As New Orleans commemorates its Tricentennial and gears up for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, The New Orleans Tribune celebrates the undeniable contributions of Black New Orleanians on the development of the city with its 300 in Black series. Our April edition is the perfect time and space to remind folk that America’s only original music genre was nurtured in the womb of Black New Orleans; birthed on a Sunday to the echoing thud of African hands—enslaved and free—thrashing drums in Congo Square; cradled in the arms of Black musicians as they literally invented a new sound in the shadows of the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, then raised it up—full grown—and sent it out into the world.
For our April installment of 300 in Black, we mined our archives to find a diamond—an article written more than 30 years ago by Kalamu ya Salaam. Originally titled “Our Music is No Accident”, Kalamu ya Salaam’s piece is as much poetry as it is prose—a profoundly raw statement of adoration for New Orleans music—Black music; a tip of the hat to its purveyors; an unapologetic critique against its bastardization; and a hearkening back to a time some might lament is gone. Originally published in 1987, one could argue that it is about the music made in a New Orleans that no longer exists in this post-Katrina reality punctuated by newly gentrified corridors and noise ordinances.
The original piece has been edited for space; but as much as it was in 1987, the article remains a personal tribute to the music and a beautifully-crafted testament to the way it can make you feel.
Our music is no accident, indeed. And if you stop and listen closely, you can still hear it. It’s in the rhythmic thumps made by the Black kid skillfully beating his makeshift drumset (barrels and buckets turned bottom-side up) on Royal Street for as long as he can before some White shop owners tell him to move along. It’s in the viscously thick drum beats that mark the sound of Bounce rap. You hear it in the clink-clank of the homemade tap shoes worn by Black youngsters dancing on Bourbon. It’s in the sound made by those cats who just formed their very own brass band. They are barely out of high school; but they still bring that old-school New Orleans funk to your birthday party, block party or wedding reception—clad in T-shirts and jeans—because that’s all they have. And you don’t even mind; because it’s all about the music. It’s still here, and it’s no accident.
By Kalamu ya Salaam
Our music is a purposeful extension of the essence of life which is the act of creation. Every living being creates; and the African signature on creation, no matter the context, always includes, in one way or another, music—forceful and terribly strong music.
Danny Barker talks about Armstrong and Bechet, talks about how hard they played. As he says, “man against metal”—and the musicians won.
For a long time I, like many others, misunderstood the origins of what I heard. I would hear it every day in thousands of different ways. Be right there on the scene as it was created, feel the vibrations of the drum head massaging my chest, catch the staggering snatches of energy rising lava hot from the burnished bell of a horn, be actively on set dancing my ass off and not understanding where it all came from. Even though I was and am a witness of its birth, I still, for too long, believed the myth and thought that the commercial scene was all it was about.
But after humbling down, listening to and talking with the elders who walked with the originators; after checking out the traditional musicians who are now legendary but still very much alive and in many cases still playing; after proper tutoring, I know better. Jazz was not born in the brothels.
In the parts of New Orleans where jazz was really born, few of the musicians held music as a profession, few of them made their livelihood solely playing music. And so, no promoter, club owner or madam could tell them what to play and how. They played what they wanted, however they wanted, for as long as they wanted. This much is important to understand.
Originally, Jazz was not for sale. A bricklayer or carpenter, who works steady and plays music at night and on the weekends, will quickly tell a music hustler to “kiss my ass.” In the beginning, this music was not a commodity.
Jazz was Born in Lincoln Park
Jazz was birthed by a man named Buddy Bolden; and even that is stretching it, because Buddy was simply the one whom most people can remember.
Jazz was born on a Sunday. Prior to the emancipation, our music happened in Congo Square, out around where the Municipal Auditorium and Armstrong Park are today.
At the turn of the century, it was Lincoln Park, Uptown New Orleans, off of Carrollton Avenue, a corner of the Black neighborhood now known as Gert Town. Black folk would meet there to commune with one another; and all of our indigenous and essential communions involved our music.
Imagine what it must have been like. Imagine the excitement in the air. The clustering of elders, children, men and women in their prime. The beautifully hot weather for which New orleans is noted. The grass and the trees. The fresh food—freshly grown, freshly cooked. Imagine how it feels in the middle of three or four hundred happy Black people who love and respect each other and are about to get seriously down with some music.
Imagine the charge that must have been there, the fertileness of that moment, the virility of the men, the beauty of the women. Imagine what this must have meant to the musicians preparing to raise the excitement to another level.
Bolden is sitting down somewhere blowing air into the mouthpiece of his horn, while a female admirer wipes his brow. There is a buzz happening, cause the other band is coming on the set. Two bands, one field. They will face each other. Imagine.
Well that’s how the music was born.
They’d start off with the drums and maybe a fast blues. By an hour later, everything was jumping. The earth was shaking. So many people dancing you could feel it through the ground. And that dancing to the beat would set the horns to going further out.
