Skip to main content

Congo Square

July 2024
16min read

An Inquiry Into the Origins of Jazz

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most of the adults would have had vivid memories of the dances performed on this spot and but recently discontinued, superseded now by another kind of dancing, a new music.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.

The Spanish masters who began the importation of Africans to the islands to replace the quickly decimated native populations and the shrewder French who succeeded them both took a long, Latin-Catholic view of these African religious survivals, reasoning that in the fullness of Christian time the force of truth would render error archaic. Meanwhile, like the whites later at Congo Square, they would watch the “entertainment,” little suspecting that within it lay the most serious aspirations of the “entertainers.”

Slaves were first imported to New Orleans in 1712 and continued to be so for years after the United States forbade the practice in 1808. Into the 1850's slavers still smuggled their cargoes up Barataria Bay to within sight of the town’s spires. Most of these later arrivals had been stolen from ships sailing from Africa to the islands, which means that in New Orleans the influence of the African past continued strong and immediate far into the nineteenth century. Then too, in the last years of this smuggling, a large number of Haitians arrived to swell the town’s black population and enrich its spiritual consistency with that religion created out of necessity. By this time it had a name: voodoo—or, as it came to be known to whites, hoodoo.

All of this is what Sidney Bechet had in mind when he spoke of his music as a “memory thing": the memory of Africa, of the sundered past, of oppression, but also of that deathless drive to recover that past and so be whole once more, if only for a little while, if only for a day. “It was primitive and it was crude,” Bechet said of the music of Congo Square, “but down at the bottom of it—inside it, where it starts and gets into itself—down there it had the same thing there is at the bottom of ragtime. It was already born and making in the music they played at Congo Square.”


At nine o’clock in slavery days the music and dancing at the square ended with a cannon shot fired above the sounds of the instruments and the drumming feet. It was time to go “home,” time to cease remembering, time to be a slave again.

Yet even after the official end of slavery, after the Emancipation Proclamation which they celebrated at the old square, New Orleans blacks continued for years to hold festivities there. Through the sullen years of Reconstruction when New Orleans was a federal garrison and on into the period of white backlash during which the new freedoms were steadily abridged or nullified, New Orleans’ black population gathered at Congo Square in hopes of retaining something of that old communal feeling amidst new conditions that often seemed as frightening and bewildering as they did hopeful.

There were other efforts to lighten the load. Blacks could now form clubs and benevolent associations where they might come together for social comfort and a few meager economic protections such as the guarantee of a decent burial. They could now go to cabarets and dance halls in the nights after their days of work—or of looking for work. They could spend precious dollars on the poor finery of black fashion. In vain did the town’s black newspapers and black leaders inveigh against these costly diversions, for life under slavery had been too hard and that under freedom too grudging for many to deny themselves the brief pleasures of the night.

The counsel of thrift was further undermined in 1874 with the failure of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust, which wiped out the pitiful savings of many who would never again trust in a future. Perhaps it was best after all to live for the present moment.

So, after the days in the cotton pickeries, after the last barrels had been hauled and stacked on the long wharves, after the shoeshine box had been put away, the dray horses stabled, the barbershop shut down, and the last wisps of black hair swept out, there might still be something in the night before another day and its menial duties. The cabarets, perhaps. Narrow places one room wide and three deep, they reached back from the street-front bar to the middle gambling room, to the back room of sawdusted floor, bench-lined walls, and tiny bandstand. This was where the dancers moved together while the band—perhaps mandolin, guitar, string bass, and cornet—played waltzes, quadrilles, mazurkas, polkas, schottisches.


The escape into music came readily to New Orleans blacks, mostly because of what has already been suggested, but partly because New Orleans had always been a music-minded town. Early travelers there remarked on the high level of musical activity—the street-corner serenaders, the guitar-strumming swains, the music that flowed from the windows of private homes, and the street vendors who sang their services.

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.”

But for every Picou there were many other colored Creoles who found that they could not play the new music. Leonard Bechet, brother to the great Sidney, knew what it took and knew that he did not have it. Speaking to Alan Lomax, Leonard put it bluntly: “Now, I’ll tell you…a person have to go through all that rough stuff like Sidney went through to play music like him.” Some of the colored Creoles, he said, had not gone through that and did not wish to mix with those who had. Picou, for one: “You see, Picou—Picou’s a very good clarinet, but he ain’t hot.” Then he got to the bottom of it, to what divided the colored Creoles from the blacks quite as that fence at Congo Square had separated the whites from the “entertainers” within: “You have to play real hard when you play for Negroes. You got to go some, if you want to avoid their criticism. You got to come up to their mark. … If you do, you get that drive. Bolden had it.”


