Jazz In Its Time

In a new book, noted jazz historian Samuel Charters changes his tune on how the genre began.


Though milked by local tourism, the idea that jazz began in New Orleans is no article of faith among chroniclers of the music. When Ken Burns' Jazz aired on PBS, the esteemed writer Francis Davis huffed (in The Atlantic, no less) that the series "begins with the hoariest of creation myths: that New Orleans was the single birthplace of jazz, something that I doubt anyone besides Burns and his New Orleans-born creative consultant [Wynton Marsalis] still believes. —

Hoariest: gray or white with age, ancient.

Davis was echoing Leonard Feather, who wrote in 1967 that ragtime-based popular music arose in African-American pockets far from New Orleans. "Rhythmic funerals were taking place, some years before the turn of the century, all over the South wherever there was a substantial Negro population, — Feather wrote in The Book of Jazz.

Hurricane Katrina did more to secure the image of New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz than anything in years. Brass band footage became a leitmotif in TV coverage meant to remind viewers of the great cultural loss.

Since the flood, Samuel Charters, the author of many books on vernacular music, has made several trips to New Orleans, where he began his career in the 1950s. In Jazz: New Orleans, 1885-1957 (published in 1963), Charters wrote about musicians of the early jazz generation, men with vivid memories of seminal brass bands, street life and Storyville. His subjects were black.

Now, 45 years later, Charters has published A Trumpet Around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz — a long book that rewrites the premise of his first one by putting sustained focus on white jazzmen. Nevertheless, he writes that "the particular instrumental style nurtured in New Orleans was unique enough to be considered a distinct musical genre. —

Charters lays out his thematic baseline by quoting Al Rose and Edmond Souchon in their 1967 introduction to New Orleans Jazz: A Family Album: "Credit for the creation of jazz is due no individual man or race. —

Rose put it more simply in his oft-quoted comment: "Jazz is the product of a place and not a race. — Rose and Souchon — and now Charters — point to the many white artists who played early jazz, from Nick LaRocca and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) members to the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Louis Prima, Sharkey Bonano and others.

'The popular Italian melodies and the lyric Italian trumpet sound left their mark on the playing of so many jazz artists, — writes Charters. The first jazz record was made in 1917, in New York, by LaRocca and the ODJB. In Charters' revisionist lens, the shared musical heritage of a multi-racial city explains the irony of how LaRocca's boys got to the big leagues first, only to be eclipsed by the supreme talent of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, around whom the oral accounts of the basic history subsequently formed.

A Trumpet Around the Corner has some wonderful cameos of a musical topography long since erased. "New Orleans jazz, in the 1920s, largely moved out of the downtown business district and the nearby neighborhoods to the suburbs, — Charters writes. "Two of the best-known dance restaurants were at Spanish Fort [Lakeview], with a familiar suburban ambience. For older couples the most popular of the two locations was the sedate Tranchina's Restaurant, with its genteel atmosphere and the much admired, infectiously swinging music by Armand J. Piron's Society Orchestra. The décor at Tranchina's included large potted palms in front of the elegantly raised bandstand, with a tasteful Japanese-style door brightened with paper lanterns on the wall behind them. —

Charters' affection for the city and his grasp of the social geography show in many descriptions of halls, clubs and roadhouses that catered to people of all kinds. Far more has been written about the black hangouts of this historical period, particularly in Storyville and Back O' Town, than in outlying white neighborhoods. The Halfway House, for example, was as popular in the 1920s as Tipitina's is today. It stood on the corner of City Park Avenue and Pontchartrain Boulevard, "about halfway between downtown Canal Street and the lake, so the name was a description of its familiar location. — The large building had a pitched roof that made it look "like a squat lampshade. —

A steel bridge led across the New Basin Canal — now part of Interstate 10 — to the city cemetery on the other side. "To the east and north of the cemetery the land was beginning to be cleared and drained, and the neighborhood of Lakeview was slowly expanding toward the lake over low-lying marshland. —

Charters treats the Creole bandleaders who led competing orchestras — A.J. Piron, John Robichaux and Papa Celestin — as breathing characters. "Robichaux was older, with an avuncular manner, Piron broodingly handsome. In contrast, Celestin was dark-skinned, his face broad and heavy with a strong jawline the geniality he projected from the bandstand, however, managed to make his [white] society audiences feel as comfortable with him as he had learned to be with them. —

Charters is impressive in describing how the music sounded. Passages like the one below reflect a seasoned engagement with the recordings, placing them in the larger body of jazz discs, and a sophisticated sense of how a Creole bandmaster cultivated an upscale following among both races:

The music that Piron and his orchestra played was so different from any of the other New Orleans groups who recorded that it seems to have come from some earlier, less stressful era. In their understated rhythms, however, there was an irresistible dance beat, and in each of their complicated arrangements they demonstrated again and again just how well they were matched as an ensemble. Their instrumental blend and sense of phrasing and timing was perhaps the most sensitively constructed of any of the early jazz orchestras on record. In arrangement after arrangement they effortlessly moved from one instrumental voicing to another, interjected unexpected harmonic transpositions, shifted their phrasing to a sharply articulated attack, and as smoothly resolved it into a stylish solo or duet — all done with relaxed assurance and poise. —