At a point just when the music had gotten storm loud, like the eye of the hurricane, no one heard Buddy anymore. No one heard any notes, any noise, any music. No one heard Buddy’s brilliant string of embellished tones corkscrewing listily into the atmosphere. No one heard any of the instruments, neither bone nor corner, nor drum because once it’s really moving faster than the speed of thought, you don’t hear music, you feel it and flow with the feeling.
That’s how jazz was born.
Later it was commercialized. But meanwhile, people celebrated weddings and babies and death; and bands were hired by the community to round out a social function. For us it was never about a background song for whoring and profit, that came later under alien influences. In the beginning, the music was all about hooking us up. Jazz was the shine and glue of all our social functions.
I remember as a kid passing a lot where a sign was posted which said “future home of” so-and-so church. There was a gathering there, food for sale to raise money, and a small brass band standing in the sun providing the music. I remember at my grandfather’s church him calling up the youngsters who played instruments and making a young boy blow the trumpet and another beat a drum. The trumpet player was in the choir stand and the drummer stood on the side of the pulpit.
Jazz was not the devil’s music, the devils just used jazz.
Like everything else Black people created, including successive generations of Black life, America exploited our music for profit and perverted it for pleasure. As a result of that inescapable reality, there is always a sadness at the core of the African-American joy, chains rattling whenever we dance, pain beneath the laughter. A tear in every smile.
You would cry too, if you saw your daughter turned out, made into a pornography queen, junkie, your son made up as a mindless clown mouthing simpleton jokes.
Fortunately, jazz was not born to die. Jazz was born to live despite the death dues exacted by slavery, by sharecropping, by Jim Crow. At the core of our music, even under layers of filth and commercialization, there is a creative heartbeat that edifies and uplifts a sense of self and community, of talent and worth, of life. Even as it shakes and shimmies, does the funky butt, cocks its leg, flashes its breasts or grinds its pelvis, even then there is still, deep inside, something sacred happening in music.
Full of Little Rooms
New Orleans is full of little rooms where the band is crowded into a corner and the bathrooms are literally holes in the cement floor. Where you just walk in without paying a cover, or you give a dollar or two to Peter Straddling the doorsill with a bunch of ones and fives in his hand, a long-ashed cigarette hanging at forty-five degrees from his lips, a plastic cup of chilled beer on a table or chair beside him.
Full of places where regulars line the bar stools and women sit two, three and four to the booth with near empty pints and fifths of liquor littering the Formica table tops.
Full of joints named after people who run them or named rather randomly for inconsequential facts of life-like the “Orange Room” which is located inside a building whose outside wall is painted, yeah, you guessed it, orange.
Full of these places where there is no bandstand, no sound system other than what the band brings with them, no provisions for dancing-you simply push the tables and chairs aside. Here is where those who must make music create.
Here is where two tubas are blasting as two trumpets riff, two drummers beat and the baritone saxophone player is running the changes of “Blue Monk” on a silver curved soprano saxophone handheld over the big baritone resting on his chest—all of this rendered by a young band called the Dirty Dozen who play modern/traditional music with a brass band instrumentation, augmented by a saxophone section that has been known to send professional reed players into acute despair as the swaggering sax section punctuates the umbrellaed dancing of young men who jump up bumping the low ceiling, casually colliding into each other, fully animated by the music as they dance in a space of less than four feet by ten feet, including where trombone player’s slide jabs in and out.
Here is where you really find New Orleans music.
And all you can do is love it. Like orchids and delicate fruit, it doesn’t export well, and it certainly seldom grows outside its natural habitat, no matter how much you scientifically simulate its nurturing environment. Why? Because we are not dealing with a product, but a process. This music requires the people, the various holes in the walls, the narrow streets and liquor emporiums which stay open 24 hours a day.
Today, the music is seldom made in parks. Today, the creative juices are flowing in places which you need a map or a guide to find.
Most visitors, who come to New Orleans seeking music, go to the French Quarters on Bourbon Street or hang out in nightclubs which advertise their existence. But the best of what we offer is seldom advertised. It happens in the street or in small hot boxes early in the morning, sometimes three or four a.m. in this city that never closes. In New Orleans, to hear the real music you have to find it or be it. You have to know somebody who knows where so-and-so is; and assuming that you know who so-and-so is, you have to ask about them. Or -you have to drive around looking for the second line or go from spot to spot until you find out. Funny thing, when you finally arrive, you are never alone. There are always people there, always music people.
What it is, mostly, is the total absorption and total identification of New Orleans’ poor Blacks with the dynamic art of our rich music. New Orleans is full of that.
I’ve Seen the Music
Our music is really ritual. It is regeneration and elevation. I suppose it sounds a bit chauvinistic to go on and on about New Orleans music, especially since nothing particularly innovative has jumped out of here as a genre since the 1950s rhythm & blues, but, the aforementioned caveat notwithstanding, there is something special about New Orleans music, an enduring quality, a certain expressive, total commitment that concentrates rather simple riffs, uncomplicated melodies and centuries old rhythm syncopations onto a sound that is awesomely uplifting.
