Afro-Baroque New Orleans and the Jazz era

There is a marvelous recording of music from The Ursulines’ manuscript, performed by the French early music group Le Concert Lorrain. EDIT APRIL

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URSULINES Le soleil heraut de sa gloire 1024

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Listening to the first tune on the CD one notices that the eighth notes in the last beat of measure two, as well as all the other eighth notes in the piece, are not played as even eighth notes, but as unequal ones, with the first note longer, perhaps twice as long.

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Mother Superior, Sister Marie Tranchepain led Ursuline nuns from France to New Orleans in 1727, inspiring this painting ‘Landing of the Ursulines’ by Paul Poincy, late 19th century Image   Source

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[Starts at -53:00] Harmonia Early Music podcast on The Ursuline Manuscript, Courtesy of WFIU Public Radio and Indiana Public Media  Source

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This is the Baroque practice known in France as notes inégales. It is also the standard performance practice of jazz, where, with the upbeats accented, it is known as swing.

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Anonymous Italian painting from the 17th century portrays an instrumental ensemble in a mixed grouping of winds, strings, and keyboard. Source

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In Cuba and its Music, I speculated that the swing feel of jazz derives from a typical feel still easily audible in traditional music in the Senegambia and Mali today, and that New Orleans was a key point in its dissemination.

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"The Merengue" 1955 ©Vela Zanetti (1913-1999) Source  (please contact for additional attribution or removal)

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To that I would like to add that there was a point of reinforcement between French New Orleans and Senegambian New Orleans: both sides played unequal eighth notes.

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Ursuline nuns gather on the lawn at their second convent in New Orleans’Ninth Ward. Photograph taken in late 1800s by Mother St.Croix. Courtesy of the Ursuline Academy Archive and Museum Source

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If the Ursulines, who were educators, were teaching the musical practice of notes inégales, that only helped to establish it in an environment where white, free colored, and enslaved musicians all crossed paths.

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“Amour de Dieu” (God’s love) from the Ursuline manuscript  copy of Nouvelles poésies spirituelles et morales 1736;  manuscript sheet music 98-001- RL.58 - Courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection  Quarterly, Winter 2015, p. 8  Source

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If I were to hypothesize a continuum between Afro-Baroque New Orleans and the jazz era, I would locate it in the playing of black violinists, who were likely playing along with the whites in French New Orleans, as they were in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue, to say nothing of Cuba.

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If I were to hypothesize a continuum between Afro-Baroque New Orleans and the jazz era, I would locate it in the playing of black violinists, who were likely playing along with the whites in French New Orleans, as they were in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue, to say nothing of Cuba.

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"Right and Left" William Sydney Mount, 1850, Courtesy of Long Island Museum of Art, History, and Carriages (LIM), Stony Brook, New York  Source

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If I were to hypothesize a continuum between Afro-Baroque New Orleans and the jazz era, I would locate it in the playing of black violinists, who were likely playing along with the whites in French New Orleans, as they were in Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint-Domingue, to say nothing of Cuba.

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I would also note the sometimes extreme fondness for melisma in New Orleans (e.g., the ornamentation of Aaron Neville’s singing or James Booker’s piano playing), which is an attribute of the French Baroque and the music of the Islamized Senegambia

Ned Sublette, The World that Made New Orleans, Lawrence Hill Books, 2001, p. 72

"Right and Left" William Sydney Mount, 1850, Courtesy of Long Island Museum of Art, History, and Carriages (LIM), Stony Brook,New York  Source

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"Right and Left" William Sydney Mount, 1850, Courtesy of Long Island Museum of Art, History, and Carriages (LIM), Stony Brook, New York  Source

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Jazz Piano Library podcast on James Booker. Courtesy of Tim Richards and Morley Radio, Morley College London Source  

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Trailer for BAYOU MAHARAJAH, a feature length documentary on the life and times of James Booker. Courtesy of Lily Keber and Mairzy Doats Productions. Source

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Virtually all avenues of contact with European music were open to Negroes. At the white balls a section of the hall was usually reserved for the free colored. They couldn’t dance, but they could watch and listen.

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LOC A Grand Jamaica ball

"Right and Left" William Sydney Mount, 1850, Courtesy of Long Island Museum of Art, History, and Carriages (LIM), Stony Brook, New York Source

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Slaves too must have gotten in often, judging from frequent appeals and warnings to owners not to insist on taking their slave in with them: ”not one slave will be admitted.”

The Orleans Ballroom declared such a prohibition in January, 1819 and fifteen years later was still insisting on it. At one point the managers tried having their own ballroom slaves wear an identifying armband.

The same situation obtained in the opera.

Henry A. Kmen, Music in New Orleans, The Formative Years, Louisiana State University Press, 1966, p. 232 

Two-thirds of the slaves brought to Louisiana by the French slave trade came from Senegambia. While Senegambia means, geographically, the region between the Senegal and the Gambia rivers, it is much more than a geographical area.

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