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Jazz in America Student Handout-–Lesson Plan 4-–American History Essay

A Brief History of New Orleans

Geography and a history of European, African, and American influences combined to make New Orleans a colorful city of many races and many languages. Because of its place and its people, New Orleans became the most unique metropolis and seaport of the American South. Under French and Spanish rule (1699-1763 and 1763-1803, respectively) Europeans, free blacks, and slaves formed three distinct groups in New Orleans. Later however, under American rule, white residents of New Orleans tried in different ways to force free blacks and slaves into one subordinate group.

Located in the state of Louisiana near the point where the Mississippi River spills into the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans guards the entrance to the North American continent. Native Americans of the lower Mississippi River Valley for centuries had boated up and down the mighty waterway that cut through the American mainland and snaked northward almost 2,500 miles. [Link: NPS, Archaeology and Ethnography Program, Ancient Architects of the Mississippi, www.cr.nps.gov/aad/FEATURE/FEATURE.HTM] French founders of Louisiana arrived in 1699 to establish settlements near the mouth of the Mississippi, and they soon understood the commercial and military importance of controlling access to the river, especially since Spanish West Florida and English Carolina were powerful rivals to the east. New Orleans was founded in 1718, and it soon became an important seaport.

From 1699 to 1763, France governed Louisiana and New Orleans. French settlers and soldiers, Germans, and slaves from West Africa arrived in Louisiana after 1700, though many perished from disease in the early years. Africans labored mainly on tobacco and indigo plantations but also served as soldiers, boatmen, herders, and interpreters. Africans brought with them skills as blacksmiths, basket weavers, and carpenters. Many learned to speak French and helped create a unique Afro-French culture in New Orleans.[Link: Wikipedia Entry for Creole Peoples en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creole_peoples]

After Spain took control of Louisiana in 1763, the population of New Orleans grew larger and more diverse. More than 5,000 people lived in New Orleans by 1785, and 1,631 – nearly one third – were slaves. Another 563 were “free people of color,” part of a free mixed-race community whose members purchased their freedom, or earned it through military service or manumission. These French-speaking “black Creoles” kept many of their African customs and enriched city life with their food, works of art, and music. White planters and their slaves began arriving in New Orleans in 1792, after fleeing a slave uprising in San Domingue (Haiti), a French sugar island in the Caribbean. But slaves from Haiti carried the spirit of freedom with them to New Orleans.

When the United States purchased Louisiana in 1803, New Orleans immediately strengthened the nation’s commercial and military power. From its strategic location on the Mississippi, New Orleans kept farm goods from Midwestern states flowing out to the rest of the world and prevented foreign navies from entering. The U.S. Congress in 1812 promptly admitted to the Union the new state of Louisiana, the first of 13 states created from the 1803 Purchase.

Louisiana became part of the United States at a time when cotton agriculture was spreading westward across the South. As southerners fanned out across the new states of Alabama (1819), Mississippi (1817) and Louisiana to plant cotton, slavery expanded dramatically. On the eve of the Civil War, 331,726 African Americans labored on sugar and cotton plantations in Louisiana, and New Orleans by 1840 had become the largest slaveholding city in the nation – with 23,4481. The U.S. government also made it more difficult for Louisiana masters to free their slaves through manumission (note: manumission is the act of freeing a slave done at the will of the owner, not to be confused with emancipation which is the freeing of slaves by an act of government). [Link: Wikipedia, “Manumission” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manumission]

Slavery in New Orleans ended one year after the Civil War began, and all African Americans there began to enjoy cultural and political freedom for the first time. They started colleges, churches, and benevolent organizations, and they created wonderful varieties of music. When the Congress placed federal troops in Southern states to oversee the process of Reconstruction, black people got the right to vote, elected African-American politicians to office, and helped form a biracial government in Louisiana. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery and gave to African Americans citizenship and the right to vote.

After U.S. troops left the South in 1876, white Democrats began to regain political power in Louisiana and in the former Confederate states. They began to “redeem” Southern state governments from what they called “Negro rule.” New Orleans in 1877 segregated its city schools. In 1890, Louisiana segregated railroad cars and required that white and black passengers sit in separate sections. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1896, in a decision called Plessy v. Ferguson, ruled that “separate but equal” railroad cars and other public accommodations were legal. “Whites Only” drinking fountains and restrooms soon appeared in New Orleans and throughout the South.

From this ruling emerged a system of racial segregation known as “Jim Crow,” which served to separate the races. Jim Crow segregation placed all African Americans – black Creoles and ex-slaves alike – into one group that received inferior treatment. [Link: PBS, The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow, www.pbs.org/wnet/jimcrow] After a race riot erupted in New Orleans in 1900, white residents tried to eliminate privileges that black Creoles had enjoyed since the pre-Civil War period. Increasingly, black Creoles and ex-slaves gathered together in dance halls and other segregated meeting places. African Americans tried their best to preserve hard-earned freedoms in Jim Crow-era New Orleans, but many would find a greater measure of liberty only by moving to northern cities like Chicago and New York.[Link: The Historic New Orleans Collection, www.hnoc.org]

