More than any other American city, African culture and music were able to survive and take new, hybrid forms in New Orleans. The first two slave ships arrived in 1719, but the period between 1726 and 1731 was heaviest for the slave trade, with almost six thousand Africans imported to New Orleans. Some of these newly arrived slaves aligned with the Natchez Indians in the attack of 1729 which killed nearly all the male colonists at Fort Rosalie. The African slave trade to New Orleans stopped almost completely after 1731, and brutal conditions shortened the life expectancy and reproductive capacity of the slave population, but nevertheless people of African descent outnumbered white colonists in New Orleans and lower Louisiana throughout the eighteenth century. The slave population multiplied following the Spanish takeover, increasing in lower Louisiana from five thousand and six hundred in 1766 to over twenty thousand in 1788 to nearly twenty-five thousand in 1800. After being purchased by the U.S.A., there was increasing demand for slaves to perform the grueling work of producing sugar, which was emerging as Louisiana’s dominant cash crop. Until the importation of foreign slaves was finally abolished in 1807, the state of South Carolina reauthorized the purchase of Africans who could then be sold to sugar planters in Louisiana. Over the next fifty-plus years, the slave population of Louisiana increased exponentially through domestic trade, as the “production” and sale of slaves across the American South became a lucrative industry in its own right. On the brink of Civil War in 1860, there were more than 330,000 slaves in Louisiana, and New Orleans had become the largest city in the American South and a central hub for the domestic slave market.

A series of idiosyncratic circumstances and contradictions allowed different aspects of African culture to endure in New Orleans throughout the collective trauma of slavery. The geographic location and transatlantic trade networks of New Orleans ensured a close connection with the hybrid Afro-diasporic cultures that persevered in the Caribbean islands and South America. The unique development of a population of free persons of African descent also had a significant impact in New Orleans. France’s Code Noir gave masters the option to free their slaves and allowed slaves to purchase their freedom, and Spanish colonials continued to recognize these rights of manumission, so by 1791 the census listed nearly 900 free people of color in a city with a total population (free, slave, and military) of less than 5,000. Significantly more than half of these free persons were women, many of whom were mistresses who owned property and even slaves. The relatively large number of mixed-race children born in colonial New Orleans would permanently confound the binary system of race relations in the American South. Meanwhile, groups of African slaves also began to escape from the plantations to live, intermarry, and reproduce with the Natchez, Chickasaw, Choctaw, or other native tribes in the remote cypress swamps and bayous of Louisiana. The existence of these maroon communities posed a major threat to the entire system of slavery—in an immediate sense through the threat of attack, but also simply by representing the specter of freedom among nonwhite peoples—and thus slaveholders and the local militia spared no expense in conducting extensive raids with the objective of destroying them. 

One crucial idiosyncrasy of slavery in New Orleans was that slaves were customarily relieved from work on Sundays under French and Spanish law, unlike their counterparts in the British colonies and American states. North of the French Quarter just behind Rampart Street, hundreds of African slaves congregated every Sunday to trade goods, socialize, play music, dance, and practice their religion.  It was in this vital space, then called Place des Négres but since known as Congo Square, that African traditions of music, dance, and religion were able to survive and adapt to new conditions. The initial groups of Africans brought to Louisiana during its French period were mainly from Senegambia, while slaves who arrived during the Spanish period were predominantly from further south in the Kongo.  These West African peoples shared cultural practices in which music, especially rhythm, is fundamental to social organization and relationships, where drumming and dancing are collective, participatory activities which also demand that individuals improvise and make distinct contributions. In Congo Square, hundreds of Africans adorned with feathers, tails, shells, and other ornaments would assemble on Sundays in a large circle, with musicians playing drums or banjo-like stringed instruments and dancers alternately stepping inside the circle to display their moves. As music and dancing were inseparable from religious functions in these African cultures, Congo Square also proved to be a crucial space for the survival of voodoo in America, a quasi-sacred place where various charms (“gris-gris”) could be exchanged and ceremonial rites were practiced as integral parts of the music and dancing.        

