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Bicentennial concert celebrates the roots of jazz

In the upcoming months leading up to the official April 30, 2012 celebration of the Louisiana bicentennial, NolaVie in partnership with The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) will feature a series of articles honoring 200 years of Louisiana history.
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New Orleans culture boasts diverse European influences, which are often considered in many cultural arenas. As an indigenous American art form, jazz music also embraces this variety of European influences.
Born right here in the heart of New Orleans – and some would say the heart of America – those influences are perhaps more pronounced than art forms or movements spawned in other parts of the country, as New Orleans has been a melting pot for European, Caribbean, African, and Latin American influences even before Louisiana joined the United States of America two hundred years ago.
This Wednesday, January 25, 2012, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and The Historic New Orleans Collection will celebrate the bicentennial of Louisiana statehood with a live concert and online webcast exploring the diverse musical customs of Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean and the rich cultural traditions of New Orleans that led to the development of jazz. To do so the “Becoming American: The Musical Journey” concert will feature music by Vincente Martín y Soler, André Ernest Modeste Grétry, Ludwig van Beethoven, Juventino Rosas, Vincenzo Bellini, Dudley Buck, “Jelly Roll” Morton, and Franz von Suppé.
The program for “Becoming American” reminds us that in 1814 Francis Scott Key witnessed the British Royal Navy’s attack on Fort McHenry, inspiring him to write a poem that would later be paired with John Stafford Smith’s “The Anacreon.” This song and lyrics would become the national anthem in 1931.
Years before that, Dudley Buck wrote Concert Variations on “The Star-Spangled Banner” for organ for the instrument that gained popularity in the second half of the 19th century. Buck’s Variations became popular in New Orleans and was one of the most commonly performed songs at the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition.The popularity of Buck’s Variations in New Orleans before “The Star-Spangled Banner” became the national anthem is a testament to New Orleans and its tendencies to absorb cultural influences and incorporate them into traditions.
The music of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz,” is another example of the diverse influences of jazz as well as the importance on the roots of New Orleans culture on the development of jazz. Morton was influenced by French and Italian opera as well as a variety of popular music. In Roger D. Abrahams’ book “Blues for New Orleans,” he writes that Morton also spoke of the “Spanish tinge,” often called “the habanera, or ‘tango bass line,’” which can also be attributed to an “uneven rhythm patter characteristic of Sub-Saharan Africa” known as “additive rhythm.”
This rhythm can be found in music throughout the New World and in many French territories, but has been most persistent in New Orleans, where major and minor music influences from almost every corner of the world merged to create unique sounds, including the style we know as jazz. Morton’s New Orleans-influenced concept of jazz emphasizes the importance of interactions between members of a jazz band.
As the connection between LPO musicians is almost palpable to their audiences, Morton’s concept of musician interaction will undoubtedly play an important role in the “Becoming American” concert this Wednesday creating another cause for celebration in this bicentennial year.

Brianna Smyk has an M.A. in Art History from San Diego State University. She lives and works in New Orleans and writes about arts and culture for NolaVie. Read more of Brianna’s articles at


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