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

By Evan / December 23, 2019
Evan Christopher Portrait April Renae

​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."

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​​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.

  • Tacitus Bond says:

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


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