The music in Congo Square extended West African traditions that organize social relations through rhythm. In the music, separate rhythms are interwoven to create sonic density, enduring mainly through repetition, but with slight variations that repetition helps to emphasize. Two or more rhythms are always crossing and even clashing with one another, creating a body of music in which simple, repetitive rhythms are involved in a complicated, dynamic relationship. The collective production of music thus serves to constitute social relationships in which individuals have unique roles and opportunities for improvisation, but are nonetheless interdependent with one another and embedded in tradition, as they work together in the creation of an integrated sonic ensemble. In Congo Square, influences from French and Native American peoples were also absorbed, and an Afro-Cuban musical style began to develop as exchanges with Havana increased during the city’s Spanish period. Although slave gatherings at Congo Square were prohibited once again during the mid-nineteenth century, for decades they maintained one of the only surviving links with African music, dance, and culture in North America. For these reasons, many historians trace the evolution of jazz—and, by extension, all subsequent forms of popular music based on African rhythms—back to Congo Square. 

When African slaves in the Americas and Caribbean islands periodically engaged in open revolt against slavemasters, they often used drums and other musical instruments to communicate and maintain solidarity. As a result, the use or mere ownership of drums and other instruments by slaves was strictly forbidden in most of the colonies.  In the Stono Rebellion of 1739, an armed group of African slaves used drums to communicate and recruit other slaves as they made their way through South Carolina, killing slaveholders and militia. In response to this uprising, the colonial governments of South Carolina and Georgia passed laws which forbid slaves from “using and keeping drums, horns or other loud instruments, which may call together or give sign or notice to one another of their wicked designs or intensions.”  In the rogue colony of Louisiana, however, the practice was allowed to continue in Congo Square, though still under the watchful eye of the slavemasters. The link between rhythm and revolt was evident to Le Page Du Pratz, Louisiana’s earliest historian writing in 1774: “Nothing is to be more dreaded than to see the Negroes assemble together on Sundays, since, under the pretense of Calinda, or the dance, they sometimes get together to the number of three or four hundred. It is in these tumultuous meetings that they…plot their rebellion.” Similarly, vodou practices were scrutinized and widely prohibited as they were associated with slave revolts, particularly one led by a maroon named Mackandal on the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Widely reputed to have been a vodou priest (houngan), Mackandal and his followers killed slaveholders and others in Saint-Domingue through their knowledge of poisonous herbs. After thwarting a plot to poison the entire water supply, French colonials captured and publicly burned Mackandal alive at the stake in 1758.

The largest slave revolt—the only completely successful one in history—had  a transformative impact on New Orleans during the early nineteenth century.  Saint-Domingue had become France’s wealthiest colony through its export of sugar, coffee, and indigo, all of which was produced by a labor force consisting of 500,000 slaves of African descent.  In August 1791, another maroon and High Priest named Boukman led a vodou ceremony deep in the island’s woods to commence an insurrection that continued for twelve years.  Boukman was soon captured and decapitated, his severed head placed on a pike and publicly displayed by French colonial authorities. The revolution would continue, however, under the leadership of a former slave named Touissant L’Ouverture.  Meanwhile, the ongoing revolution in France was opening opportunities for slaves to mobilize around demands for liberty while simultaneously dividing their French enemies into warring factions. After aligning with Spanish forces and effectively abolishing slavery, Touissant’s army then defeated a British expedition of sixty thousand troops who had come to conquer the wealthy colony and reinstate its slave economy. A comparable number of French troops were also defeated when they returned in 1802 with the same intentions of restoring slavery, this time under the command of Napoleon’s brother-in-law. French troops surrendered and retreated from the island following their defeat at the Battle of Vertiéres in late 1803, finally enabling the establishment of an independent Republic of Haiti on New Year’s Day, 1804. 

