Why the New Orleans tradition is the best starting point for exploring jazz. 

 December 23, 2019

By  Evan

​I rarely describe ​my music as “Jazz.” Sure, I guess that's what I'm known​ for, but I ​prefer to think of my style and sound as anchored in "Traditional New Orleans Music.” ​I found that once I began to appreciate New Orleans music as an ethnic style, strongly tied to the city’s indigenous expressions, it made more sense to think of ​"jazz" as a ​separate idiom. Jazz is rooted in New Orleans music, to be sure. But New Orleans music is not a type of jazz.

​Another reason I make th​is distinction between "jazz" and traditional New Orleans music is ​the history of ​jazz. ​Only a handful of New Orleans musicians including those who first record​ed music marketed as jazz ​​in 1916 actually used the term "jazz" (or jass, or jaz) at all. ​​But we know the paradigm for performing popular music ​started to shift​ years before that, towards the end of the 19th century.

"Faking" (not ​playing ​the music as written), ​​interpreting and embellishing melodies with "ragged" syncopat​ions​​, and ad-libbing ​​arrangements were all encouraged by a dance-crazy public. These ​protocols ​​for more spontaneous performance ​are why we ​recognize New Orleans as the "Birthplace of Jazz." ​

To further clarify why​ the New Orleans tradition ​​is not a type of jazz, ​​I would like to share ​six ​facets of the music, discuss how they are distinguished from the jazz idiom​, and ​explain what they ​can teach us about musics ​we might call "jazz."


​​Six ​Lessons From the ​New Orleans ​Tradition

1) The sounds ​you want came ​out of New Orleans​​.

​The changing needs of dancers encouraged departures from conventional playing techniques. Environmental factors and economic considerations affected performers' choices of equipment, which ​also contributed to a "New Orleans sound." Lastly, influences from the city’s multi-cultural soundscape, resulted in idiomatic vocabulary on all the instruments.

​So, whether you play trumpet, clarinet, drums, bass or any of the other instruments primarily found in “jazz,” your sound​ first developed in New Orleans. Staying mindful of why and how the music evolved makes it easier to identify specific stylistic elements and align our sound with the musicians who pioneered them​.

2) The New Orleans tradition can show you how to be expressive in an authentic way.

​For the citizenry of New Orleans, music served social functions. It often accompanied dancing, the lifeblood of the city. The liberties that musicians took with their sounds as well as the departures they made from their written music inspired listeners to dance, love, and express communal feelings.

Understanding these reasons for music-making makes our musical choices more purposeful. ​​Trying to provide a certain musical experience can also make our choices more deliberate. ​In the New Orleans tradition, using style-specific vocabulary responsibly is the key ​to authenticity.

3) New Orleans music-making traditions teach you how to groove.

​While jazz is about dialogue, ​the New Orleans tradition is more about collaboration​. As jazz evolved from the New Orleans tradition, it favored soloist-driven improvisations against rhythmic dialogue. Whereas, the New Orleans tradition emphasizes ensemble-driven, spontaneous orchestration and personally embellished melody imposed on a groove. ​​​

Each player in the band contributes to and shares responsibility for the groove. ​In New Orleans, this steady rhythm and our relationship to the pulse ​facilitates dancing. Being conscious of the dance in the music helps us develop consistency in our phrasing and technical execution to maintain a feeling of momentum, ​or "swing."

4) Walking in the footsteps of the New Orleans music pioneers is the easiest way to start improvising.

Many people think that in “New Orleans music” improvisation is the most important thing, so it often gets thought of as a type of jazz. But its the other way around. Historically, when musicians in New Orleans started to move away from the written score, improvised solos were not their focus.

Even today, improvising solos over chord changes is valued less than creating rhythmic energy. The hallmark of the New Orleans tradition is the use of embellishments to create personal interpretations of melodies. ​A st​rong relationship to the melody will make your departures from the melody more rewarding to listen​ers.

​5) New Orleans music helps you find your voice.

Another dimension of a player's style was their choices of rhythmic variations and melodic embellishments. In the beginning, the journey of getting away from the printed page was less about personal freedom, and more about crafting a musical narrative that served the moment.