The book has some gems of history. "Tuxedos were to become standard on the nation's bandstand a few years later; but in New Orleans at this time (1917) the orchestras still generally dressed in high-collar, military-style tunics with stiff parade band caps, — he writes. "To pay for their new outfits the [Tuxedo Jazz Band] arranged to play advertising jobs for several months for the tailor shop that had made them. —

Charters treats the racial divisions as an occupational hazard for the early musicians. He draws a distinction between ragtime-based dance music and the more polyrhythmic, blues-driven jazz. In recording sessions of the 1920s, he writes, "The most free-spirited of the white orchestras, the Owls, somehow resisted the policies of the companies of this period, which was to record black groups playing jazz arrangements, while white groups generally were restricted to dance music with vocals and a minimum of solos. —

An insight like that begs for deeper explanation. Were the recorded styles of white and black groups subjected to a consistent vetting? Although the book is published by University Press of Mississippi, it has few footnotes and little of the source-grounding one expects of a historical work from an academic press.

These are not quibbles. Charters leaves out so much information from works by other jazz authorities that it raises questions as to whether he forgot what others have written or simply did not keep up in his field.

For example, he dispenses with gospel music as a source of jazz in the introduction. "The Creole musicians, with their Catholic backgrounds, were separated from the emotionalism of the Baptist services, and the ragtime-inflected rhythms of the earliest New Orleans recordings maintain a considerable distance from the surging rhythms of the revival hymns, — he writes, sealing off discussion.

A major focus of Thomas Brothers' Louis Armstrong's New Orleans is how the singing and rocking in pews of the Sanctified, Holiness or vernacular churches worked into the stylistic play of early brass bands. Armstrong grew up in such a church. The book is not on Charters' bibliography, nor is Danny Barker's A Life in Jazz, Charles Suhor's Jazz in New Orleans: The Postwar Years Through 1970, William Carter's Preservation Hall, Burton W. Peretti's The Creation of Jazz or Samuel A. Floyd Jr.'s The Power of Black Music, among others.

It is unfair to criticize a book for what it is not if an omission lies beyond the thematic architecture, but a revisionist stance that ignores major works on the same subject suggests a writer who refused to do the heavy lifting.

His treatment of Jelly Roll Morton is downright strange. In 2003, Chicago Tribune journalists Howard Reich and William Gaines published Jelly's Blues, a remarkable book that grew out of a series in the newspaper that examined a trove of archival materials on Morton in the William Russell materials of The Historic New Orleans Collection. Reich is one of the most versatile music journalists around; Gaines is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Tracking leads in Morton's letters and his complaints of being cheated out of royalties by the Melrose label in Chicago, the authors reviewed legal records and copyright documents to produce a persuasive account of how Morton was defrauded of huge amounts of money.

Jelly's Blues is also missing from Charters' bibliography. "The Melrose brothers published most of Morton's important compositions, — Charters writes. "Although some later writers have intimated that they exploited many of the jazz and blues artists they worked with over the years, in their early days as publishers, promoters and record producers they offered the most consistently helpful service to Chicago's jazz musicians. —

Meaning that the Melrose brothers, who stole a small fortune from Morton, began as good guys. There's no citation or reference to what "some later writers intimated — — nor proof that the Melrose brothers were so helpful to other musicians. Anybody working in your footnote department, University Press of Mississippi? If Charters discounts Reich and Gaines, he should name them and explain why. Otherwise, who are "later writers? — Evasiveness weakens Charters' credibility.

'Jazz is the product of a place and not a race — is a sentence that fails to account for the race that made the place so unique, vis-a-vis jazz. New Orleans in the early 1900s was marked by extreme poverty among blacks and a brutal police force with a history of spying on African-American churches. Yet accessibility to music, a long tradition of parades and a resilient neighborhood culture saw a flourishing African-American culture. Churches were fundamental to this culture.

Al Rose derided any notion of church music in the birth of jazz. (I knew Rose, enjoyed his company, and observed his hostility as a former Marxist to organized religion. Danny Barker jocularly referred to Rose as "the dictator.") Rural blues and the voice-like instrumentals of black church music poured into town like a river of polyrhythms, changing the European dynamics of melody. The tension between Uptown and downtown musicians — the unlettered darker blacks who played by ear, improvising on what they heard, and the classically trained Creoles, like A.J. Piron and Robichaux, most of whom lived downtown in Treme and the Seventh Ward — was all about melody.

Many white musicians in that environment absorbed what blacks were playing, added touches of their own, and in the case of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, made the first jazz disc. Pioneering writers like William Russell in the 1930s began to see that the diaspora that included Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong came from a culture on the rise. Sam Charters challenges the consensus of jazz as an African-American art form, but falls well short of making his case. A pity, that; many parts of his book are otherwise fine indeed.

Nick LaRocca (center) and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first jazz record in 1917 in New York City, but are perhaps not as well known among the general population as black jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. - NICK LAROCCA COLLECTION, HOGAN JAZZ ARCHIVE, TULANE UNIVERSITY
The Tuxedo Brass Band playing for a Masonic Lodge cornerstone laying, about 1919 - HARRISON BARNES
  • Harrison Barnes
  • The Tuxedo Brass Band playing for a Masonic Lodge cornerstone laying, about 1919

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