The Music of Louisiana

The music of Louisiana can be divided into regions: rural south Louisiana (home to Cajun, Zydeco, and other musical forms, also known as Acadiana) and New Orleans. The region in and around Greater New Orleans has a unique musical heritage tied to Dixieland jazz, blues and Afro-Caribbean rhythms.

Cajun music is rooted in the music of the French-speaking Catholics of eastern Canada and became transformed into a unique sound of the Cajun culture. In earlier years of the late 18th century the fiddle was the predominant instrument and the music tended to sound more like early country music. Cajun music is typically a waltz or two step.

In the early 1950s, zydeco evolved from the music of the Creoles in southwest and south central Louisiana. At an earlier period, Creole and Cajun music were more similar, but after World War II, this regional French music evolved into a distinct expression of the Creoles, black and mixed race Americans. Along with the accordion, the second main instrument in a zydeco group is a corrugated metal washboard, called a Zydeco Rubboard or frottoir. They made the music contemporary by adding electrical instruments (guitar and bass), keyboards, drumkit and even sometimes horns.

Historians generally point to Buddy Bolden, a cornet player, as the first jazz musician. Beginning around 1895, he assembled a band that was popular at New Orleans street parades and dances and included musicians who would later become prominent figures in early jazz development, including Sidney Bechet and Bunk Johnson. Bolden’s personal theme song was called “Funky Butt” and today the jazz club on North Rampart Street of the same name pays him tribute. He was followed by a long list of musicians who each left their stamp on the evolving style of jazz in the early part of the 20th century, including Joe “King” Oliver, Kid Ory and Jelly Roll Morton, generally considered the first great jazz composer.

While rooted in New Orleans, the city’s jazz pioneers traveled extensively for work. This artistic diaspora was accelerated when the city’s official red light district, Storyville, was ordered closed by the federal government in 1917, thus shuttering the saloons and bordellos that had proved such reliable venues for early jazz musicians. Wherever the musicians went, they played, and the sound stuck, later evolving on its own into differentiated styles in Chicago, New York, Kansas City and West Coast cities.
“The original jazz idiom started in New Orleans, and it spread,” says Raeburn. “As it spread, it changed, but the original sound came from New Orleans.”
From First Notes: New Orleans and the Early Roots of Jazz

By Ian McNulty

While jazz is considered difficult to define, improvisation is consistently regarded as being one of its key elements. The centrality of improvisation in jazz is attributed to its presence in influential earlier forms of music: the early blues, a form of folk music which arose in part from the work songs and field hollers of the African-American workers on plantations. These were commonly structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, but early blues was also highly improvisational.

While instrumentation and size of bands can be very flexible, the “standard” band consists of a “front line” of trumpet (or cornet), trombone, and clarinet, with a “rhythm section” of at least two of the following instruments: guitar or banjo, string bass or tuba, piano, and drums.

Dixieland is a name given to the style of jazz performed by early New Orleans jazz musicians.

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