Jazz à la Creole: Fench Creole Music and the Birth of Jazz

Where jazz came from has been a compelling topic for over 100 years. It is hard to picture now, but in the 1920s there was no consensus that the style had originated in New Orleans. Alternative theories suggested New York City by way of the Caribbean. This was despite the fact that so many prominent early jazz musicians, White and Black, had come from New Orleans and even included the city’s name, or its Creole identity, in the names of their bands.

Part of the confusion was that while jazz only became a mass market phenomenon after 1917 there were stirrings of it among ragtime dance bands in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington D.C, and elsewhere for a decade prior. Often, as revealed by later scholars, under the influence of musicians traveling out of New Orleans. The Original Creole Orchestra was one such act, and while Freddie Keeppard was not a Creole himself several of his bandmates were. The same applies to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Jelly Roll Morton, who was a Creole, left New Orleans early and brought the style with him to the West Coast.

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What did early jazz artists mean when they identified as Creole? What did it signify for their bands? And what role did the French and Spanish Creole culture of New Orleans play in birthing jazz in that city rather than some other? These are not questions susceptible to easy answers.

In prior decades jazz scholarship has been prone to romanticism and hyperbole. In her new study, Jazz à la Creole: French Creole Music and the Birth of Jazz, Caroline Vézina avoids both traps while remaining engaging for a reader with romance in their heart. She avoids the common mistake of over-attribution. She sees jazz as a creolization of many things, the Creole music of New Orleans only being one of them. But with so many important early jazz musicians having a Creole cultural background, and the rest of them living in a city where that culture was prominent, if fading, a French and Spanish influence, and a unique local Black history, was bound to contribute to the DNA of jazz.

Caroline Vézina unwraps that DNA step by step. The book is in two main parts, the larger one explores “The Precursors of Jazz”, different styles of music present in the city before and during the dawn of jazz. The second part provides short biographies of several Creole jazz musicians, and then an analysis of French titles within the jazz repertoire, both the evidence for them being played by early bands and their presentation in the Revival Era.

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The narrative itself is a brief 120 pages but appendices including words and music for a number of Creole songs, notes, some of them substantial, a discography, a bibliography, and an index add over a hundred pages to that number. It is a painstakingly researched monograph with each claim supported. While some of it necessarily overlaps with other books on the earliest jazz the primary focus is kept on the Creole music of New Orleans and environs from the founding of the city through efforts to preserve it coinciding with the jazz revival. For someone whose interest is in jazz rather than a wider topic like the history of Louisiana or African American history in New Orleans, it is a perfect length to take in and ponder the relevant factors. Those who read French or have a background in music theory will benefit, particularly from the appendices, but neither is at all necessary.

Many readers will find the history of French settlement in the opening chapter fascinating. As well as the briefer history of the term Creole. A huge topic, she has a way of keeping it to facts that will create a string of “a-ha!” moments for the jazz reader. The initial population of slaves in New Orleans were transplanted during a thirteen year period near the founding of the city in 1718 and were from a different area of Africa than later groups. There were then essentially no new arrivals for 30 years until the Spanish took control of the city in 1762. Slave Codes under both French and Spanish rule had paths to manumission, leading to an ever growing population of Gens de Couleur Libres (Free People of Color). The codes encouraged family preservation more so than those in other colonies, and slaves were given more freedom of movement, avenues of legal complaint, and Sundays off. The result was an unusually cohesive community. Quoting a period source, a plantation owner in 1755 “complained that his slaves met at houses in the city owned by free blacks where Plantation and town slaves met to eat and drink and dance all night to the sound of a fiddle.” The same source references such parties as early as the 1740s. You would not have found anything similar in Virginia.

Despite some influx of Spanish speakers and a large influx of slaves, the city remained largely French in temperament under Spanish rule, including a love of balls and the celebration of Carnival. After briefly reverting to French hands the Americans purchased the territory in 1803. At that time the city of New Orleans was 50% Black with a third of those being Free People of Color. The Haitian Revolution would lead to another influx of French speakers, two thirds of them Black and half of those free. The Napoleonic Wars led to even more French speakers migrating to New Orleans directly from Europe.

This all had the effect of preserving French culture in New Orleans decades longer than it might have lasted otherwise, as almost immediately after “The Purchase” waves of English speakers began flooding the city, and after the international slave trade was banned in 1808 English speaking slaves from elsewhere in the country became an increasing presence on nearby Plantations. By 1860 only 14% of New Orleans was Black, half of those free. The free Black population had itself increased by 900% since 1803 so the difference was that there had been an even more dramatic increase in the non-French White population.

It is worth keeping in mind how small cities were in 1800, most of what is New Orleans now was still plantations surrounding the Vieux Carre. The population ballooned from 8000 to 168,000 between 1803 and the start of the war. New Orleans was becoming a metropolis, a world class port city, and one with a French Creole cultural elite and unusually prominent Black middle class. Theaters would reserve their upper tiers for Free People of Color and there were theaters and balls catering specifically to that population as early as 1800.

