Beyond Urban Borders: Unveiling New Discussions on the Rural Jazz Narrative in the River Road Region

By Joyce M. Jackson



Within the last fifteen years, there has been an enormous amount of attention paid to jazz, in part because of congressional legislation, the National Jazz Historic Park, the Louis Armstrong centennial, the Ken Burns' jazz documentary series, and the Lincoln Center in New York City elevating "jazz to the same level as opera, ballet and symphony" (Nathan Leventhal, quoted in Pareles 1991a). It just so happened that the handpicked artistic director of the Lincoln Center is Grammy Award recipient, Pulitzer Prize winner, and New Orleans native son Wynton Marsalis. In almost two decades as director, Marsalis has been able, by way of performances and lectures, to direct the attention of musicians, music critics, and jazz enthusiasts and aficionados back to the "improvised polyphony of traditional New Orleans jazz" (Pareles 1991b).

This elevated showcase has created new audiences for recordings and live performances of the music of New Orleans's legendary musicians, including Jelly Roll Morton, Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Sidney Bechet. It has also helped the careers of many younger New Orleans musicians such as Donald Harrison, Jr., Marlon Jordon, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, and Dr. Michael White, all of whose New York concerts are well attended and favorably reviewed. They have been viewed as "young saviors of old jazz" (Hentoff 1991:A5).

This music that acts as a magnet, drawing visitors to New Orleans from around the world, owes its origins and development to many sources. The blending of African rhythms, spirituals, blues, and ragtime, coupled with the introduction of European musical instruments, marches, quadrilles, and waltzes, resulted in the creation of jazz in New Orleans. The Crescent City, with its appreciation for French opera and other classical music, mixed with the African and Creole love for rhythm, dance, and improvisation, was a natural setting for the birth of jazz.

Many popular and scholarly books, dissertations, and articles attempt to explain the origins of New Orleans traditional jazz, but very few have tackled a discussion of the role of specific communities, teachers, and mentors. Al Kennedy's book Chord Changes on the Chalkboard: How Public School Teachers Shaped Jazz and the Music of New Orleans (2002) is an exception; it is a notable study of how public school teachers and other neighborhood mentors have played a significant role in molding the music scene in New Orleans. Ellis L. Marsalis, Jr., Professor Emeritus and former director of Jazz Studies at the University of New Orleans wrote in the foreword, "…when chronicling the historical significance of Jazz in the first half of the twentieth century, the stories in Kennedy's book were either overlooked or purposely ignored. This makes the book indispensable to the serious historian when telling the story of New Orleans and its relationship to Jazz music" (2002: xii).

The majority of Kennedy's work focuses on Orleans Parish and is a welcome addition to the literature. Looking beyond Orleans Parish's urban borders, however, there is little literature on rural people and communities who aided the development and nourished the growth of traditional New Orleans jazz. If noted at all, their contributions have generally been regarded as a peripheral matter, relegated to an occasional line, a paragraph or two, or a footnote. For instance, four chapters in Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz by Twelve of the World's Foremost Jazz Critics and Scholars (edited by Nat Hentoff and Albert J. McCarthy) focus on New Orleans jazz, but only one author, Frederick Ramsey, Jr., briefly addresses the rural scene (specifically, country brass bands producing the recording Music From the South, Vol. 1: Country Brass Bands).

Traditional Jazz Sites in Ascension Parish.

In this essay, I argue that music teachers and mentors in rural communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries deserve a more prominent place in traditional jazz music history. They are the reasons why many traditional jazz musicians became prominent players on the jazz scene in New Orleans and subsequently in other jazzscapes. All the attention (particularly in the last 15 years) and research on traditional jazz has rarely attempted to place the music within the general context of its cultural communities. I also introduce readers to the Rural Jazz Roots Project, an ongoing initiative to chronicle how rural communities have been a key thread in the tapestry of early jazz culture, and remain so, to a certain extent, even today. This thread is woven through many lives and places, helping to build a tradition that joins a powerful memory with a spirit of energetic and creative innovation.

The shape of jazz was partially determined by the places, structurally and geographically, where it was created and performed. Jazz musicians are significantly affected by their environment and society. Their ethnographic narratives and oral histories often reveal significant vignettes detailing their early life experiences, education, spiritual life, and personal beliefs, which illuminate the special role that their community played in their early years.