The revolution in Saint-Domingue had multiple consequences of great importance for New Orleans. France had reacquired Louisiana from Spain in 1800, but its inability to maintain power in Saint-Domingue foiled Napoleon’s imperial vision for the New World, and so he sold the entire colony to the U.S. at the cut-rate price of $15 million in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  In the meantime, the planters and slaveholders of Saint-Domingue had initially taken refuge in eastern Cuba, but when an expulsion order was issued against French nationals in 1809, this slaveholding class began migrating to Louisiana. The uprising in Saint-Domingue had immediately sent shockwaves across plantations whose slaveholders feared they might be next, thus intensifying a culture of racial fear expressed in frequently circulated stories from the revolution about impaled white babies and women being raped on top of their dead husbands. An influx of white slaveholders who had been chased out of Saint-Domingue could only strengthen this reactionary climate. Ned Sublette has compared these exiles in New Orleans with the ruling class who took refuge in Miami after the Cuban Revolution, as each group was comprised of “ultrareactionary ex-plantation owners and the lesser members of their society, escaping a radical left-wing Antillean revolution,” and both would play a key role in “helping to push the political environment of the region, and the entire country, to the right.”   

However, after the revolution, even larger numbers of people of African descent, both free and slave, also came to New Orleans. In welcoming the exiled slaveholders from Saint-Domingue and allowing them to bring their most valuable property, Louisiana petitioned the U.S. federal government to temporarily lift its recently imposed ban on importing slaves. More than three thousand slaves arrived in New Orleans from the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1809—“the last slaves to be legally imported into the United States,” Sublette emphasizes—and this would have lasting impacts on the city’s African-American culture. In total, about nine thousand people came to New Orleans from Cuba by way of Saint-Domingue in 1809: almost three thousand of them were white and free, slightly more than one-third were black slaves, and the final third were composed of so-called free people of color.  To be sure, Louisiana and the U.S. viewed free people of color—especially free men of color—as an imminent threat to slavery, and thus took concerted efforts to restrict their immigration, so the vast majority of those new arrivals were women, a large number of whom were surely the mistresses of white men. The arrival of nearly fifteen hundred adult, free women of color from a slave society in the Caribbean proved to be crucial in the survival of voodoo and other cultural practices transported from West Africa to New Orleans. As an anthropology student conducting fieldwork on vodou ceremonies in New Orleans during the 1920s, Zora Neale Hurston explained the lasting cultural impact of this immigration from the recently created Republic of Haiti: 

Thousands of mulattoes and blacks, along with their ex-masters were driven out, and the nearest French refuge was the province of Louisiana. They brought with them their hoodoo rituals, modified of course by contact with white civilization and the Catholic church, but predominantly African. These island Negroes had retained far more of their West African background than the continental blacks.

After nearly ninety years under French or Spanish rule,  New Orleans expanded during the first half of the nineteenth century into the most prosperous, cosmopolitan city of the Antebellum South. It would also continue to be a site of intense racial conflict, where rebellion was nourished by the survival of African culture, the victorious insurrection in Saint-Domingue, and a large population of free people of color. The largest slave revolt in American history began on January 8, 1811 in Louisiana along the Mississippi River, where an assembly of slaves rose up against their masters and began burning crops and plantations as they marched, eventually increasing their numbers to around 500, with the intent of ambushing the New Orleans elite during its Carnival and Mardi Gras festivities. The slave revolt was suppressed before reaching New Orleans, however, and once again the decapitated heads of the rebel slaves were prominently placed atop pikes on plantations as well as inside the city.  In a slave society which maintained order through such vicious displays of violence, African-American expressions of survival, hope, and resistance would have to be channeled into more inconspicuous forms of culture. In this environment of extraordinary diversity and brutality, New Orleans would prove to be one of the world’s most innovative wellsprings for popular music.

A number of factors unique to New Orleans enabled the city to develop into a musical hotbed over the course of the nineteenth century and a prime source for the evolution of jazz at the dawn of the twentieth. One, as we have already noted, was the continuation of West African ceremonies involving drumming, dancing, and chanting on Sundays in Congo Square. The architect Benjamin Latrobe presented the most vivid description and drawings of these events during his time in New Orleans in 1819: Latrobe sketched illustrations of the drums and stringed instruments used in Congo Square, and he wrote a detailed account of the “incredible noise” he heard there. The vocal traditions of African-American music—particularly call-and-response—were able to endure and evolve in work songs and spiritual hymns throughout the Antebellum South. Congo Square, however, was the only place where West African rhythms, along with the rhythmic sensibility which demands collective participation and individual improvisation, were able to endure in the U.S. while intermixing with Cuban and other Caribbean styles of music. 

