New Orleans Music as a Circulatory System
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New Orleans Music as a Circulatory System

This essay provides a roughly chronological history of a single musical tradition in New Orleans, the brass band parade, as a case study that supports a more expansive proposition. The first half of this proposition is specific to New Orleans: I note that the city has become largely identified with African American musical practices and repertoires and, further, that the associations between music, race, and place can be adequately subsumed under the categorical term New Orleans Music. While New Orleans Music includes an amorphous collection of interrelated styles—brass band, jazz, blues, rhythm & blues, soul, and funk, to name the most prevalent—they are bound together through an association with race (African American), place (New Orleans), and functionality (social dance) to such a degree that even a disaster of immeasurable consequences, which disproportionately affected that race and dislocated them from that place, has not threatened its cohesiveness. The consensus about the overall attributes of New Orleans Music is so pervasive that naming them as such seems redundant. [End Page 291]

The second half of the proposition raises a more sweeping question: By what processes do specific musical forms and practices become linked to particular people and places? This essay pursues the role of discourse and media—including eyewitness accounts, historical and musicological studies, musicians' autobiographies, fictional writings, media reports, images, films, and sound recordings—in solidifying the connections between people, places, and musical traditions. New Orleans Music is broadly synonymous with African American music, but this affiliation is by no means timeless and was facilitated, in part, by the writing of jazz history since the 1930s.

The claim made most resoundingly in the book Jazzmen (1939) that jazz began "just [in New Orleans], not somewhere else" (Ramsey and Smith 1939, 5) changed the characterization of New Orleans as a musical city, altering understandings not only of where jazz came from but what constitutes the entirety of New Orleans Music. Prior to being nominated the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans's musical reputation was based on a multitude of offerings, including ballroom dance and French opera, street criers and organ grinders (Kmen 1966). The marching bands that led parades and funerals with music represented numerous ethnicities and races, but as jazz emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century, African Americans, mixed-race Creoles, and European Americans reconfigured the brass band as a black music ensemble, performing syncopated and improvised dance music in burial processions that came to be called jazz funerals and in community parades known as second lines (Schafer 1977; White 2001). These parades wound through an extraordinarily heterogeneous urban center, led by a diverse set of musicians that embodied the city's complex history of interaction, but in narratives of jazz and New Orleans Music they are often narrowly presented as a strictly African American phenomenon. More precisely, jazz funerals and second line parades have been reimagined as a conduit that links jazz back to the celebrated slave dances at Congo Square and, by implication, to Africa.

A representative example can be drawn from the television documentary Jazz Parades: Feet Don't Fail Me Now (1990) directed by folklorist Alan Lomax near the end of his career. In the opening sequence, we are shown a community procession called a second line parade, with African Americans dancing through the streets while the Dirty Dozen Brass Band plays their original song "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now."

"This isn't chaos," Lomax narrates. "It's black tradition right out of Africa."

In an arresting scene, footage of black New Orleanians is intercut with various archival clips of ritual and folkloric dancing in West Africa. As Lomax discusses the intimate relation between music and bodily movement and points out similarities between specific dance steps, he states what [End Page 292] cannot have escaped the observation of any attentive viewer: "Below the surface runs the deep tide of African tradition." Despite my misgivings about decontextualized images portraying contemporary Africa as the site of African American cultural origins, I, too, find the visual evidence of cultural affinities striking and ultimately convincing.

Lomax was deeply committed to tracing the retention of African...