American Music: ‘Jazz horns were on fire along the delta’

Nineteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Friday, February 2, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

In the movement toward a recognized “American music,” purely native and nurtured, no factor was greater than the abolishment of slavery through civil warfare, freeing four million blacks in the South.

“Emancipation brought new forms of discrimination and oppression for blacks, but it also permitted a self-expression that was not available under slavery,” observed musicologist Bill C. Malone. “Post-Civil War blacks eagerly sought forms of musical assertion that were uniquely their own, and they experimented with all types of instruments.”

Thousands of freedmen were seasoned musicians, ready-made, having performed for pay while enslaved, and they led the Afro-American surge in arts and entertainment of the postwar. A band of ex-slaves hit success quickly on tour, the Georgia Minstrels from Macon, Ga. They drew packed audiences, whites and blacks, for song-and-dance shows in the North, Midwest, and in the United Kingdom.

Fans of American minstrelsy clamored to see “bona fide negroes” instead of stale “white imitators” in blackface. White minstrels were fading for pop music, and many transferred to opera and other work. Chicago raved over the Georgia Minstrels, their “rare ability” on stage at Smith and Nixon’s Hall. “This excellent troupe of real African minstrels, which opened to so large and enthusiastic an audience on Wednesday night… gave another inimitable performance,” The Tribune noted on Sept. 22, 1865.

“They are genuine colored men, needing no aid of burnt cork to give the tawn, and have all been slaves within the year. In view of this fact, their performance is something wonderful,” a critic stated. The Afro-Americans achieved “depth of feeling and precision of execution which would do honor to a company of [musically] educated white men who have made a specialty of negro minstrelsy for years.”

Afro-Americans of music, dance and comedy changed show business in the latter 19th century. A few became major headliners, national stars of minstrelsy, vaudeville and burlesque. But black music and style thrived at the American grassroots, local level in community and neighborhood.

Segregated society stood everywhere, North, South, East and West, but blacks played and starred in brass bands, string bands, and the increasingly popular cornet ensembles.

Newspapers touted black musicians, if Northern song publishers ignored them, and talent was boundless along the great rivers. Afro-American players and bands lined the Mississippi, appearing at Dubuque, Alton, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Charleston, Bird’s Point, Cairo, New Madrid, Caruthersville, Osceola, Memphis, Helena, Natchez, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville, LaPlace and New Orleans, among landings.

The Bluff City Cornet Band of Memphis, “colored musicians,” attracted all colors at a political rally in July 1878, reported The Daily Appeal. The band played from a grandstand for political speakers, overlooking a sawdust pad on smooth ground, 50 feet in diameter, set under canopy of tall trees. “The surroundings—the clear space covered with sawdust, and the inspiring strains of music—suggested intoxicating dances, and the effect upon the young people and many of the old ones present was very marked.”

Innovative blacks pushed music toward a genuine American brand—“the larger quest for a national music,” observed Malone—which was anticipated globally, what for the cutting-edge U.S. repute in disciplines from sciences to humanities. “This quest, of course, was not new but had been pursued at least since the days of Lowell Mason [church hymnist], who had sought to create a music that would represent America’s distinctiveness while also winning the respect of the world,” Malone wrote in historical treatise, his book Southern Music/American Music.

“Implicit in this search was the belief that a true national music must embody native American material—that is, that it must rest upon an indigenous folk basis.”

In 1876 America remained in musical incubation, typical for a nation at centennial age, said a German symphony conductor. “I hardly think that its composers have been developed yet,” Hans Von Bulow told a Chicago reporter. “There has been some music of a good class written by Americans, but the time for deep and thorough American music has not yet come. America is one of two young nations on earth; Russia is the other. This is an age of receptivity, not only in music but in art, and after the age of receptivity comes that of productivity.”

“It is not a matter of this century but of the next. But the time will come.”

Musicians progressed, notably south, where “jazz horns were on fire along the Mississippi delta in the ’80s,” per one account. Delta players were improvising, particularly the blacks, by “ragging” song fragments on cornet, trombone, clarinet, piano and strings. Audiences grew across racial lines for rhythm variations and syncopated melody, counterpoints and overlays among artists, sounding throughout the flatland.