Another important factor for the evolution of music in New Orleans was the great number of brass instruments and drums leftover from wartime. In the War of 1812, New Orleans was the site for the decisive defeat of the British Army by American forces under the command of Andrew Jackson. Some black men were allowed to serve in the war effort, and it appears that a number were drummers or instrumentalists in the military bands. A free black man named Jordan Noble distinguished himself through his drumming skills during the Battle of New Orleans, earning the praise of General Jackson himself. Brass bands and orchestras, which included many black groups, continued to perform after the war; in 1838 the New Orleans Picayune forewarned a “real mania for horn and trumpet playing.” The use of drums and brass instruments was even more widespread during the Civil War, and again these instruments would be left behind after New Orleans was captured and occupied by Union forces beginning in April 1862. The final decades of the nineteenth century therefore witnessed another wave of brass bands and dance orchestras, which often included cornet, trombone, and trumpet along with string bass, guitar, drums, clarinet, and violin. At the turn of the century, still years before jazz had developed, a number of these brass bands were playing in dance halls and public parks for African-American audiences, with a fierce rivalry eventually developing between the society dance band of violinist John Robichaux and the “hot” or “ratty” dance band of cornet player Charles “Buddy” Bolden.

A third key factor in the musical development of New Orleans was the city’s vibrant street culture. Parades involving music, dance, elaborate costumes, and rowdy revelry were an important legacy of French and Spanish colonial rule, and as we have seen, they were also a central component of West African and Haitian cultures. The festivities surrounding Carnival and Mardi Gras had been firmly established by the early nineteenth century. Toward the end of the century, the black community of New Orleans had also begun celebrating Mardi Gras by organizing neighborhood “tribes” who designed their own elaborate costumes in the style of Native Americans. Beginning in the 1880s, the rituals of these so-called Mardi Gras Indians have appropriated the cultures of native peoples, albeit loosely and often mistakenly, while actually maintaining a closer connection with West African ceremonies, narratives, and imagery. The streets of black New Orleans became sites of fanfare and festivity in the tradition of funeral marches and their “second line” composed of dancers and musicians with brass instruments. The music and dancing of the second line also reveal enduring links with West African burial rites and ring ceremonies. These processions, which came to be known as jazz funerals but in fact predated by jazz by several decades, were linked to the growth of black secret societies, fraternal orders, and mutual aid associations that developed in the late nineteenth century. These secret societies would also play a crucial role in preserving the ceremonial traditions of vodou and other spiritual practices transported from West Africa via Haiti.

Finally, in a cosmopolitan city with colonial roots, the cultural institutions of New Orleans maintained close links with highbrow, European music. As many as three opera companies were playing at any given time during the nineteenth century, and European music was regularly performed in plays, concerts, and balls.  Local people of mixed-race ancestry, known in New Orleans as Creoles of Color, retained an intensely reverential approach to mastering these highbrow forms of European music.  Initially, all people born in the Louisiana colony called themselves Creoles, but in time this term acquired racial connotations to distinguish the exceptionally large number of mixed-race people in New Orleans. Throughout the nineteenth century, Creoles of Color maintained a distinct social milieu that was mostly separate from both the black and white communities in New Orleans. The Creole community undertook painstaking efforts to demonstrate the extent of their cultural refinement, and many were classically trained in the European traditions of music. Creole musicians eventually played a unique yet crucial role in the evolution of ragtime and jazz in New Orleans, despite their community’s generally antagonistic attitude toward the music and culture associated with black people.   