​​The best players ​who made popular melodies more compelling for the dancers ​also possessed an instantly recognizable sound. It was not only expected that you or your band would perform songs in your own way, it was expected that you NOT sound like someone else. 

In ​New Orleans, what you sounded like ​was more important than what you played. In many ways, that hasn't changed.

​6) New Orleans music encourages consistency.

Whereas the jazz idiom tells us that more variance is better, in New Orleans music it is not expected. Once it became more acceptable to interpret songs spontaneously, many musicians came up with their own way to play a melody. Often, sometimes throughout their entire career, they stayed faithful to their personal variation or interpretation.

Not only do the best players convey a close relationship to the melody, but having a consistent interpretation is also valued. It is an aspect of individual style.

Th​ose are ​the six main reasons that ​I think the New Orleans tradition is such a powerful and meaningful place to engage music you might think of as jazz. I've used them to underpin the courses I’m developing. If you're interested in learning more about the New Orleans music tradition, ​​I can help you:

1) Identify style-specific vocabulary on your instrument 

2) Work on using th​at language responsibly and authentically

​3) Learn to ​connect your choices to the musical experience and feelings you want to evoke

4) Learn to be a good ensemble player by approaching music-making as a collaborative effort

5)  Focus on playing melodies convincingly and learn to embellish them, and ​improvise in the style

6) Develop a personal way of playing and become more confident ​through consistency

So, what is ​our actual starting point?

Meet the Tradition Where You Are

(Yes, there's a double meaning here.)

​​I know wonderful musicians all over the world who are passionate about the traditional music of New Orleans. Many are proof that ​you don't have to be in New Orleans or from New Orleans​ to play ​within the parameters of the New Orleans tradition. ​

I also know many musicians of all skill levels who want to learn more about this style. ​​Some come ​from a classical background, others or are self taught. ​​That's how it has always been in New Orleans, too. The city always had a sizable population of musicians, professional and amateur. ​Also, many early musicians did not have access to formal music education. So, the skill of reading music was not as valuable as the skill of replicating something by hearing it.

​The fact is that most of the songs in the canon are relatively simple, ​so they can be played by anyone, regardless of your experience or ​familiarity of ​your instrument​.

​I'm not saying that a relationship with New Orleans is not important. ​I'm ​saying that, wherever you are geographically or in your musical development, one of the first steps is to try and understand the tradition's social function and evolution​. I can tell you firsthand that this is much easier to do when you spend time here, but ​it's ok to start​ somewhere else. I did.

Be a Deep Listen​er

Another way to benefit from the tradition's values is by developing your ability to hear those values in the music. Like learning any language, you listen carefully to fluent speakers and imitate the sounds, use the sounds to form words, and combine the words to express ideas. For many of us, the only fluent speakers we know are from recordings. But, if you're lucky, there are people in your own community who know the style and its vocabulary.

Whether recorded or live, we need to able to hear how the players we admire most delivered their ideas. Also, in this style, we need to be able to hear how they combined their ideas with the other members of the ensemble​. We need to internalize the most common strategies ​of reacting to what we hear around us. Don't think of it as collective improvisation as much as collective orchestration.

​​​Be Active in the ​Community

​Th​is is one last very important aspect of the New Orleans tradition: If you truly want to connect to this music, you can't do it by yourself. Of course, you can practice many things on your own, but I mean after that.

​Remember my main reason ​for ​distinguishing the New Orleans music tradition from the jazz idiom? ​In the beginning, "Jazz" ​was mostly just a marketing term. Anything more meaningful about jazz ​​comes directly ​out of its New Orleans roots​.

​Indigenous cultural traditions ​in New Orleans, including music, have only continued because the participants have shared them across ​several generations. The ​inter-generational ​relationships between mentors and student, ​performers and audience, artists and community are ​the social ​relationships ​that give the traditions their potency.

I want you to take this to heart, because community is integral to ​my goal ​of extending the tradition together. To that end, I'll be updating this post and adding others. More sheet music will be added along with tutorials about how to learn the songs and play them authentically.

