Many Jazz fans wrongly assume that New York but more importantly Harlem was the birthplace of Jazz. Although, today Harlem IS the cornerstone for cutting edge Jazz, New York was, at first, completely opposed to Jazz! To the point that the NY Times actually utilized scary stories & headlines to pick on jazz – e.g. Siberian villagers using jazz to scare off bears, when in fact they had used pots and pans; another story claimed that the fatal heart attack of a celebrated conductor was caused by jazz!
But before we go into how Jazz ended up in New York, let’s take a moment to understand how, why and where Jazz was first created.
How? Jazz finds its roots in musical traditions of both Africa and Europe. It is a union of the two forms of music. From African music, jazz got its rhythm, feel and blues while from the European side it got its instruments (e.g. saxophones, trumpet, pianos) and of all the places, it was created in NoLa!
Wait, why NoLa? New Orleans was the perfect city for Jazz to come together- it was a port city which had multi-ethnicity people come from all over the world (i.e. Africa & Europe) oh and speakeasies!
Umm did you say Speakeasies? Yup! The Prohibition era of 1920s, that banned the sale of alcohol, resulted in the rise of speakeasies (because come on, no one is going to actually stop drinking!). Since NoLa was pretty lax with its drinking laws (i.e. you can drink but don’t get caught) it led to the proliferation of a ton of speakeasies. Now to anyone who has ever been to a bar/club, it is extremely awkward to not have any music playing in the background or even the foreground. Enter Jazz!
All of these factors coming together, led to the creation of Jazz! *Mind Blown* -- it all makes sense now doesn’t it?! Okay – Coming together of cultures in Nola during Prohibition era = rise of Jazz. Got it! But how did it end up in NY?!
Ok so back to original story, while Jazz did form in NoLa, there isn’t much of it left over there. With the rise in racism and Jazz being the music played by African – American musicians, a lot of talented players began fleeting NoLa for the sunny land of Chicago which was more friendly. Once in Chicago, Jazz began seeing meteoric success to the point that the NY Times (yep, the same one that compared Jazz to Pots & Pans banging) began voluntarily covering them! Additionally, NY started becoming lax with its Prohibition laws and the rise of speakeasies, led to the departure of prolific musicians from Chicago to finally end up in NYC!
Ofc, my intention with this story was to keep it light-hearted which is why it does not do enough justice to the trials & tribulations faced by the African-American jazz artists and the kind of predicaments they had to overcome to sustain Jazz. If you are interested learning more, please please please check out these articles: here, here and here.
Additionally, if you are in New York and want to go to all the hidden Jazz Jaunts, check out our experience of Harlem Jazz Crawl with a celebrated Jazzist! You will enjoy some soul food followed by going to those jazz clubs where the likes of Billy Holiday, Nat King Cole frequented!