Monday, 3 November 2014

Jackson, Jazz and Joan of Arc - Part I

Did you know that the National Parks Department has Passports that you can buy - for grown ups - and collect stamps from each of the Parks you visit? Neither did I, nor that the 'Parks' are sometimes museums in city centres. Jerry had one of these and this is what took us on a walking tour that involved a lecture on the birth of jazz in New Orleans.

Our tour guide was a striking young woman named Anna who said she was a jazz singer as well as an historian. This is what I can recall of what she told us: The French settled New Orleans in 1717-18 and they had African slaves. Their relationship with their slaves was slightly different to that of the British / Anglo-Americans. Their code noir gave slaves Sundays ‘off’ which meant they could work for themselves that day and earn money to buy their freedom, a practice that was not discouraged. The Congo Square was a popular place for slaves to gather and make African music.

Being able to buy their freedom meant there was a class of gens de couleur libres (free people of colour), a sort of middle class between the lower class of slaves and upper class of plantation owners. These free slaves mixed freely (socially and otherwise) with others of European descent and sent their children to France, or later to Spain, for a classical education, which included classical music. These people – of European and African descent - called themselves ‘Creole’, which means native. I found myself seeking the definition(s) of this word throughout our time in New Orleans, as it was given to us differently each place we went.

Soon after the Louisiana purchase of 1803, Anglo-Americans moved in and the city was divided into the Anglo section (possibly ‘uptown’) and the Creole section (‘downtown’). By the 1830s slaves lost their Sundays and were no longer as able to buy freedom. It was no longer acceptable for persons of colour or mixed race to mix socially – or musically – with white people and so they met in brothels, where no one paid much attention to social rules. Jazz was born as a mixing of African music and European classical music. As soon as ‘coloured’ musicians became successful they moved up river to St. Louis and Chicago and spread the jazz sound.

Anna didn't talk much about the period when Spain held New Orleans, which was only about forty years beginning in the mid-1700s. She did tell us about the Baroness de Pontalba. This woman was born during the Spanish period and led a remarkable life between France and New Orleans (her father-in-law shot her and then himself; he died, she lived!) She built the Pontalba buildings on the Place d'Armes, including her initials in the wrought iron work around the balcony. 

Anna then took us down to the river to remind us that New Oleans was first and foremost a port city. More about that later...


Jg. for FatScribe said...

hi, Shelley! great write-up. I had no idea about Spain and NoLa (or, perhaps forgot?), but that Baroness Pontalba was a remarkable survivor ... my oldest is thinking about college in New Orleans, so a timely post, my friend.

be well!!


Gam Kau said...

Very interesting history, had never been to New Orleans, but it's on my list.