Various types of music permeated social gatherings of all types in New Orleans, across the city’s rigid hierarchies of race and class. The extraordinary musical advances that sprang from New Orleans were made possible by a unique combination of social groups and cultural traditions. Yet the prevailing perspective of benign multiculturalism—which inevitably invites comparisons between jazz and gumbo—sounds like a fairy tale after we closely and critically scrutinize the history of New Orleans. Instead of a harmonious mixture like gumbo, the development of jazz was fueled by intense, intractable social conflict. Although New Orleans contained a wide assortment of people and cultures, a mix unlike anywhere else in the U.S. and much more complex than the other southern cities, these groups were strictly segregated from another in an unyielding caste system based on skin color. While New Orleans retained its reputation as a city where anything goes, it also continued to be a place where racist inequalities were upheld through vicious acts of violence. Jazz developed during the reactionary period following the Civil War and Reconstruction, when the white power structure in the American South was disenfranchising and segregating black people in the process of reinstating racial domination.

The Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction toppled the American South’s slave economy, but in the ensuing decades Southern whites went back on the offensive to terrorize the black population into a system of racial segregation named for Jim Crow. In New Orleans, Jim Crow segregation also threatened the intermediary position of Creoles because it assigned black racial status to anyone with even the smallest traces of African ancestry. The U.S. Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which proved to be the decisive ruling for upholding the “separate but equal” doctrine of segregation, originated with a New Orleans Creole of color’s challenging of his non-white status under Jim Crow. A shoemaker who from the Tremé neighborhood, Homer Plessy had been legally classified as an octoroon (seven-eighths white, one-eighth black) and regularly passed as white. His civil disobedience and arrest were planned by a group based in New Orleans called the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens). Preparing for a legal challenge of Louisiana’s 1890 law mandating racial segregation on railroad cars, Plessy would have to inform the railway company that he was legally a black person due to his mixed-race ancestry; he was then arrested after taking a seat in the whites-only section. Thus, in its 7 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court sustained the legal foundation for segregation in the American South, and it also affirmed a binary racial system that defined whites exclusively as people with a complete absence of African ancestry. In New Orleans, this meant that Creoles of color would be forced into closer relations with the city’s black community.

The efforts to redefine the racial status of Creoles of color while pushing them toward the spaces of black New Orleans created a collision between two completely disparate cultures. Creoles of color had constituted an insular community in New Orleans, situated in the Seventh Ward on the downtown side of Canal Street, with many individuals routinely “passing” as white people.  Creoles of color proudly identified with their French ancestry, as they spoke French, practiced Catholicism, and observed French holidays and customs. Like the shoemaker Homer Plessy, many Creoles of color were artisans or skilled laborers employed as carpenters, bricklayers, and plasterers, thus maintaining a clear class distinction from the unskilled laborers in the black neighborhoods uptown.  Their intermediary position within New Orleans was a legacy of the city’s large population of free people of color (gen de couleur libre), who were largely the offspring of French colonists and their dark-skinned mistresses, their numbers subsequently augmented by migration from post-revolutionary Haiti. Culturally, the Creole community held music and opera in the highest esteem: the city’s French Opera House served as its central cultural institution, and there was great emphasis on instructing young boys in a Eurocentric musical pedagogy of notation and instrumental technique. Creole musicians vigorously distinguished themselves from their black counterparts on the uptown side of Canal Street, but Jim Crow would have the unintended effect of bringing these groups and their music into greater proximity.

Like so many industrial cities in the North, New Orleans was also a major destination for European immigrants during the late nineteenth century, thus adding new elements of culture while multiplying the sources of social conflict. Italians, particularly Sicilians, came to New Orleans in especially large numbers, and they were promptly burdened with racial stereotypes that compared them with blacks while discounting them as less than white. In 1890, the assassination of the New Orleans chief of police, allegedly at the hands of the local Mafia, triggered a deluge of hostility and violence indiscriminately directed against Italians. After a jury delivered their not guilty verdict in the murder trial, an enraged crowd of thousands stormed the prison and lynched 11 of the defendants anyway. Although Italians were not subject to Jim Crow laws, widespread prejudice did confine them to particular occupations and residential neighborhoods, placing them in closer contact with the city’s black population. The street culture of brass bands and parades in New Orleans resonated with traditional aspects of Sicilian culture, and several Italian musicians—most famously, Nick La Rocca—made important contributions to the evolution of jazz. 

