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  • Writer's pictureJackson Harmeyer

106. Musical Travels – New Orleans, LA: Caribbean Connections and the Cradle of Jazz

St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square at the heart of New Orleans

At the AMS South-Central Meeting in Sewanee this March, our keynote speaker, jazz multi-instrumentalist Paul Austerlitz, who is on faculty at Gettysburg College, discussed the influence of Cuban musicians, Machito and Mario Bauzá on the New York jazz scene of the mid-twentieth century. His presentation, titled “Who is Babalu?: Afro-Caribbean Revolutions and Western Music,” also however, attempted to paint a broad picture of how Caribbean cultures have influenced musicmaking on the North American continent. When he mentioned the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s and how much of their cultural establishment fled to New Orleans, I began thinking about how I might investigate this historical moment myself. It was, of course, not his topic and, when I approached him after his presentation, he encouraged me to explore it more—it would make an excellent topic he said. I resolved that, once my thesis and the Sugarmill notes were finished, this would be my next research project. I now desired something more historical than the thesis, which has largely been concerned with aesthetics and the abstract workings of harmony and timbre; something which would let me find my own “silver trumpets,” in other words, a recurring enigma in need of exploration. Anyway I also wanted something with direct relevance and, as a native of New Orleans, this project offered me that. Even before my thesis work was finished, I began making plans for taking some initial research steps this summer.

My base of operations

Much of my family still lives in New Orleans, although my parents live in central Louisiana and my sister is in Shreveport. It takes very little encouragement for my grandmother to welcome me into to her home in Metairie, a quick few-minutes’ drive to New Orleans. Monday, May 20, the day after the Sugarmill Music Festival ended, I headed to New Orleans. I would tour the French Quarter with cousins on Tuesday and then spend much of Wednesday and Thursday conducting research at The Historic New Orleans Collection whose Williams Research Center on Chartres Street in the Quarter is open to the public. I had traded emails with Tulane Professor Emeritus John Baron, an expert on the music of New Orleans, and he recommended that I look into his book, Concert Life in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans as well as Henry Kmen’s classic Music in New Orleans and a few others. Alfred Lemmon, Director of the Williams Research Center, and the staff at the Williams were always bringing me new resources to look through as well. Although I enjoy and respect jazz, my scholarly interest is in concert music, so I limited my topic to early nineteenth-century concert music in New Orleans—preferably before Louis Moreau Gottschalk whose music is already quite well-explored. I learned that Haiti, which was then the French colony of Saint-Domingue, was extremely profitable through its sugarcane plantations and cheap slave labor. Known as the “Jewel of the Caribbean,” Saint-Domingue had thriving musical and theatrical establishments and, indeed, its capital Port-au-Prince possessed five opera houses which were enjoyed by its wealthy Creole French minority. New Orleans, by comparison, was a mere outpost before the revolution.

The later French Opera House operated from 1859 to 1919.

Yet African slaves outnumbered free persons ten to one at Saint-Domingue, and their successful revolution from 1791 to 1804 drove many of their affluent former masters north to New Orleans—those who could escape anyway. They brought their remaining slaves with them who in 1811, inspired by the success of the Haitian Revolution, staged their own revolt, the German Coast Uprising. This chain of events is well-documented; what is less-documented is how the musical culture came northward. Baron writes how concert life in New Orleans begins only around 1791 with the arrival of Haitian musicians. He also describes how the first theaters in New Orleans were built at this time, including the Théâtre d’Orléans in 1809 by Haitian refugee and impresario John Davis. But, his discussion on Haitian concert life and its impact on concert life in New Orleans ends there. Most of the music performed was by popular French opera composers—including André Grétry, whose Sylvain was the first opera performed in New Orleans in 1796, and Étienne Méhul, whose Une folie followed in 1808—or their Italian contemporaries, but there were also local composers active in New Orleans. Significantly, by the mid-nineteenth century, New Orleans had an impressive operatic culture, centered at the French Opera House (Théâtre de l'Opéra) and unlike anywhere else in the antebellum United States. Indeed, its opera company would travel in the summers, to places like New York City and Philadelphia, at least as early as the 1830s and before these cities had professional opera companies of their own, spreading New Orleans’s love of opera to the rest of the country.

Portrait of Jelly Roll Morton on display at THNOC

This is not the typical narrative given of American concert life: more often we hear about Edward MacDowell, Amy Beach, and the other great turn-of-the twentieth-century composers based in New York and Boston. In other words, the usual story is how classical music radiated outward from the urban centers of the north. If we get that… more often all we get is the foolish “Dvořák Creation Myth” which claims that American classical music, the little there was, was totally reliant on European models prior to this esteemed Bohemian composer’s arrival in New York in 1892; that Dvořák essentially showed American composers how to be American. There are some truths in this story but, as Vanderbilt Professor Doug Shadle points out in this Twitter Thread, American composers were already fairly resolute in establishing their own American idiom. Back to my point though: opera at least seems to have had a major foothold in New Orleans decades before concert music became established in the north—even Boston’s revered Handel and Haydn Society was not founded until 1815. Moreover, that foothold was the result of a successful slave uprising in the Caribbean. This largely untold chapter in American music has the potential to break the rigid mold in which we typically cast the concert music of our country. It will require further research albeit to justify these claims and a good deal of advocacy to affect any meaningful paradigm shift.