Subsequent legend held that Southern musicians understood the term “jass” or “jaz” by the Civil War, but historians later could not confirm. Regardless, delta players from Cairo southward rolled on jazzy method, meaning “to speed things up” for dance rhythm, “swing” beat on banjo, piano and horn.

“On wind instruments in New Orleans negroes created their own technique of performance with strange and poignant effects, tone qualities, colour, and new harmonies based on continuous conscious deviation from pitch—things which no text could possibly teach because it never existed before,” an analyst surmised in 1946.


Early horn players in New Orleans faced backlash from newspapers. “We do not wish to find fault…,” carped a Times-Picayune editorial in 1837. “But the brass of certain players in the St. Charles Orchestra is very annoying. Does not Mr. Fallon see that the trombones and trumpets of his band are too noisy?”

Damn their critics, brass players kept up the racket, and The Times-Picayune conveyed exasperation in August of 1838. “There is a real mania in this city for horn and trumpet playing. You can hardly turn a corner that you do not hear some amateur attempting, in a perfect agony, to perform his devotions to the God of Music. A [citizen] remarked to us yesterday that he… earnestly desired to see the last trumpet.”

Fat chance, quieting New Orleans for music and events like a novel celebration, based on French les carnaval, to become known as Mardi Gras. “A lot of masqueraders were parading through our streets yesterday…,” The Times-Picayune reported on Feb. 8, 1837, “and excited considerable speculation as to who they were, what were their motives, and what upon earth could induce them to turn out in such grotesque and outlandish habiliments… Boys, negroes, fruit women and what not, followed the procession.” The newspaper panned “harsh and discordant music” of this “Cowbellion” parade, dismissing its “noise and tumult.”

Local writers also sneered at a dance wizard managed by P.T. Barnum: John Diamond, “break-down” specialist and the white rival of “Master Juba” William Henry Lane, sensational black performer in New York City.

Diamond, an American teen celebrity through Barnum promotions, dominated New Orleans entertainment during his week’s run at the St. Charles Theatre in February 1841. Fans lined up for shows, audiences reflecting the “Kaleidoscopic” city in ethnic diversity and class structure, to see a white youth greased black, dancing “Ethiopian.”

Times-Picayune critics were bemused by Diamond’s success and popularity. They discounted him, huffing about European entertainment as “legitimate” achievement and little else.

Malone related: “The music audience in the South, as elsewhere in the United states, was very early divided between people who clung to the idea of music as a formal, academic art which could only be appreciated by an educated elite, and people who thought music was an informal, emotionally perceived expression of the masses.”

New Orleans critics were disgusted that Diamond drained theater attendance elsewhere for Italian opera, German symphony and English drama. New Orleans should be ashamed, critics suggested, practically “waiting for another visitation from Master Diamond.” So he obliged a month later, returning in triumph for another smashing stand at St. Charles Theatre.

The New Orleans press softened on mirth-making, had to, given the cosmopolitan cityscape unfolding, more than 100,000 people from worldwide. Arts and entertainment constituted civic priority with song and dance beheld reverently. “New Orleans was peculiarly situated to receive music from many places in the world,” Malone noted. “Throughout the century New Orleans was known for the breadth and variety of its music.”

The peoples included English, Irish, Italian, Chinese, French, and Spanish—the latter largely Creoles, many with African blood—along with Greeks, Germans, Poles, Hebrews, Arabs, West Indians and American Indians. “New Orleans is a world in miniature, subdivided into smaller commonwealths, in every one of which distinctive traits of national character are to be seen, and the peculiar language of its people is to be heard spoken,” The Times-Picayune reported in September 1843.

Socio-economic class ranged from the affluent to poor, with the latter concentrated in slums along the river levee. Cultured elites, including Creoles, rode in chauffeured carriages while poor folks walked, such as country whites—“Hoosiers, Wolverines, Pukes and Corn-crackers,” The Times-Picayune decribed, continuing: “The Negroes are scattered through the city promiscuously; those of mixed blood, such as Griffes, Quarteroons… showing a preference for the back streets of the First [Ward] and part of the Third Municipality.”

