“I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive all music came from New Orleans.” – Ernest Kador Jr. (Ernie K-Doe)
That music that you hear when you’re walking down Royal street — the kind that is old-timey and wonky but agreeable with a bit of squirrelly funk quality — it gets stuck in your head, doesn’t it? Every time you hear some classic-sounding melody coming from the trumpet around the corner — you pass, you see the trumpeter and the band, you keep walking, you eat lunch, you go home, you lay down for bed … and there it is. Right before you go to sleep, you hear the trumpet line again. Maybe you can’t even remember where you heard it. Maybe you want it out of your head; “I’m trying to go to sleep you stupid, campy, old broken record. Leave me alone!” And like the annoying acquaintance of your mom’s who won’t leave you alone at a family party, the tune just will not leave you alone. But why is that?
Why are these songs so memorable that they inevitably get stuck in nearly every listener’s head? And not only that, but how have they been getting stuck in peoples’ heads for upwards of one hundred years in a new millennial age when panicked news about a pandemic somewhere English isn’t spoken is dethroned by the butt-picture of a B-list celebrity? This is the age of short attention spans. And yet, the music that was created in New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century, songs that spawned the birth of rock and roll, have stuck around like pieces of still-delicious gum on the bottom of a school desk.
The earliest jazz songs were written as dance tunes, i.e. pop songs. All popular music is written, at base, for dancers to have something to dance to. And these particular pop tunes were constructed like iron tanks.
It works like this: From the moment the average American is born to the time he/she begins to consciously listen to music, he/she will generally hear the same Western-sounding chord progressions, melodious movements, and rhythmic patterns in commercials and TV show theme songs; on top 40 stations; in restaurants, the supermarket and hotel lobbies; and over and over and over again at every place background music is played. These musical motifs are shoved into our ears so much that they are what we, as Americans, consider to be consonant (pleasing to the ear). And the earliest jazz songs are so simply rooted in this constant Western harmony that they sound natural to the listener.
But there is just enough bluesiness, just enough tension, just enough swing and syncopation that the songs are not boring. This is why those songs get stuck in your ear. And New Orleans traditional music, or “the jass!” as it was once called, was the first globally popular style of music that was created right here in the fledgeling United States of America — created in the dirty, backwards, swampy, hot, sweaty, ugly, decadent, apathetic, sweet, cacophonous, beautiful city of New Orleans no less.
How exactly did “the jass” become the popular phenomenon it is today? The rough recipe is as follows:
1 colony founded by France (Must be port city)
1 square, Congo
African rhythms, to taste
1 large community of free peoples of color
Several generations of interracial procreation
A few thousand marching band musicians educated in Western musical theory
1 dance-crazed city populous
Tres Tresillos (if you’re not sure where to find a tresillo rhythm, look around in the Cuban section of your local Caribbean)
Delta Blues, to taste
A pinch of loose morals
1 pound of polyphonic improvisation
1.) Add all ingredients to a local Back’o’town bar near you (preferably after hours)
2.) Add bar to heat and humidity
3.) Cover and let stew for a few years
And voila! There you have it, jass in three easy steps.
Jass is best served hot, with a side of global craze.