

Acknowledging this, what is left of the Jazz history narrative? For one, jazz grew organically in the vacuum that was the African American community of New Orleans. Secondly, Congo Square was still a major influence on the genre as it was the only allowed place for public display of African culture and music in the United States during the time of slavery. Finally, the music of the second line parade should be thought of as the beginning of Jazz music as we know it.

But, even this stripped down narrative has a major problem that is rarely discussed. The second line parades begin in the late 1880’s after Jim Crow laws took root in New Orleans. The public displays at Congo Square ended well before the Civil War in the 1850’s, possibly as early as the 1840’s. That presents a gap of almost forty years of no documented development of Jazz music. Normally, the history books would state that this was when the European and African influences met, but as mentioned, this explanation can be eliminated. So, what happened? What is the bridge between Congo Square and the second line parade? Who, or what, carried the tradition and music of Congo Square after it became defunct?

It comes down to a largely overlooked group of people who stayed within the city limits of New Orleans:

They have no recorded history of their membership.

They don’t require hereditary lineage to join.

They aren’t mentioned in any music history textbook that is available.

They aren’t in any American history textbooks.

But, they are a product of Reconstruction and segregation:

They began as a group of public protesters at a time when such a thing could get them killed.

They are community leaders who stood against Jim Crow era police.

They are fierce propagators of African culture with great respect for the noble warrior culture of the Native Americans of Louisiana.

They can be seen as the first public wave of the Civil Rights Movement in New Orleans.

And, they are the bridge that fostered the creation of Jazz after Congo Square.

These people are the Mardi Gras Indians, and in their own words, “they got the fire, can’t put it out.”


Part I: Second Lines and Benevolent Societies

Part II: Mardi Gras Indians

Part III: Congo Square and Reconstruction

Part IV: Connective Tissue

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