During this period there was also an influx into New Orleans of rural blacks from the nearby plantations of Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. Migration to New Orleans became a matter of urgency as the Ku Klux Klan intensified its campaign of terror across the rural South.  As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, these early movements from plantations to cities were not usually motivated by economic opportunity, but rather “primarily a huddling for self-protection.” The practice of lynching also peaked during these decades at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, with a record high of 161 African Americans lynched in 1892. The bloodiest single act of repression was undertaken against black workers who organized a coordinated strike against the sugar planters of southern Louisiana. In November 1887, approximately 10,000 sugar cane workers—mostly blacks who were not far removed from slavery—organized with the Knights of Labor to coordinate strikes on multiple plantations.  After the Governor, who himself was a plantation owner, sent in the state militia to break the strike, the Thibodaux Massacre commenced with armed white vigilantes storming into the black section of town on the morning of November 23, 1887 and summarily executing strikers along with their families; while eye witnesses accounted for at least 35 murders, the exact number of people killed that day would never be known but was probably closer to 300. Between 1880 and 1910, some 40,000 black people moved from plantations like these to New Orleans, increasing the city’s total black population to more than 100,000. This migration ensured that the urban culture of the black community continued to maintain strong links with the rural culture rooted in the Mississippi Delta, especially the blues.

The massacre in Thibodaux notwithstanding, the labor movement in New Orleans both scored victories and suffered defeats during the Progressive Era. The success or failure of the unions representing the waterfront workers in New Orleans mainly depended on their ability to overcome racism and accept equality with black workers. In  the early 1890s, dockworkers unions enjoyed success when they adopted a 50-50 policy which ensured that equal numbers of black and white workers would be hired at the same pay, thus preventing companies from using racial inequalities as a means of undercutting wages. Interracial cooperation among labor unions in New Orleans culminated in a general strike involving 20,000 workers, effectively paralyzing the city for four days in November 1892. This general strike was possible in New Orleans only because the unions representing white workers resisted the racist fear-mongering disseminated by commercial interests and local newspapers, who presented lurid prophesies of the general strike escalating into a carnival of black insurrection. However, following the financial panic of 1893 and the ensuing economic depression which lasted through 1897, the scarcity of jobs and reduction of wages incited white dockworkers, particularly the skilled screwmen, to exclude black workers from their unions and institute quotas on hiring blacks. Racial conflicts on the New Orleans waterfront resumed in 1894 with a series of violent and deadly attacks.  The unions representing waterfront workers continued to be disempowered and ineffectual until the turn of the century, when a return to the 50-50 policy allowed them to once again resist the racial divide in the labor market. 

The end of the nineteenth century proved to be a pivotal turning point when the forces of white supremacy regained complete domination over the American South. In New Orleans, racism and violence erupted during the summer of 1900 in the Robert Charles riots. Robert Charles was an African-American in his mid-thirties, and an early supporter of black self-defense and back-to-Africa plans. One night Charles and his roommate were confronted by police officers while they were in a white neighborhood, and a shootout ensued following a struggle to arrest the two men. Charles was shot but managed to escape and return to his residence. When the police arrived and attempted to apprehend him, Charles shot and killed two officers and then escaped on foot again. As word spread around New Orleans that police officers had been shot by a black man, massive crowds of white people began to assemble in a collective spirit of vengeance, calling for Charles’ lynching. After it was learned that Charles was still on the loose, and the mayor offered a financial reward for his arrest, mobs of white people went rampaging through the streets, not simply looking for Charles but attacking and even shooting any black person they encountered; 3 blacks were killed and more than 50 were injured on this night of rioting. Police finally found Charles hiding in a house on Saratoga Street, but he continued shooting at them and the white vigilantes who were also firing into the house. In total, Charles shot 27 white people and killed 7 of them, including 4 police officers. In the end, the police forced Charles out of the house by setting it on fire, riddling his torso with bullets when he ran outside. His dead body was then dragged away by the white mob, who beat and mutilated it beyond recognition. Apparently still unsatisfied, a group of whites marched into a black neighborhood and burned down the Thomy Lafon school, which had been named for a Creole abolitionist and earned a reputation as “the best Negro schoolhouse in Louisiana.”