The paper urged that visitors stroll New Orleans streets during evening to “encounter as much novelty and as great a diversity of national character” as anywhere. A weekend experience was Congo Square, public commons fringing the French Quarter, where blacks gathered in music and dance to form “poetry of motion.”

“There is Congo Square, a right-angular patch, covered with a green sward, of some six or eight acres, bordered round by a few stunted trees, and intersected by gravel paths,” The Daily Delta described of a Sunday in September 1846. “The sun has slackened the intensity of his midday rays… the Parish Jail frowns sullenly hard by, and the bell of the old Cathedral summons the faithful to vesper devotion.”

“The scene and situation might not be considered… as well calculated to create or keep alive boisterous mirth. But the hundreds of negroes of both sexes there assembled are too engrossed with the amusements of the hour to devote a thought to anything else.”

Drums and accompaniments broadcast the sharpest sound in the outdoor setup, likewise producing cadence most effective for African-rooted syncopation. The drummers overlaid each other—and competed—in loud, spirited beats, tones and flurries, banging, knocking and slapping surfaces with hands and objects. Castanets fashioned of cow rib made “bone music.” Other musicians followed the lead of percussionists, typically on a Sunday evening at Congo Square.

“There are, first, two fellows each astride a cask, beating with all their might a half-dressed sheepskin that is fastened on by wooden pins over the end of it,” reported The Daily Delta. “Then there is a fellow beating an oak log—another is strumming a monster banjo, some vocal performers are assisting—but above them all is heard the clear and lively rattle of the bones.”

Writers at Congo Square witnessed black fiddlers, fife players and tambourine players. Cornet blowers unleashed in “the clangor of trumpets,” blasting across the plain.

Dancers made action everywhere on the grounds, in groups, by families, couples, singly. A spectacular gathering materialized in June 1845, thousands of blacks in sound and movement, drawing attention of The Times-Picayune, which headlined its report “Scenes In Congo Square.”

“Rude instruments of their own contrivance, the like of which we have never seen before, were being played on Sunday last with a zeal that showed the enthusiasm of the performers, while sets of dancers were shuffling and breaking down upon the green sward with an earnestness that knew no tiring… they danced and sang away, merrily enough, until the going down of the sun.”

Improvisation was trademark of black musicians and the string instruments struck note variations and syncopation. Early forms of ragtime and blues were heard by mid-century, if not yet identified as such. “The roots of ragtime lay in Afro-American dance music, in the fiddle-and-banjo music of the plantations marked by the rhythmic accompaniment of foot stomping and hand clapping,” Malone observed. Plaintive, bluesy melodies were “emerging from the tradition of field hollers, work shouts, and spirituals.”

“Emancipation brought a new freedom to articulate grievances and desires, and it also permitted black music to develop in something other than a communal setting.”

“It’s the fact of the abolition of slavery that made jazz music possible,” intoned Wynton Marsalis, New Orleans native and modern jazz master. “It came from a consciousness of those who are outside of something—but in the middle of it. These are people who are American in the realest sense, but they’ve been denied access to recognition as Americans. But that doesn’t alter the fact that they are American, and the fact that they have access to all the information that Americans have access to.”

New Orleans resounded in horn-blowing. Military instruments were readily available across the city, a federal stronghold, and black talent loaded the many marching bands. “You have musicians playing their horns; they have all these instruments that are left over from the Civil War,” said Marsalis, co-producer of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns in 2001.

“Military instruments and the trumpets are played in a militaristic style, bom-bom-bom-bom, bah-bah-bom-bom… Then all of a sudden instead of playing in a straight military style, on a hymn or a beautiful melody, now they’re imitating the sound of the people in church-singing. They have the vibrato at the end of the note. They’re shaking notes: they play Do-o-o [long vowel]… De-e-e, De-e-e… Bu-u-u.. De-e-e,  Lu-u-u, De-e-e…Then the music gets another power and feeling.”