Be sure to sign up to get our monthly newsletter that will announce additions to the resources on our website. You can also comment on this post if there's something you want to discuss or even if you just want to introduce yourself.

  • Fantastic. Thank you for this. It has helped me understand New Orleans style playing.

  • Well said. The music has always been my foundation, whether I want it or not. It’s become who I am as a player.

  • Just started playing my clarinet again after about 50 years. My son got my Buffet overhauled for me for Christmas. I have played it everyday and absolutely love it! My favorite thing to do was to play the Dukes of Dixieland on my phonograph when I as a kid and to play along. Well, fifty years later, it’s still my favorite thing to do only now with youtube. I love your music and your style. Truly the best that I have heard. What you say makes a lot of sense to me and really resonates with what I want to do with my clarinet

  • Just found this. A well-written, beautifully expressed description of the NO tradition and current expressions of it.

  • I enjoyed it just as much as you will be able to accomplish here. You should be apprehensive about providing the following, but the sketch is lovely and the writing is stylish; yet, you should definitely return back as you will be doing this walk so frequently.

  • Dive into the heart of jazz with the vibrant traditions of the Big Easy. The unique blend of cultures, rhythms, and soulful melodies creates a musical tapestry that’s unparalleled. A journey through New Orleans jazz is not just a study; it’s a celebration of life’s rhythm and the spirit of improvisation.

  • I am not sure where youre getting your info but good topic I needs to spend some time learning much more or understanding more Thanks for magnificent info I was looking for this information for my mission

  • Wow superb blog layout How long have you been blogging for you make blogging look easy The overall look of your site is magnificent as well as the content

  • I have been surfing online more than 3 hours today yet I never found any interesting article like yours It is pretty worth enough for me In my opinion if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you did the web will be much more useful than ever before

  • of course like your website but you have to check the spelling on several of your posts A number of them are rife with spelling issues and I in finding it very troublesome to inform the reality on the other hand I will certainly come back again

  • Usually I do not read article on blogs however I would like to say that this writeup very compelled me to take a look at and do it Your writing style has been amazed me Thank you very nice article

  • helloI really like your writing so a lot share we keep up a correspondence extra approximately your post on AOL I need an expert in this house to unravel my problem May be that is you Taking a look ahead to see you

  • My brother suggested I might like this blog He was totally right This post actually made my day You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this info Thanks

  • Hello i think that i saw you visited my weblog so i came to Return the favore Im trying to find things to improve my web siteI suppose its ok to use some of your ideas

  • What i dont understood is in reality how youre now not really a lot more smartlyfavored than you might be now Youre very intelligent You understand therefore significantly in terms of this topic produced me personally believe it from a lot of numerous angles Its like women and men are not interested except it is one thing to accomplish with Woman gaga Your own stuffs outstanding Always care for it up

  • I do agree with all the ideas you have introduced on your post They are very convincing and will definitely work Still the posts are very short for newbies May just you please prolong them a little from subsequent time Thank you for the post

  • Its like you read my mind You appear to know so much about this like you wrote the book in it or something I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit but other than that this is fantastic blog A great read Ill certainly be back

  • I simply could not go away your web site prior to suggesting that I really enjoyed the standard info a person supply on your guests Is going to be back incessantly to investigate crosscheck new posts

  • I simply could not go away your web site prior to suggesting that I really enjoyed the standard info a person supply on your guests Is going to be back incessantly to investigate crosscheck new posts

  • I was recommended this website by my cousin I am not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my difficulty You are wonderful Thanks

  • Normally I do not read article on blogs however I would like to say that this writeup very forced me to try and do so Your writing style has been amazed me Thanks quite great post

  • I luckily stumbled upon this brilliant site earlier this week, they provide great info for members. The site owner excels at informing the community. I’m impressed and hope they continue their magnificent service.

  • Thank you for your sharing. I am worried that I lack creative ideas. It is your article that makes me full of hope. Thank you. But, I have a question, can you help me?

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Subscribe to our newsletter now!