The Birth and Dispersal of Jazz

Buddy Bolden(above left) courtesy of Jelly Roll Morton (above right)

The facts of the early years of Jazz can be found clearly presented on a number of web sites in the Links section of this page. Therefore a brief overview of those facts and the river's role in them will be discussed here.

Soon after Jim Crow reached New Orleans, a brand new music began to show its face. The syncopation of Ragtime and the improvisation of the Blues begin to merge to one. One of the first, if not the first, to showcase what would eventually become known as Jazz, was a young trumpet player by the name of Buddy Bolden. The picture seen above is the only one known to exist of Buddy Bolden. He is second from the right in the back row. Buddy Bolden took the march tempo and changed it making it something all his own. Winton Marsalis says in Ken Burns' Jazz that Buddy Bolden's contribution was "one of personality." He forever changed the history of American music.

From Buddy Bolden, Jazz moves on to a man so audacious he claimed to have invented Jazz, I statement obviously untrue. Inventor or not, Jelly Roll Morton was a master of Jazz. Composing nearly every number in the early jazz musicians song book, Morton got his start playing piano in the historic Storyville. Storyville adds yet another level of river involvement in the birth of Jazz.

Storyville was New Orleans' official red light district. With 2000 registered prostitutes, Storyville was surely a popular spot for river men and ocean sailors alike. The many men who worked the docks of New Orleans, the early New Orleans population was disproportionately male, also frequented the dozens of "sporting houses." Storyville was a place to escape troubles many of them caused by the river either directly or indirectly.

Besides prostitution, Storyville provided another service to the people of New Orleans, work for musicians. Jelly Roll Morton was one such musician. He played along with the "choreography" he saw through his peep whole. The closer he matched the action, the better is tip was. Thus improvisation was necessary. Jelly Roll would eventually use these skills of improvisation as well as the classical piano skills he had learned and combine them to help bring Jazz further into the national spotlight.

Jazz was born and it was now ready to grow. It grew up where else but along the Mississippi River. Jazz traveled north with the steamboats that took passengers out nightly for dances. It also traveled to New York via a similar cruise through the ocean. With the continuing growth of trains, Jazz took off down the rails too. From rail hubs of Chicago and St. Louis Jazz would speed its way across the country. The great jazz men of the 20th century can almost all be traced back somehow to the Mississippi. Whether they were from Kansas City, Chicago, New York, St. Louis, or of course New Orleans, they owed something to the river, and wherever they went, they took a little bit of the river with them.

Jazz was born in New Orleans but it would eventually conquer the whole country as well as the rest of the western world. The Mississippi River, which drains 41% of the United States, is inseparable from the birth and dispersal of Jazz. Jazz owes its existence to the Mississippi River. First forming other forms of music like the Blues, the River combined it all at its mouth in New Orleans to create the Gumbo that is Jazz.
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