black history: congo square, new orleans – the heart of american music

February 26, 2018
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By Nick Douglas*, AFROPUNK contributor

On the 300th Anniversary of the founding of New Orleans all American musicians owe a debt to a national treasure: Congo Square. When Wynton Marsalis said “Every strand of American music comes directly from Congo Square,” he couldn’t have been more correct. Congo Square began to grow into the literal heart of the musical community in New Orleans from the very founding of the city three-hundred years ago.

In 1724 the French implemented “Code Noir” in the Louisiana Territory which gave enslaved people Sunday as a “day of rest.” Enslaved people used this day to congregate in remote and public places. These gatherings included singing, dancing and religious ceremonies including voodoo dancing and vocalizations. Spanish rule of Louisiana from 1763 to 1802 relaxed Code Noir and allowed enslaved people to set up markets, sell food, and exchange hand made goods, which many enslaved people used as an opportunity to earn enough money to buy their own freedom. A process called coártacion, which established a court-arbitrated and legally binding price for a slave’s freedom, allowed slave entrepreneurs to buy their freedom and the freedom of family members.

Congo Square Dancers

While Protestant colonies and states suppressed African language, music and traditions, Louisiana Creoles (descendants of the colonial inhabitants of Louisiana) were not as stringent about forcing Africans to assimilate. So they didn’t. African food, language, traditions, religions, music and homemade musical instruments survived in Louisiana (like almost nowhere else in the U.S.). In the early 1800s the city had its population double as whites, free people of color and the slaves they forced to accompany them fled the Haitian Revolution, some via exile in Cuba. This influx brought more African, French and Caribbean musical influences into the city.

It was not until 1817 that the mayor of New Orleans issued a city ordinance restricting the congregation of enslaved people to the back of town. This open area just outside of the city on Rampart Street became known as Congo Square. At times as many as 600 slaves and free people of color congregated in Congo Square, something unheard of in the rest of the U.S. Congo Square became famous with visitors to the city for the African dancing and music. As the city of New Orleans grew around it, Congo Square, once located at the back of town, became the center of the French Quarter. The Sunday dancing and music was heard throughout the French Quarter from the early 1800s until 1838, influencing generations of musicians who lived around it. Congo Square became the musical heart of New Orleans.

Congo Square

Free people of color in New Orleans produced generations of musicians and musical families. These families lived around Congo Square and contributed their energy and vigor to the heartbeat of the musical tradition forming in New Orleans. While many musicians learned classical music, these same musicians were influenced by the rhythms and music they heard each Sunday coming from Congo Square.

If Congo Square was the musical heart of the city, then the Mississippi River was an artery that carried New Orleans’ music and musical innovation throughout the country. Congo Square’s musical influence flowed through the Mississippi’s tributaries to musical cities from Memphis to St. Louis, from Kentucky to Minnesota, and Chicago to Pittsburgh.

And the music of New Orleans influenced those who flowed into the city from every state in the U.S., from Kentucky boatmen like Abraham Lincoln to sailors on New England whalers. These visitors took the music and the experiences of New Orleans and Congo Square back home with them.

New Orleans’ port served as a part of the triangle of trade between Mexico, Haiti, and Cuba. This trade route carried more than goods and services. For hundreds of years this ancient trade triangle carried people, culture, music and musicians, lengthening the reach and influence of Congo Square’s music.

After 1840, in the lead-up to the Civil War, legislators severely restricted congregations of slaves and free people of color, activities on Sundays in Congo Square disappeared. But the musical traditions of New Orleans and its musicians and musical families continued. New Orleans free people of color formed social clubs and musical clubs in different halls and meeting places throughout the city, moving indoors, beyond the scrutiny of white authority. Some of these venues became synonymous with jazz music, like Preservation Hall and Economy Hall. Also during the 1850s New Orleans had a world-famous Opera House, so the musicians of New Orleans absorbed opera music into the mix that was the music of the city.

Jeanne Franko, no string virtuoso

When New Orleans was captured by the Union Army in 1862, General Butler, the military commander in charge of New Orleans, enforced the rights of free people of color. This helped the city’s musical tradition to carry on and grow following the Civil War. During the relative freedom of Reconstruction in the late 1860s and 1870s some of the first brass bands were formed. By the 1880s the Congo Square became popular again as Creoles of color brass bands used the site for concerts and performances. In 1893, in an attempt to reinforce white supremacy, Congo Square was renamed Beauregard Square, after Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard, but most people continued to call it Congo Square.

At the beginning of the 1910s these brass bands were playing jazz, and the musicians from New Orleans were moving on the arteries of the Mississippi to cities throughout the U.S. By the 1920s musicians like Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory were known as far away as New York, and New Orleans musicians began to tour the country, spreading the American art form we call jazz. During the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s New Orleans musicians like Sidney Bechet moved to Europe to capitalize on the popularity of the new American art form. And visitors from all over the world began to hear and imitate the music they heard in New Orleans.

As in other cities with large of color populations, efforts were made in New Orleans to disrupt the spaces used by people of color. Buildings were constructed near Congo Square in the 1920s, and urban renewal occurred in the Tremé neighborhood in 1960s. But in 1970 Congo Square became the venue for the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (It later outgrew the venue.) Finally in 2011 a city ordinance officially renamed the site Congo Square, acknowledging the site’s importance in the birth of jazz as an American art form.

The names of the musicians that flowed out New Orleans are the who’s who of American music. Louis Armstrong, Barney Bigard, Sidney Bechet, Johnny Dodds, Louis and Lorenzo Tio, Jimmy Durante, Pete Fontaine, Johnny St. Cyr, Alphonse Picou, Armand Piron, Fats Domino, Jelly Roll Morton and more recently the Marsalis brothers, Neville Brothers, Nicholas Payton and Henry Connick Jr. are just a few of the jazz musicians, to go along with classical musicians like Edmund Dede and Louis Gottschalk, and rap musicians Lil Wayne and Master P are just two rap musicians who have called New Orleans home.

Slave women and later free women of color have too often been ignored for their contribution to jazz. Women held powerful position in the voodoo religion and in Louisiana society and were at the heart of the music and dancing in Congo Square. Later female musicians like Manela Hewitt, Lil Hardin (who married Louis Armstrong), “Sweet” Emma Barrett and Annie Pavageau, to name just a few were some of the talented musicians and singers who have been influenced by Congo Square while growing up in New Orleans.

Musicians after Katrina

All of these musicians were influenced by the musical heart of New Orleans: Congo Square. And musicians of every genre from blues and bluegrass to rock and roll and rap were nourished by the life blood of American music that flowed out of New Orleans. This year as we celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans let’s keep in mind the monumental contribution of Congo Square to every type of music we have here in the U.S.

*Nick Douglas is the author of: Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana and Reclaiming Black History: Finding Admirable Ancestors, a Wealth of Heroism and Traits that Shatter Defeatist Clichés