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The Creole population was proudly so, both White and Free Black clung to French ideals of cultural refinement as the Americans encroached around them. They sent their children to France to study when they could afford it and dominated the public life of the city. Creoles of Color became artisans and remained associated with higher status skilled work long after the war. Several early jazz musicians of Creole background had day jobs rolling cigars or similarly artisanal work that had been passed down in their families. Many were in music or education.

The three tiered racial caste system in New Orleans began to break down even before the war. American business interests divided the city into three municipalities, two French speaking, and the American Sector, now the CBD. As Eastern businessmen gained power they pushed back on French permissiveness towards the Black population. After the war, as segregation became more entrenched, White Creoles tried to distance themselves from Black Creoles, and insinuations that they all had a “hint of the tar brush”. Black Creoles attempted to distinguish themselves from African Americans, but the one drop rule made this ultimately futile outside their own communities.

At the time Kid Ory was born on Woodland Plantation in 1886, only a few miles upriver from New Orleans, the people around him still spoke Creole French as a first language. As did the people around Jelly Roll Morton in the city itself. Vézina relies on several interviews that make it clear French was still very common on plantations and in the city at the turn of the 20th century. The most interesting is with Alice Zeno (1864-1960), the mother of George Lewis. Zeno was interviewed three times in the years prior to her death. For this book, Vézina focuses on the portion of an interview she gave in French that hasn’t previously been explored. Her story is amazing. She learned Senegalese words and songs from the Haitian Revolution from her grandmother, a grandmother who had learned them from her own mother who was transported from Africa.

Alice Zeno’s memories, and those of a White Creole woman of similar age, are explored to uncover how the French language, particularly in song, was still being used in the Creole of Color community at the dawn of jazz. The folk elements would be remembered the longest because children often heard or sang them, but sometimes the context they remembered was of adults singing work songs or partying. Alphonse Picou sheds light on events of more direct jazz interest. He recalls that on his first gig with a dance band, in 1894, they played a French language song, in another interview about the same night he claims that parts of it were improvised, and solos were featured. The recollections of several early jazzmen indicate that at the turn of the century, French music was most common around Carnival or at “Cowans”, parties where a special snapping turtle dish was served. These were often bawdy songs with improvised lyrics. Carnival was, and remains, a time for New Orleans Creoles of all races to revel in their French heritage.

Any book on the prehistory of jazz might organize itself with sections on African American folk music, spirituals, and European music, as this one does for three chapters. The difference here is that each of them is explored with the unique flavor of French Louisiana. That makes this book a worthwhile addition rather than a retread. The structure of the book makes for comfortable, almost familiar reading while also being deeply informative and nuanced in its explorations of the specific pieces of music covered.

The folk songs traced are in French, be they gathered from the Plantations, urban work songs, street cries, Voodoo songs, or reports from Congo Square. Among the books of slave songs published after the war, several included songs in the French language, and she looks to these reports for clues. She weaves together many period quotations about music on Creole Louisiana plantations or among Black Creoles in the city which anyone would find enthralling. The calls of street vendors, simple and easily improvised upon, are collected from as early as the 1830s, but are also recalled by early jazzmen who found them an inspiring part of city life. Reports of an 1884 Voodoo ceremony include gourd drums, homemade fiddles, and French folk and religious music. She points out that nearly all of the music from George Washington Cable’s “The Dance in Place Congo” (1886) was printed in phonetic French for the English reader.

1885 illustration depicting slave dances in New Orleans 40 some years earlier. From “The Dance in Place Congo” an article published by George Washington Cable in 1886

Gatherings in Congo Square had been closed down in 1835 as part of the American pushback previously mentioned. Because of that Cable’s report has been dismissed as at best secondhand sensationalism from a white correspondent. Using other sources and a small amount of conjecture she suggests that certain songs and dances from Congo Square were very much alive in Cable’s time. The Square itself would have still had vendors and other activities and remained an active destination for locals and tourists to observe Black music and dance.

Throughout the folk music section people attempting to take musical notation lament their inability to record exactly how the Black Creoles are performing these songs, alluding to their unique rhythmic fluctuations, embellishments, and note bending. This refrain will be familiar to anyone who has read about the hunt for folk music elsewhere, but I found it interesting that it was also present in the French Catholic religious music unique to New Orleans.

Under both France and Spain, the Black Codes required a Catholic baptism and religious instruction for slaves. By 1728 the Ursuline Convent was instructing their own slaves, other slaves, free Blacks, and Indian women. Music was a large part of religious life and instruments were taught. Without questioning the validity of slavery the Catholic Church maintained a “universal ideal”, slave and free were part of the same congregation, equal souls before God. St.Augustine Church in the Treme, built in the 1840s by Free People of Color, had center sections of pews, one for whites and the other for free blacks. They purchased pews for slaves to sit on either side. There were even interracial choirs. This religious space for a cross racial Catholic identity was markedly different from religious life elsewhere in the South. The first officially Black and segregated parish wasn’t created until 1895, bending to American law.