Nobody really understands this strange and captivating noise of life we call New Orleans music. Sometimes it can be infuriating banal. And then, in an instant—almost like some mojo-ist dropped some ju-ju in the air—its metamorphoses into a binding element that seizes the soul and rides the body. At that point, either you is or you ain’t.
Once the music really gets to humping, it moves on its own momentum. I have seen trumpet players so tired they are limping but who literally could not stop playing. Phrase after phrase after phrase would just burst forth.
Every time they would stop, a new idea would hit, an idea so tumultuous it had to be revealed. Maybe for a few seconds, Albert would swig a couple of swallows of beer from a can handed to him by his seven-year-old cousin prancing by his side, or he would pull out an oversized red polka dot bandana and wipe his sweating head—I mean literally wipe his head, his face too, but wipe his head. Then the music would come charging up again and Albert would have to blow.
I have witnessed it happen in these narrow streets with the wood frame houses stacked side by side which bounce back the sound like gigantic outdoor stairwell, or underneath overpasses and expressways, the concrete magnifying the volume by at least a hundred, the overtones reverberating and the drummer hearing and hitting licks which he snatche cleanly out of the air with every uplift of his arm, like magicians pulling rabbits out of a hat. That’s the way I have heard the music played in New Orleans.
The music just gets embarrassingly good to you, almost like you got to pee and there’s no place to pee, but you got to go, so you just let it go in the street, damn getting wet, damn looking foolish, you just let it go right then and there. And you know how good is the release of a pent up piss.
You dance and play, and bump up against people, and go for two hours past the time you were suppose to quit. I have seen the sun rise after a night of New Orleans music.
Like the satisfied exhaustion after exquisite love making, you leave this music slowly, drained but happy, tired but rejuvenated, fulfilled and ultimately ready to face another day of grind that is regular life in New Orleans.
New Orleans Music is What Black History Sounds Like
No other American city has its own music like New Orleans. New York, like a magnet, draws people to it. Inevitably many of the best go there to make their mark and thus the music that comes out of New York is often of the highest caliber on this planet in terms of artistic achievement. But even New York is no New Orleans, not even New York has the culture of music like we have here.
Where else do adults organize themselves in marching clubs. Not close order drills like soldiers, hup-two-three-fouring, but marching clubs of uniformed—nah, uniform is a bad word to describe these flashily dressed men and women who favor bold shades of reds, purples, pinks, screaming greens, succulent creams and erotic yellows—strutters who glide before brass bands translating the music into dance motions almost as if they were signing for an audience of the deaf.
The clubs carry banners before them, embroidered insignias which mark their date origin. They carry decorated umbrellas. They carry stylized baskets rambunctiously wrapped in yards of bowed silk or satin ribbon, baskets which they twirl in the street and leap over. They wear hats and shades and grab each other as they shake dance. They move sometimes as if they all had one leg, and other times in a flashing syncretic go-for-self that amalgamates a hundred individual improvisations on the same beat into one gigantic, trembling trance movement that throbs, pulsing cross asphalt as the band blows behind these possessed paraders whose organizations have names like “Fun Lovers” and “Scene Boosters.”
Everywhere we had the opportunity to organize our culture there are similar manifestations– the Brazilian Samba organizations, the Trinidadian Pan Clubs, and in Haiti. But the fact that there is nothing else in American comparable to the marching clubs of New Orleans is a precise statement about America and what the rulers of this country tried to do to African-derived culture.
New Orleans is spit in the eye of the western commercialization of culture. A lot of entrepreneurs have tried to figure out how to sell this stuff and nobody has really been able to do it. And that’s good. Cause when you get right down to it, what we produce here is not a product but a way of life and attitude about living.
Yes, someone can teach the notes, teach the tunes, even transcribe the solos, but no one can capture in a classroom the nuances of shaking the horn on the lip to approximate the thigh vibrations of Betty Jean Jones, AKA “Foxy Black,” who is moving in time to the tune that Greg is blowing.
And so, more because I am hooked on this music than for any other reason, I continue to participate in these rituals even though my second-lining will mean that I will have to slowly but satiatedly limp away from a street parade. My left knee, through which a thirty-eight slug passed during a shooting accident, throbs with each step. But no matter because dancing in the street is more important than pain. In fact, it is not uncommon to see revelers shimmying on crutches, leaning on hand-carved canes or dancing in wheelchairs. We know this music is medicinal.
Just remembering some of the disturbances that have been created in my mind by New Orleans musicians, I involuntarily tremble. At times, the force of rhythms is a sensation so emotionally potent that it creates a physical reaction. Like tightly hugging your lover in the midnight hour, this music makes your nature rise.
Our music is social relationships turned into vibrations. A lip on metal, a finger quivering on a key, a fist with a stick beating a goat hide, a thigh muscle twitching guided by neutrons moving faster than the brain can command—all of it together a precise barometer of what’s going down in the community.
Our music is how we sound when we innovatively squeeze every ounce of joy we can out of the sorrow of neo-New Orleans slavery. Our music is the best of what it means to be Black in New Orleans. Amen.