Not a single participant of the music’s earliest years fails to mention Bolden. This is Charles “Buddy” Bolden who in legend is to the music what Ruth is to baseball, Ford to the automobile. Whether by black or colored Creole, at some point the name will be invoked: this man, his life a mystery of legend, existing visually in but a single photo and that one so blotched and scratched that you cannot tell his eyes from the imperfections of age.

So then, Buddy Bolden: what is there behind his blurred, tantalizing features, inside the cornet he holds casually against the flat of his palm? No preliminaries or introduction here, for his legend stomps off with Bolden already high on his horn. Somewhere in the town’s Uptown section—yes, in that summer of 1895—Bolden stands up before his band, raised waist-high above the dancers, and improvises a chorus of blues. And then another, and another. The crowd roars encouragement, demands that he repeat them. Bolden cannot, for he has already forgotten his latest invention. But he has others, many others. In that night Kid Bolden becomes King Bolden, a musical colossus, the one, the originator.

He can play with terrific power all night long, one improvised chorus after another piling out of his horn. But it is not only his power and inventiveness that make him king and his band supreme. It is also a personal style that comes straight out of Uptown, or “Niggertown.” Black, raised in the 1870's on First Street, it is said that he saw the dances at Congo Square and that later he got hold of a cornet, perhaps a battered little piece left behind in a pawnshop by a departed bandsman of the federal garrison. He teaches himself his own way about its valves and wafer-thin pads, learns to play the street songs of Uptown and the soul-steeped hymns of the Baptist church across from his house. The blues he picks up from street-corner guitarists just in town from the down-river woods. He openly scorns note reading, though he can do it: everything is by ear, everything must be felt to be played.

He scorns ties and collars, too, wearing his shirt busted open to reveal a workingman’s blazing red undershirt stretched across his heaving chest. For like the rest he is a workingman, spending his daylight hours as a barber. When he leaves First Street in the evenings, passing the now shuttered barbershop on his way to his real work, a crowd of women is with him. One carries his horn, another his watch, a third his coat, another just hopes.

If he is to play at Lincoln or Johnson parks on the outskirts, he pulls the crowds out there by turning the bell of his cornet toward the center of town and blowing the blues. He says this is “calling his children home,” and they come running. If by chance the John Robichaux band is playing the park opposite, Bolden sees this as a challenge, for Robichaux is a colored Creole, raised by white folks, and his “legitimate,” reading band gets all the society jobs, playing correctly, quietly in close-buttoned coats with music stands and charts arranged before them. “Come on, Cornish,” Bolden says to his trombonist, “Come on, put your hands through the window.” And they put their horns out through the window and blast so high, so seductively, that the dancers to Robichaux can hear nothing else and so leave the legitimate bunch to crowd into the presence of the King. “Of course,” said an old-time cornetist, “the whites said, ‘We don’t want no King Bolden. Robichaux’s the band.’ … They called Bolden’s band a ‘routineer’ bunch, a bunch of ‘fakers/ But amongst the Negroes, Buddy Bolden could close a Robichaux dance up by 10:30 at night.”

Wherever he tours in the outlying parishes the astonished children and their parents drop everything: “It’s King Bolden! It’s King Bolden’s band!” Once, in some country dance hall he blows his horn apart, and one of the local kids becomes instantly a celebrity by lending the King his beat-up little cornet. “Buddy laughs like hell. Says, ‘Well, pardner, it’s better’n nothin’.

In 1897 town officials rope off a district for prostitution, gambling, and the new music that seems to go with these: the District, it is called (Storyville to us). Here Bolden solidifies his rule, moving nightly among the halls and cabarets: Perseverance Hall, Globe Hall, Come Clean, Big Easy, Drag Nasty, Funky Butt, Spano’s, Fewclothes, Tuxedo. At each of these Bolden plays the numbers he has made famous: “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” “If You Don’t Shake,” and his theme, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues. ” As at old Congo Square, this is music for the dancers, and there is an electric sympathy between those on the floor and those on the bandstand. They tell each other things, and when the King plays “Don’t Go Away, Nobody,” everyone knows the polite dancing is over and now it will be blues until daybreak.