Vézina explores original sources from the Ursuline Convent for religious music in settings outside of the Latin Mass, that is, music in French. She finds many, including a practice of taking popular songs and making them religious that I found interesting. She discusses specific practices of accented singing and stretching lyrics, and unequal rhythms that have obvious implications for the jazz reader. A French predisposition that engaged with the predispositions of people who were at the time very close to their own African traditions.

In the 1950s a number of “cantiques negres” were collected from people who had sung them in religious settings as recently as the 1910s. These were French Catholic religious songs that had been altered by decades of repetition, but not so much as to be unrecognizable. Scholars at the time concluded that the way they were sung was influenced by other Negro Spirituals, Caroline Vézina makes a compelling case that as they would have been actively sung long before the English language, let alone Protestant spirituals would have been spread in the area, the style of their presentation should be taken as traditional. She does so, as throughout the book, with textual analysis of contemporary reports, and in this case a skillful ear on actual recordings.

The European music covered is primarily that of balls, the French were obsessed with them and they would often hold dances after operas and plays. Parties went long into the night, frequently with the same musicians from the evening’s event switching gears. White men would bring their light skinned mistresses to special Quadroon balls, and masked balls allowed for unusual levels of race mixing. The children of these unions continually increased the ranks of Free People of Color. Dances played at these events, from waltzes to mazurkas, would dominate social music right up to the jazz age. To be French meant a love of refinement, but also of revelry. The Americans would characterize them by the latter.

Classical music was often played by Free People of Color, some of whom were even sent by their middle class families to study in Europe, and among the professions of the aspirant Black Creoles musician featured prominently. Formally trained Black musicians also arrived with the refugees of the Haitian Revolution. The Société Philhomonique included over 100 free musicians of color who performed classical music for White audiences before the war.

She also explores the classical music produced by New Orleans Creoles in the second half of the 19th Century. The often referenced Louis Moreau Gottschalk, whose “The Banjo”, is seen as a predecessor to ragtime, is given the most space. Several Black Creole composers are also discussed. The marvelous Basile Bares, who was first published while still enslaved, is well worth exploring. By the turn of the century, many Creole composers, both White and Black, were incorporating syncopation and polyrhythms into their work.

Lorenzo Tio, Sr., 1894 (courtesy Hogan Jazz Archive)

Instead of repeating a basic history of the 1890 to 1930 early jazz era she briefly profiles a series of musicians with Creole backgrounds to flush out that part of it influenced by Creole culture. I will not be alone in finding the exploration of four generations of the Tio family the most interesting part of this chapter. Her source is a 1993 doctoral thesis by Charles Kinzer that is readily available in PDF form but is more than worthy of publication as a book. Even if you don’t think you need primers on Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, or Sidney Bechet these brief overviews won’t hurt. The Lizzie Miles section is particularly interesting.

Reports, mostly collected during the revival, demonstrate that while no Creole songs were recorded in the first years of jazz they were played, and that being Creole had significance among the early players. Baby Dodds describes how the downtown crowd played with a “Spanish accent” and played the Creole songs that the uptown crowd wouldn’t. Alphonse Picou, as mentioned above, also makes clear French titles were in the repertoire. The reason no Creole songs were recorded early on was simply that no one would expect to sell French songs to a national audience. The jazz revivalists, interested in both jazz origins and New Orleans itself, encouraged the old masters to pick their brains and several French language jazz recordings were made in the 40s and 50s. The final section of the book compares and contrasts revival recordings of “Eh La Bas”, “Blanche Touquatoux”, and “Les Ognons”, analyzing differences in both lyric and presentation.

So what are the common threads for jazz? There does seem to be a French tendency to improvise lyrics, especially playfully. There also seems to be improvisation in the form of note bending, and even bending rhythms to create energy, so that even “reading musicians” were flexible. Scholars have suggested that jazz was created by the uptown informal musicians being forced together with the more refined downtown musicians by Jim Crow. She suggests that is too pat an answer, as the lines were already more porous, and some of the innovative tendencies were coming from the formally trained musicians. The proud tradition of music made by Creoles of Color, in a city willing to take them seriously, even on the stage of formal concert halls played a role. It inspired confidence and opportunity. When The Orginal Creole Orchestra and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band added the word Creole to their names, they expected it to open doors for them. It was an evocative signifier that distinguished them from bands of “Anglo-African” origin.

Jazz à la Creole: Fench Creole Music and the Birth of Jazz is a worthwhile addition to any jazz bookshelf. Its brevity and focus on a single topic that hasn’t previously been given such an academic treatment will be welcomed by anyone who has already read a number of jazz histories. The book is well paced to be read with enjoyment over a few days and includes a full index for reference use. Extensive notes offer a deeper dive, and musicians may take the appendices to their piano to explore. Caroline Vézina has done us a service by delving into this topic so thoroughly.

Jazz à la Creole
French Creole Music and the Birth of Jazz
By Caroline Vézina
Series: American Made Music Series
University Press of Mississippi
248 pages, 1 table;
29 b&w figures; 20 musical examples
Hardcover: 9781496842404, $99.00
Paperback: 9781496842428, $30.00

Joe Bebco is the Associate Editor of The Syncopated Times and Webmaster of SyncopatedTimes.com

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