Today, New Orleans is known for its multicultural heritage, vital seaport, excellent cuisine, many festivals and celebrations, great music, exciting and historical tourist attractions, and being the birthplace of jazz. It has several nicknames including the "Crescent City" (describing its shape around the Mississippi River), "The Big Easy" (a reference by early jazz musicians to the relative ease of finding work in the city and the perceived laid-back, "easy" lifestyle of the jazz musician), and "The City that Care Forgot" (refering to the easy going and carefree nature of many of the residents). The city's unofficial motto, "Laissez les bons temps rouler" ("Let the good times roll") describes the city's party-like atmosphere. Nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and its subsequent flooding in 2005, New Orleans is currently in the rebuilding process. [Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Orleans%2C_Louisiana]

Questions to consider:
  1. Locate New Orleans on a map. What is special about its geographical location?
  2. Explain why so many different kinds of people ended up in New Orleans. Try to name as many of them as you can. How did they “mix” when they got there?
  3. Under French and Spanish rule, three distinct groups of people lived in New Orleans. Identify each group. Which groups had freedom and which did not?
  4. What was segregation or Jim Crow?
1For 1860 Louisiana slave population, see Table 6–1, “United States Slave Population, 1820 and 1860,” in Darlene Clark Hine et al, The African American Odyssey (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000), p. 121.

Jazz in America Student Handout--Lesson Plan IV--Jazz Biography 1

Scott Joplin, ragtime composer (1867/1868-1917)
Biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Joplin

Scott Joplin was born in late 1867 or early 1868 in east Texas. The son of an ex-slave and a freeborn mother, Joplin grew up in a community of sharecroppers near the Texas-Arkansas border. By using a piano in a home where his mother cleaned, as a young boy Joplin taught himself to play. “As a youngster he heard black work songs, spirituals, and ring shouts, as well as the European waltzes, schottishes, and marches that black musicians like his father performed at white parties and dances.”1 He soon developed a unique syncopated musical style, though Joplin later received classical training from a German-born teacher. Joplin’s parents moved to Sedalia, Missouri, where Joplin attended a segregated high school and continued to perfect his musical skills.

Joplin traveled extensively after high school, performing in Chicago, New York, and many other places. But his true love was composing music. In 1899, a Sedalia businessman named John Stark published a Joplin composition titled "Maple Leaf Rag," which became Joplin’s most popular work. In 1901, Joplin and his new bride moved to St. Louis, a center of ragtime music. He uprooted one last time in 1907 and moved to New York, where he spent the last 10 years of his life composing and performing. Joplin created serious and complex musical works that incorporated his syncopated style, including a ragtime ballet and ragtime operas. To his great disappointment, these compositions were not widely accepted as “serious” music during his lifetime. Joplin’s first marriage ended shortly after the birth of his only child, and his second wife died several months after their wedding. His third wife, Lottie Stokes Joplin, started a publishing company with him and continued to promote Joplin’s music after he died at the age of 49.

1Susan Curtis, “Joplin, Scott (1868-1917),” in Tom and Sara Pendergast, eds., Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, vol. 3 (Farmington Hills, MI: St. James Press, 2000), p. 567.

Consider the following as you read the biography of Scott Joplin:
  1. Describe how Scott Joplin learned to play the piano and read music.
  2. How did Joplin earn a living as he struggled to compose music?
  3. Joplin experienced popularity with his ragtime sheet music. Why do you think he wanted to incorporate his style into a ballet or an opera?

Jazz in America Student Handout--Lesson Plan IV--Jazz Biography 2

Sidney Bechet, jazz clarinetist and soprano saxophonist (1897-1959)
Biography: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidney_Bechet

Sidney Bechet was born in 1897 in New Orleans to a Creole mother and a father whose parents had been slaves. Bechet’s father, Omar, was a shoemaker and earned enough money to buy musical instruments for Bechet and his four older brothers. As a young boy, Bechet learned to play the clarinet by listening to others, and his musical abilities soon became apparent. Because he could “play by ear,” Bechet resisted music lessons that stressed reading “one note” at a time. Jazz, parade, and dance-hall music attracted Bechet and, by the age of 15, he was playing with some of the city’s early jazz bands. Like many other black southerners, Bechet migrated in 1918 to Chicago, where he joined Benny Peyton’s concert band as the featured clarinetist.

After a musical tour of Europe, Bechet moved in 1923 to Harlem during the “Harlem Renaissance.” He played clarinet with many groups, including a stint with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, before opening his own club (Club Basha) in 1925. He gave up his club after two years, toured briefly in Europe, and returned to New York, changing bands frequently. At various times, especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Bechet took other jobs to make ends meet. His financial situation improved in the 1940s, however, and Bechet gave musical performances on the radio. During the last 10 years of his life, Bechet lived in Paris, where he continued to perform.

Consider the following questions as you read the biography of Sidney Bechet:
  1. Like many jazz musicians, Sidney Bechet taught himself to play an instrument. Was Bechet’s music different because he taught himself? Explain.
  2. Duke Ellington said of Bechet: “Everything he played in his whole life was completely original.” What does it mean to be original? What factors in Bechet’s life made him original?
  3. Bechet moved many times and changed bands frequently. Did this constant movement affect his musical career? Explain.

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