Sleep? Bolden does not need it. He has staying power, workingman’s power. He has a signal to his band, “Don’t take down,” that means, “Don’t put your instruments down. Keep playing.” And they do. Led on by the King, they stomp from “can’t see ‘til can.”

By now it is our century, and the legend of the hero begins to merge into the history of the music he is credited with creating. Now it begins to glimmer out from behind the names of his successors. We hear talk of Storyville, where at any intersection there would be four cabarets, each with its band of younger musicians playing the new music at top volume. Seven-piece dance bands blared in the big halls of the District or “bucked” each other in musical battles fought from the beds of furniture wagons they hired to advertise the dances: as a band rolled through a neighborhood playing from its wagon, a rival group might ride into view, and then the two would lock wheels to try to play each other down, “Didn’t He Ramble” against “Moose March.” The winners got the crowd that night, but such was the popularity of the music that there were no real losers—there were always jobs. Thus where before we heard only of King Bolden’s Band, now we hear of the Columbus Band led by the heavy-lipped powerhouse cornetist, Tig Chambers; of the Imperial Orchestra headed by Manuel Ferez, the best of the Creole cornetists; of the Magnolia Orchestra, organized around 1909, and which included in the next five years many who subsequently would be regarded as pioneers. We hear, too, of other “kings” of the cornet—Freddie Keppard, the “best ragtime cornet,” and Joe King Oliver, and Bunk Johnson, who had the sweetest tone in town but played with a “peppery” style. And we learn where the piano players were: in the mirror-spangled parlors of the high-class whorehouses where the geniuses Jelly Roll Morton and Tony Jackson earned big tips improvising dirty songs or speeding through the demanding rags of Scott Joplin and Torn Turpin—“Maple Leaf Rag,” “The Easy Winners,” “A Ragtime Nightmare.”

In the twenty-two years between that summer of ’95 and the closing of the District in 1917, the music took cognizance of itself, developed its standard instrumentation and ensemble style, created its canon of tunes. And by 1917 Buddy Bolden was a great name among other great names, a sort of father among the fathers, spoken of always in the past tense, for by this time he had long ceased to be an active presence in New Orleans or anywhere else. Legend says that on some dateless spring day, playing a long, hot funeral parade, Buddy Bolden “fell out,” quit playing, and never played again.

This is the legendary end for the King, appropriate in view of what we know of the circumstances of black life in his New Orleans, and appropriate too in view of what we know of black life in America since Bolden. Of this persistent condition, jazz is a disquieting reminder. This is a part of its interior sound, as if the legacy of the legendary King was still hanging in the air, a note, a call higher than we can well bear.

Walking the streets of Bolden’s old neighborhood you can feel that interior sound of the music humming up out of places that have changed little since 1895—except to deteriorate. Along First Street things look much the same as when Bolden lived here. Now as then this is a predominantly black neighborhood; in the schoolyard spidery-looking black boys imagine themselves becoming superstars as they shoot basketballs toward hoopless backboards. At the corner of First and Liberty is the barbershop where Bolden spent some of his daylight hours making arrangements for his band dates. A wooden awning curves around the corner, and there are benches underneath. Inside, on the walls above the two chairs and the mirrors flecked russet with age, are pictures of Lincoln, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass. Also photos of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis: that was another way to make it out.

Across the street is Bolden’s house, 2309, its yellow paint chipping down through other layers, its high streetward window shuttered. Along here few know that Charles “Buddy” Bolden did not merely disappear from a parade but that he died a hundred miles away in the segregated unit of the state insane asylum, where for a quarter-century he had rotted untreated. Probably the historical ending is not as important as the legendary one, for in the latter we see history in relief, its broad patterns sharply defined for those who look.

Go up a couple of blocks to Jackson Street where the hulk of the old Longshoreman’s Hall stands awaiting the wrecker’s ball. In the littered and sunny courtyard that was once a dance hall you can feel that sound. This was a haven built by black workers against the uncertainties and the bleak certainties of their America, a place where for a dollar you could dance to music made by your neighbors.

Or go farther up into the old District and enter the narrow confines of the newly restored Perseverance Hall. Mount the handsome staircase that curves in company with the walls until you gain the upper story and its single high-ceilinged room. There think of Bolden and the others. Think of the nameless dancers who moved to a sound that told stories. Here in silence is that sound, history beating against the ear.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.