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Mar 18, 1999

New Orleans
Wednesday, March 18, 1998

Yesterday, we shared a little about what the French Quarter looks like. Today, we'd like to tell you a little about what it sounds like.

New Orleans has long been noted for its unique forms of jazz, and the streets of the French Quarter are rarely without the sound of music. You might stumble on a group of curbside musicians or simply hear it bellowing from the open windows of restaurants or Preservation Hall, where jazz musicians gather to carry on the tradition of the early jazz legends.

Street musicians, like those in the picture, are just a few of the many kinds of musicians that help bring atmosphere to the streets of the French Quarter and make jazz accessible to all. If you look closely at the picture, you can see they sometimes play some very interesting "instruments"-everything from a wash-tub bass to a wash board. (How many "instruments" do you think you could find in your home or classroom?)

Music has been a major part of New Orleans' culture since the early 1890s. New Orleanians hired brass bands to play for almost every occasion, including street parades, funerals, and parties. Jazz was also permanently featured on the many entertainment boats that came to port.

For almost three hundred years, ships from all over the world have made their way to New Orleans. The ships, not only brought a variety of art forms that were weaved into the already diverse culture of the city, but also brought a great demand for entertainment and music. The river helped create a culture with music at its heart. In the process, the river provided many job opportunities for musicians. Even today, musicians still play their jazz on boats along the river and throughout the streets of the French Quarter.

We started our day on a mission to find out as much as we could about New Orleans jazz, and to record a few tunes for our project. We met with the great musicians of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and spent most of the day listening to New Orleans traditional, pulsating jazz. It is played best by New Orleans natives, who see the river as the heart-blood of music in their city. This quickly became clear as we watched their sweet, sad, gentle, exuberant music flow from them with as much ease, freedom, and power as the river's currents. Most have been playing jazz for many years and can recall the excitement of their early performances in street parades, saloons, and river boats of 50 years ago. Some even held their first jobs playing on the steam boats.

Preservation Hall was founded in 1961 to ensure that the tradition of jazz would continue in the French Quarter. Today, 37 years later, Preservation Hall still continues to provide a place for New Orleans musicians to perform. It has become a night time home for traditional New Orleans jazz. In addition to performances by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, they regularly feature other musicians and educational programs for children who are interested in the history of jazz. You can find out more about Preservation Hall and any upcoming scheduled events at the Preservation Hall Web site.

But what exactly is New Orleans jazz, anyway?

We learned that it is a direct descendant of brass bands. It tends to be slightly slower in tempo than most jazz forms with a clearly defined melody. Still quite different from the two-beat Dixieland jazz that many mistakenly associate with New Orleans jazz, it also tends to de-emphasize solos in favor of ensembles featuring everyone playing together. Like most New Orleans jazz bands, the one at Preservation Hall features a trumpet that provides a melodic lead combined with harmonies from the trombone, countermelodies from the clarinet, and a steady rhythm from the rhythm section (piano, banjo, bass, and drums) positioned towards the back of the band.

We found it difficult to keep from snapping our fingers and tapping our feet to the music while we were recording . The music the musicians play is a light and up-beat style of jazz. With improvisation at its heart, the music isn't read, and aside from a few numbers, the band doesn't know what it will play ahead of time. Instead, it responds instinctively to the audience and the moment. As one of the band members described to us, their jazz is "just like the river--unpredictable."

As for jazz itself, no one knows exactly how it started. The first jazz recording was in 1917, but the music began over 20 years before in varied primitive forms. Jazz was influenced by classical music, marches, spirituals, worksongs, ragtime, blues and the popular music of the period. The Mississippi River played an important role in the widespread success of jazz, bringing new music and musicians both in and out of the city. New Orleans jazz was a regional force until around 1910 when some of the local musicians began to explore other parts of the country, by traveling up the river to Chicago and other places where they greatly influenced other musical styles.

Can you name the most famous jazz trumpet player who was born in New Orleans? Are there any famous jazz musicians that live in your area?

Street musicians in New Orleans.
The Preservation Hall Band.

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