Where, when and why a certain kind of music was born may be very hard to define, especially when talking about popular music. A particular kind of music may have existed for decades in specific communities before the general public became aware of it.
That’s the case of jazz. By the time the general public became aware of it, jazz had been played in African American communities throughout the South, nobody knows for how long.
Today, it is generally accepted that jazz arose in and around New Orleans at the turn of the XX century. At that time, the city offered a unique combination of different cultural elements and influences that made it one of the foremost environments in which musicians created jazz.
A port city with doors to the spicy sounds of Caribbean and Mexico, very tolerant of the slave culture and home to a well-established black population, New Orleans was also still very strongly linked to her French and Spanish origins.
In this cultural and musical melting pot, jazz began to emerge as part of a broader musical revolution encompassing ragtime, blues, spirituals and marching bands among other experiences.
Much of this revolution happened in Storyville, New Orleans red-light district.
Storyville was established in 1897 by Sidney Story, a city official who supported an ordinance that confined the red-light district to a 38-block area. It was closed down by order of the Secretary of the Navy in 1917. This area was the only one in which white and a few black prostitutes could legally play their trade.
Like tenderloins and vice districts in many other cities, Storyville was controlled by collusion between politicians, entrepreneurs and the underworld. It brimmed with entertainment spots, like restaurants, bars, saloons, gambling houses and of course brothers – and all those places needed music. Here, many African American musicians (who were barred access to more respectable establishments) found a job.
Dealing with a kind of audience who hardly care for the music they plaid, these musicians had almost unlimited freedom to experiment and to work out stylistic qualities of their own, in a very free, unconventional way.
But there was another element that made New Orleans pretty unique in the creation of jazz: his Creole population.
The Creoles were free, French and Spanish speaking blacks originally from the West Indies. Because they were descendent from the first Europeans, they had a European education and could rose to the highest levels of New Orleans society, both economic and political. Most of them lived in the French Quarter of the city, east of Canal Street. The Creoles loved music, and many were conservatory educated.
In sharp contrast to them were the people of the American part of the city, who lived west of Canal Street. They were mostly newly freed slaves, uneducated and lacking any economic and cultural advantage, but experienced in gospel and work songs and very skilful in learning music by ear and improvising.
In 1894 a segregation law forced Creoles to move on the other side of Canal Street and live in an environment very different from the one they came from. This certainly proved to be an ordeal for all parties involved, but finally, a kind of balance was achieved. As the Creoles merged into the cultural fabric of that part of the city, they brought to it their history, culture and education. They were likely the actual cultural enactors of that mix of African American and European musical culture that would later allow the birth of jazz.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
YouTube – A visit to Storyville, New Orleans’ most famous red light district
National Park Cervice – A New Orleans Jazz History 1895-1927
About Entertainment – What is early jazz
Jazz – Chapter 4 (outline)
UCLA Universtity – Blue Horizon: Creaole culture and early New Orleans jazz
History – New Orleans