Congo Square


Men of color had always been used as musicians for popular entertainments, increasingly so as they acquired a peculiar facility with European instruments. “Did you ever hear Negroes play the piano by ear?” the writer Lafcadio Hearn asked a friend in a letter written from New Orleans. “Sometimes we pay them a bottle of wine to come here and play for us. They use the piano exactly like a banjo.” Blacks also had taken to the fiddle, on which they had been heard in ante-bellum days in the country parishes, but now they were finding their ways to a variety of instruments as their ability to purchase them slowly broadened in the years following Emancipation. But by far the most favored colored musicians in town had been the gens de couleur , the colored Creoles. Intermediates, issue of unlawful congress between separated races, these proud people had been free long before the war and had created a powerful third-stream culture. They owned extensive properties, including slaves, monopolized the skilled trades and crafts, followed professions, and often were able to send their children abroad for education and refinement. A good many were accomplished musicians with academic training. So when Reconstruction became backlash and the colored Creoles became merely colored, lost their privileged status, and were forced into economic competition with the blacks from whom they had held themselves stiffly aloof, it was they who commanded the most prestigious and best-paying musical jobs.

For these people it was demeaning to do now for pay and for strangers what had once been done for manners and for family, but jobs were scarce, the days of privilege done. Perhaps then it was not so terrible to play your instrument for pay, the clear, light, correct tones sounding now at the balls, lawn parties, and municipal celebrations of the whites and especially in the marching-band music that was the rage in the half-century after the war.

Such Creole musicians could also hire out as music teachers. Increasingly their pupils were blacks who for the first time might have a few extra dollars for an instrument and lessons, dimly foreseeing perhaps additional income from a nighttime and Sunday career as a band musician, cabaret player, or fish-fry serenader. Increasingly as the century drew to a close, the master musicians found themselves in musical competition with those who had been their pupils or else had taught themselves. And it was bitter to them to discover that the blacks had something that no training could teach, a way of playing unheard before. Band music and polite dance music for white occasions the colored Creoles understood: it was written, precise, and some of it very demanding. But to play for blacks, to play for their occasions and dances was another matter. Here something else was required that lay beyond training: it was memory. Memory of that past reached back for at Congo Square. To play for these people you had to have the sound of their story, and this was a story the colored Creoles had spent more than a century denying.


The black players had that sound. Much closer to the African tradition of a rhythmic, improvisational music, communal in nature and integrally associated with dance, they transformed every music they attempted, including now too the new ragtime numbers that were filtering into New Orleans on the fingers of itinerant piano players out of the Midwest. In a good many instances the black musicians were not readers and did not know the precise direction a number was going to take. They played what they felt, what they knew or sensed of their past.

The whites who chanced to hear this new “ragged” music were mostly contemptuous, but the colored Creoles, competing for some of the same musical jobs, were astonished and baffled. One of them, Alphonse Picou, vividly recalled his first experience trying to play the new way. Born in 1879 when his caste was well embarked on its downhill way to full equality with the blacks, Picou had been provided clarinet lessons by his parents; even in these straitened times they doubtless had wished to preserve some of the old amenities. On a day in 1895 when the boy was practicing at home, the neighboring barber overheard him. Like many of his fellows, the barber doubled as a musician, and he quickly obtained the parents’ permission to talk to the young Picou. That night Picou found himself at an audition for the weekend band the barber fronted, and he remembered asking the leader where the music was that he was to play. “He said, ‘Music? You don’t need none.’ I said, ‘How am I going to play?’ He said, ‘You’re going to come in on the choruses,’ ” explaining to the bewildered boy that when he could not come in he should just stay out. Picou evidently came in more than he stayed out, since that Saturday night he was with the band in a jammed hall on Liberty Street. Auditioning without music was one thing, and playing to a crowd without it was another, but the band jumped into the midst of a piece and “the people just clapped their hands. We had to play [each piece] two or three times.…” This particular style of “playing without music,” he concluded, “was very new to me. I think it was impossible to me! It seemed a sort of style of playing without notes.” Almost sixty years afterward Picou was still playing the style “without notes,” and he has left behind him the standard clarinet solo in the famous New Orleans number “High Society.”