The big easy

In search of the roots of rock and roll, Clash embarked on a pilgrimage across America and discovered the musical foundations the country was built on.

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The Big Easy: the birthplace of jazz and its first true genius, Louis Armstrong, and the last stop on our journey down the musical backbone of America.

Though we were staying in the heart of the famous French Quarter neighbourhood, we spent little time on Bourbon Street, the most celebrated street in the Quarter, since strip bars, stag dos, cheap cocktails and souvenir shops extol nothing of the area’s history.

Instead, we hit the Maple Leaf Bar, where the residency of the Rebirth Brass Band preserves the traditional second line [marching parade] sound of the city by injecting the modern rhythms of funk and hip-hop into the jubilant mix.

The next day, we met Tulane University’s Assistant Professor of Music, Matt Sakakenny, an expert in the brass band music of New Orleans, who revealed to us the origins of the genre, and in turn the secret of the city’s musical prestige.

“New Orleans is a very interesting place, because way back it wasn’t a part of America, it was a French colony,” he began. “The French had very different approaches to slavery than the British: the French were Catholics, they believed that intermixing with slaves was fine. The rest of the U.S. was Protestant, and the master and slave classes were kept entirely separate.” The result, he told Clash, was that on Sundays, their day off, slaves would hold a market in Congo Square and put on dances, where they were allowed to play African drums - a tradition banished in all other areas - which established New Orleans as a city that moved to unique rhythms. Its diversity of cultures was also key: African-Americans, Creoles [a mixed race French-speaking group], Irish, Italians, Jews and Germans all intermingled and interacted in the bustling city. But when the Civil War hit New Orleans, the city had to change. The Jim Crow laws forced segregation amongst people, and the Creoles were “lumped together politically” with the African-Americans. At the same time, people from rural plantations up and down the Mississippi were coming in their droves to New Orleans. “What that tells us,” Matt says, “is that jazz arises out of this dizzying mix of people.”

Those migrating into New Orleans brought the ecstatic worship of their Baptist and Protestant religions, as well as field hollers from the cotton fields, where it collided with the Creoles’ formal musical training of clarinets, trumpets and trombones. “And that,” reveals Matt, “was really what produced jazz music. Jazz represents the mix of all those things.”

“New Orleans also had this very strange tradition of these marching bands playing at funerals,” he concludes, “playing slow, sad music at the beginning but then kind of cutting loose and really playing this up-tempo music. That tradition eventually became called the jazz funeral, this idea that you worship the dead by celebrating life, by cutting loose and enjoying yourself. Everyone recognises that jazz has its basis here in New Orleans and really, at end of the day, it’s jazz that we’ve given to the world as something that’s uniquely American.”

Such appreciation was not shared by past town planners: there are no surviving landmarks from Louis Armstrong’s lifetime in New Orleans, though a park and its airport bear his name. Meanwhile, a living legend still calls New Orleans home. Our drive to R&B pioneer Fats Domino’s house took us through the Lower 9th Ward, one of the worst affected areas by Hurricane Katrina, but it was heartening to see the regenerative progress and new builds that were restoring the community.

Our journey across America was an adventure into the past; a tragic yet rewarding history where the horror of enslavement produced outstanding and everlasting art that would define a nation. We had merely doffed our caps to Alan Lomax - such vast and deep cultures could never be covered in a fortnight - and so we can but vow to return, and pay further tribute to the land where the blues began.

Clash stayed at Hotel Montoleone (214 Royal Street, New Orleans 70130-2201), an oasis of luxury within the French Quarter.
Bourbon Street: Bourbon Street, New Orleans 70116
Maple Leaf Bar: 8316 Oak Street, New Orleans 70118
Fats Domino’s House: 1208 Caffin Avenue, New Orleans 70117

Read Clash's full interview with Matt Sakakeeny HERE

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