“In the way that profound things almost always happen, a thing and the opposite of that thing are mashed together,” Marsalis said. “Now you have the people getting the spiritual sound of the church, and they’re also getting that secular sound, of the blues. And the musicians who could understand both of those things, and put both of them in their horns side-by-side, so they could represent that angel and that devil… that was the ones that could play.”


Throughout the 1890s so-called experts groped to identify an “American music.” Some claimed white minstrelsy was the genuine brand while others anointed black spirituals. Some argued Protestant hymnology was native music; others declared the distinction for massive choral gatherings of the Northeast, 20,000 voices together as one, multi-ethnic, singing to heaven, but rather contrived as the real thing. American symphony was nominated despite hopelessly duplicating the Europeans, its perpetual default.

Meantime, ragtime music and “the blues” broke out along the great rivers, and jazz method gelled in the delta.

Piano ragtime was transcribed for sheet music by composers, finally, to document their style and simultaneously ignite a dance revolution. Moreover, supporters proclaimed ragtime established American music, unmistakably, and the world was agreeing. Syncopated masterpieces like “Maple Leaf Rag,” by Scott Joplin , Afro-American composer in Sedalia, Mo., fairly setted the debate.

“Now you may go anywhere along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans—at Cairo, Memphis, Natchez—anywhere that negroes congregate among the cotton bales or drone away the summertime among the grain wharves, and you will hear the rag,” attested Charles E. Trevathan, white composer, journalist and Tennessee native.

“Sometimes it is slow, mournful, wailing; sometimes it swings sensuously; sometimes, when the gin is in, it is wild, half barbaric; sometimes it takes on that shu-sha of the buck and wing [dance], quick, sharp, staccato and dangerous to the Christian heel which deems dancing a sin.”

“The rag is by no means a musical clown,” Trevathan continued. “Its peculiar rhythm fits the wail and the sob of melody quite as well as the sugar heel shakes; it all depends upon the manner of expression. Rag is rhythm. It has nothing to do with the melody. It is simply a time beat, which is not march, schottische, waltz or anything but rag. But it makes some homely tunes delightful. You might call it broken time; time with joints in it; but time which is perfect in that the beats are true to the measure.”

“Artists say one may put two colors close together and between them produce the effect of a third. The dropped note isn’t lost… Rag goes on doing that for you. Giving you cues and suggestions until the melody is done.”

At New Orleans the musical improvisation was so prevalent, so fantastic that Joseph A. Decuir patented a machine to strike piano notes on paper instantly. A music critic hoped Decuir could further adapt his “Harmonigraph Music-Recording Device,” with its connecting rods to key strokes, for instruments like trumpet, to  capture “happy extemporization [and] exquisite melody” of the artists.

New Orleans newspapers still missed prophets in their midst, namely the black pioneers of jazz to pass largely unknown until turn of the century. Greats like trumpet genius Charles “Buddy” Bolden were only heard yet in Crescent City, mesmerizing listeners in parks, halls and bars, without press.

New Orleans newspapers didn’t embrace jazz greatness on their beat until about 1930, concluded Donald M. Marquis, modern biographer of Bolden. But Times-Democrat scribes were certainly impressed in 1896, for their report on Madri Gras, even if still labeling the exquisite, local American music as “discordant.”

King Rex’s “royal yacht” arrived at the river wharf jammed with hundreds of steamboats, officially opening Fat Tuesday on the 18th of February. “There was a sound of music…,” reported The Times-Democrat. “The floats of the King were in readiness, and as the Monarch… with his staff disembarked, they were brought into position, and the royal personages were snugly ensconced in the gilded seats and surrounded by their glittering escorts, and then the band played on.”

“There was a clattering of horses’ hoofs upon the stones of Canal Street, a cloud of dust, a hurrying mass of spectators… a score of cymbal clangors and trumpet blowers, and the procession moved up the avenue, while the sounds of a hundred hands made the air resonant with discordant music.”

“It was a magnificent day,” the paper pronounced, “and there was nothing left to wish for.”

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit  Email:

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