Louis Armstrong Statue at Armstrong Park

Friday, May 24, my last day in New Orleans, my explorations shifted some when I had the chance to take The Cradle of Jazz Tour which John McCusker leads. McCusker, who went to college with my father, subsequently worked for three decades as a photo-journalist for the Times-Picayune and New Orleans Advocate newspapers. It is this same investigative reporting which he brings into his tour and his recent book, Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz. He, for example, objects to the familiar narrative that jazz was born in New Orleans and went up the Mississippi to Chicago—the Mississippi frankly doesn’t go to Chicago, he points out. He demands more nuance from those who tell the story of jazz. Our tour started at the former Congo Square, now Louis Armstrong Park, just outside the French Quarter, where slaves were allowed to gather, sing, play music, and dance on Sundays before emancipation; their music is typically cited as the first American precedent for jazz. From there, our group piled into John’s van, and we drove past the home of pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who claimed to have invented jazz, in Faubourg Marigny off Frenchmen. On Marais Street, we passed an empty lot which had been clarinetist and saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s home; it had been demolished after Hurricane Katrina which John said was one of the reasons he started this tour—to do weekly check-ins on these often unprotected historic sites. We then drove through the former Storyville which had been the site of brothels and whore houses at the birth of jazz, but was now well within New Orleans’s central business district.

Buddy Bolden House

Following Rampart Street, we arrived at the former Eagle Saloon where all the early jazz greats had played as well as the Karnofsky Tailor Shop; Louis Armstrong, while still a boy, had evidently made friends with its Jewish owners, and Mother Karnofsky would feed and sing to him. Neither was open to the public as a tourist attraction, yet neither had been knocked down. From there we followed Simon Bolivar Avenue to the home of cornetist Buddy Bolden, currently the site of a controversy. The city demands its owner, PJ Morton of Maroon 5, at least take efforts to repair the collapsing structure even if he does not historically preserve and transform it into a museum as he had promised to do earlier this year. The homes of trombonist Kid Ory and cornetist King Oliver, Louis Armstrong’s mentor, were also nearby on Jackson Avenue and Fourth Street, respectively, in Central City; luckily they have been fixed-up by their owners who live in them as private residences. Throughout our drive, John told stories and played music for us—an indispensable part of his tour. He was extremely knowledgeable, and I appreciate his investigative approach to jazz history; I definitely recommend taking his tour! He despaired that so many “jazz historians” write about jazz without ever coming to New Orleans and seeing these places where jazz was created. Just as I found traveling the Delta, there’s a reason that these musicians left New Orleans as soon as they found any measure of success: the neighborhoods were and remain incredibly impoverished, and the cultural establishment, moreover, was unreceptive to their music. Unlike Memphis, Clarksdale, or St. Louis, however, New Orleans has made little effort to preserve—or capitalize on—these sites. While it celebrates itself as the city of jazz, it neglects the sites themselves where jazz was first heard. The facts are ignored in favor of the myth.

Basile Barès: Les Varietès du Carnaval

These were not my only adventures in New Orleans. I also had lunch one afternoon with Kari Besharse and Phil Schuessler, the wife-and-husband team behind Versipel—New Orleans’s new music ensemble. We discussed, among other things, having Versipel play at our next Sugarmill Music Festival in May 2020. We are interested in having them do a program of Louisiana music, new and old. Their concert would be one of several endeavors to give the Sugarmill a local theme next year; I feel it makes little sense to program nothing but European music at an American music festival, nor only white music at a former plantation. To this end, we have also asked our family of pianists, the Ajeros, to play a few pieces by African-American composer Basile Barès whose music I discovered on a separate trip to The Historic New Orleans Collection last summer. Barès was born a slave in 1845, but after the Civil War became a prominent pianist-composer in New Orleans; his music falls somewhere in-between Gottschalk and Scott Joplin stylistically. On Thursday evening, I also had the chance to hear classical guitarist Jay Kacherski, who with his wife pianist Lina Morita had performed at this year’s Sugarmill Music Festival, play at Tulane University as part of the New Orleans International Guitar Festival. Additionally, I stopped at the Louisiana Music Factory, a used CD store on Frenchmen, where I made some nice finds; caught another concert by the New Orleans Chamber Players; ate plenty of fantastic food; and took a ride on the streetcar where I talked banjo picking with a friendly group of Canadian tourists. How’s that for a packed week, eh?

New Orleans, in some sense, will always be my home. Although I have not lived there since Katrina and would not want to live there again for fear of the routine evacuations or another devastating storm, it’s still a special place for me. It’s still a special place, period, despite all its problems. My research at The Historic New Orleans Collection and the more casual time I spent learning about jazz from John McCusker are experiences that will stick with me. The history, music, and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, more broadly, are rarely far from my mind, and I am glad that I have had these chances to explore them more fully last week.

JSH 19.05.28

About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer graduated with his Master of Music in Music History and Literature from the University of Louisville in May 2019 upon the completion of his thesis, “Liminal Aesthetics: Perspectives on Harmony and Timbre in the Music of Olivier Messiaen, Tristan Murail, and Kaija Saariaho.” He has shared this pioneering research through presentations given at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meetings in Asheville, NC and Sewanee, TN and at the University of Tennessee Contemporary Music Festival in Knoxville, TN. During his studies in Louisville, he was the recipient of the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship and was employed at the Dwight Anderson Memorial Music Library where he did archival work for the unique Grawemeyer Collection which houses scores, recordings, and documentation for over five thousand entries by the world’s leading contemporary composers. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, LA. Then, from 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria. He has remained a concert annotator and organizer, co-directing the annual Sugarmill Music Festival. The scholarly writings he has produced for this festival have even attracted the attention of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Aside from his studies, he is a composer, choral singer, and award-winning nature photographer. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at


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