When we think of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, we typically conjure up a musical montage of brass bands playing at pavilions in parks for picnics, games, and political rallies; street parades with the brass bands leading the way; Carnival parades with brass bands; a band riding through town in a horse-drawn wagon advertising a dance; and funeral processions with the band playing dirges such as "Nearer My God to Thee" or "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" on the way to the cemetery, followed by livelier songs such as "When the Saints Go Marching In" or "Didn't He Ramble" after "cutting the body loose. "

Many of these same music-centered events also took place in some of the rural parishes surrounding New Orleans. Ike Robinson, a trombonist born near Thibodaux in Lafourche Parish in 1891, began playing trombone there during World War I. He described playing at Thibodaux's Fairground Pavilion, at the local Odd Fellows parade, and at two jazz funerals before he moved to New Orleans. He also mentioned that the Eureka Brass Band of Thibodaux played at local Carnival parade. Usually the Carnival parade featured about five or six floats and two bands, one from Thibodaux and the other from Donaldsonville. Claiborne Williams also organized the first Mardi Gras parade in Donaldsonville, in Ascension Parish, in 1907. There are many examples of these events, described by other musicians born in other parishes.

In an interview, musician Ernie "Maestro" Dent from Reserve recalled that there were several benevolent societies in the Reserve area, and they used to "have a "turn out" and hold parades. They would parade to their hall, where they had a dance, and these parades "would always have a brass band" (Dent 1999).

While conducting ethnographic interviews in the River Road region, I was invited by several consultants to attend the Mother's Day parade. This annual affair, which starts in Hahnville in St. Charles Parish, takes place on the Mississippi River Road after Sunday church services have ended. The event organizers still hire a brass band to play and lead the procession with the church auxiliaries, Masonic Lodges, and Eastern Stars.

Constitution and By-Laws of True Friends

The year I attended, the parade procession stretched for more than a mile up the River Road. The women were mostly in white suits and the men in black, but all had their diverse array of regalia such as hats, sashes, and flags. Most participants walked, but some were in cars and some rode horses. After the parade disbanded, many of the families had picnics and cookouts at their homes. I was told that this tradition had been going on since the early 20th century. From these brief examples, we can see that much like New Orleans, there was quite a bit of musical activity happening in the rural areas, and some continues today.

Jazz history follows models set by the historical investigation of other arts, and its primary purpose has been the identification of significant figures and works, thus facilitating the construction of a canon and standards of taste for judging future works. Numerous textbooks, recorded anthologies, and concert programs assume the basic unity and universality of the music: the jazz narrative traces a "natural" stylistic evolution, guided by a select number of "geniuses" that captivated the world with the sounds they produced. Such approaches have conferred aesthetic respectability and a sense of national accomplishment to the idiom, but too often at the expense of the rich social experiences and cultural traditions that concurrently shaped and were shaped by the music.

In the four decades since Amiri Baraka's essay "Jazz and the White Critic" chastised jazz writers and scholars for assuming the music's aesthetic autonomy, and thus ignoring the social contexts in which the music was created, there have been sporadic calls for revisions in jazz studies' methodology. Historians and sociologists of jazz have been admonished to scrutinize the music's mythologies rather than repeat them, to expand their source base beyond "seminal" recordings, to trade papers and oral histories, and even to pay attention to "local jazz scenes. " Such calls for methodological eclecticism and demystification have led to a number of important studies which have been particularly instructive on social receptions of jazz, musical communities, cultural and musical hybridity, and the improvisational process. However, these innovations are only beginning to dislodge prevailing practices and perspectives that privilege canon building and national mythmaking.

Beyond Urban Borders: The Rural Jazz Roots Project

Notably absent from such reform efforts are exhortations for the systematic investigation of a world of jazz activity beyond urban borders. With a handful of exceptions, jazz studies have consistently failed to look in rural areas to add to the narrative. The Rural Jazz Roots Project was conceived and implemented to address this deficiency in jazz literature by gathering primary and secondary sources, and conducting ethnographic and oral history interviews. 1 These diverse sources point not only to the global impact of traditional jazz, but also to the variety of local rural responses it elicited, and the significant cultural and ritualistic aspects to which it has been subjected in these areas. This research, most of which is now completed, testifies to the need for expanding the geo-cultural setting of the jazz ethnographic and historical narrative, thus reshaping our notions of where the music came from, who created it, and how it functioned in these rural societies. This project also demonstrates that people in these rural areas have been actively constructing their own systems for performing, understanding, and evaluating jazz.

