Congo Square

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Jazz endures in a special sort of American reserve. Accepted as a part of our national heritage, still it is as if the interior sound of this music prevents most of us from embracing it as fully as we have its derivatives, pop music and rock. We hear in that interior sound an intensity of purpose and also a frustration that fends off our casual familiarity and makes us content with the image of the music rather than its reality. In the early days in New Orleans they called that interior sound “hot,” and this is still a useful word for its connotative values. Rock is a huge noise, and the lovely melodies and clever words of our best pop songwriters can brighten our lives like a glass of champagne. But jazz is the sound of life being lived at the limits, dangerous as an element that can burn. To understand something of this elusive but acknowledged interior sound, we must look to the early days in New Orleans, to a world that did not yet know jazz but that provided its place of birthing.

It was a Sunday, a Latin Catholic Sunday in a subtropical town when the day seemed to drape itself over the roofs and spires. In the oldest quarter of town women with beads and decorously covered heads, outwardly obedient children, and stiff-collared men, their faces flushed with razor and heat, came together at St. Louis Cathedral, built atop the ashes of the town’s first church. On either side of the cathedral lay the heavy arms of the cabildo and the presbytère , blocked, stacked with their records, their past: this was the heart of New Orleans as it was in 1895, as it is yet.

Orleans Street, behind the river-front square, ran straight westward to Rampart Street, which in the old days had formed a boundary of the little settlement. On the other side of Rampart was a public place that in 1895 went by the name of Beauregard Square in honor of the Confederate general. But among the town’s sixty thousand black residents it was known as Congo Square, and most of the adults would have had vivid memories of the dances performed on this spot and but recently discontinued, superseded now by another kind of dancing, a new music.

The dancers at Congo Square had been ex-slaves, and farther back into the century they had been slaves. Sunday in slavery times was the one day of the week these people could look forward to. As Sidney Bechet, the great New Orleans reed player, imagined these Sundays, the slave would awaken “and start to be a slave and then maybe someone would tell him: ‘Hell no. Today’s Sunday, man. … Today’s free day.’ And then he’d hear the drums from the square. First one drum, then another one answering it. Then a lot of drums. Then a voice, one voice. And then a refrain, a lot of voices joining in and coming into each other.”

 

Bechet was born in 1897, about twelve years after the dances had ended, so his memory of them is improvised out of what he had heard and what he knew had to be true. “Hot” player that he was, he knew that the sound he breathed from the bell of his horn had come out of these dances and all that had gone into them—the long history of his people in Africa and after they had been taken out of Africa to the islands, to this mainland.

We also have eyewitnesses. On these Sunday afternoons, after mass, after the visitings and the dinner, a crowd of whites would gather outside the low fence and turnstile that marked off the square and watch the black folk dance and sing. Some, like the architect Benjamin Latrobe and the local writer George Washington Cable, took notes. Cable in particular left a vivid account of the clangorous, clashing, polyrhythmic sound that welled from the improvised instruments, the hollowed logs, jointed bamboo drums, wooden horns, and vials of shot flung together against the wrists and ankles of the dancers. Above all was the sound of the human voice, long, sonorous, swelling, improvisatory, telling ancient stories in unimaginable tongues. Whirling, singing, their get-together finery shaking away from their black limbs, the dancers would become themselves, their history.

Most of these transplanted Africans had their ancestral roots in the westward portions of their continent. Some had come directly to New Orleans while others had made a first stop in the West Indies before they or their descendants had been imported here. It was in the islands that the slaves, searching amidst the alien rubble of their lives, had created a powerful syncretic religion. On Trinidad, Martinique, Cuba, Jamaica, and especially Haiti, they had struggled to retain their ties to the African past, for to them the severing of those ties would make existence meaningless. Only by remaining in contact with the past, with the spirits of the ancestors, could you know who you were and what your living meant. The new religion was based on the veneration of that vanished place and dependent on memory and memory-invoking rituals, both of which could survive the physical rupture of deportation. In ritual dances to percussive music, the slaves could be transported back into the bosom of a tribal past.