All the attention and research on traditional jazz has rarely attempted to place the music within the general context of its cultural community. This project, however, uses a multidisciplinary approach to examine the influences of rural and coastal musical traditions on the development of traditional jazz.

Most published works and presentations have focused on "the holy city of jazz, " or the "Jazz Mecca"--New Orleans. Only a few authors have addressed other geographical areas in Louisiana that contributed to traditional jazz. One of these is Austin Sonnier Jr., whose books Second Linin': Jazzmen of Southwest Louisiana, 1900-1950 and Willie Geary "Bunk" Johnson: The New Iberia Years are based on his very timely ethnographic research in the southwest region of the state. In the 1970s and 1980s, Sonnier had the foresight to interview many of these musicians, most now deceased. Karl Koenig's unpublished monographs "The Mother of All Jazz Waters: Lake Pontchartrain" and "The Musical History of Donaldsonville and Claiborne Williams, 1868-1952" were compiled from years of library research and examining various local newspapers for relevant information on the jazz musicians and their bands. However, there remain large gaps in the literature. In the Rural Roots of Jazz Project, we have viewed jazz beyond urban borders and expanded the geo-cultural setting of the jazz ethnographic and historical narrative. This approach is helping to reshape notions of where the music came from, who created it, and how it functioned in these rural areas.

Jazz in south Louisiana was born from a combination of music traditions: blues, ragtime, and sacred music which developed at the turn of the century. Between 1890 and World War II, south Louisiana produced a large number of world-renowned jazz musicians, and provided opportunities and locations for jazz to grow and develop. However, many of these musicians began to nurture their musical interest and talent at home in the rural areas before going to New Orleans. Some very notable musicians traveled outside their home areas for jobs, while remaining based at home; they were very influential in expanding the music scene, and in teaching and mentoring other musicians in their communities. Geography and demography combined to make south Louisiana a cultural crossroads of musical activity; however, the route has many untold stories. For every well-known musician and band, there were dozens, especially in rural areas, who were not well known.

Early traditional jazz was not just the product of individuals but also of communities-groups of people living and working in specific circumstances and environs. The Rural Jazz Roots Project has endeavored to document and celebrate these musicians, along with the neighborhoods that nourished them. It examines the musicians, the music, and the communities' development, influence, and impact on the traditional jazz phenomena. The project combines existing primary and secondary resources, older and current ethnographic and oral history interviews, and computer mapping to present another view of musicians and musical activity in the communities, urban and rural, that helped to create New Orleans traditional jazz.

One of the project's most significant goals has been to invest in programs that enhance the cultural life of communities. Of all the areas of African-American expressive community culture, music has been most vital to its maintenance through a wide variety of functions and events, both sacred and secular-dances, balls, parades, picnics, funerals, church services, campaign rallies, and other gatherings. From its inception, the Jazz Roots project's goals have included documenting the role of rural and coastal south Louisiana jazzmen and their communities as integral components in the evolution and development of traditional jazz; providing data to instructors and communities so they can promote and showcase their own heritage through public school education, public performances and gatherings, folk festivals, exhibits, workshops or forums, and rural and heritage tourism; promoting public knowledge and appreciation of the significance and lasting impact of the people and musical activity in these communities; and creating permanent records of these artists and their communities in various formats that have wide accessibility to regional, national and international audiences.

Towards these goals, the Rural Jazz Roots Project has interviewed people from all walks of life and various levels of participation in music events, including musicians, dancers, and non-performing participants. The Vacherie Brass Band, one of the old River Road bands in St. James Parish, provides a good example. Formed by Septine Zenon around 1912, the Vacherie band was a very popular community band, never traveling very far from home or making any recordings. However, for this community they were very significant. Not only did they play at clubs and dance halls like Friends of Hope Benevolent Association Hall, they also played for church picnics, softball games, and benevolent society and Masonic lodge parades on the River Road. Leona Zenon was a vocalist with the band in her early teens. When I interviewed her at age 87, she was still living on the River Road, recalling the musicians she performed with and the community events they performed for. She even sang one of her songs for me during our interview.

Similarly, in the southwest town of Parks in Iberia Parish, Harold Portier, trumpet player and sculptor, was still trying to "hit a few notes" on his horn for me as he approached his 87th birthday. He played with the Banner Orchestra, led by Gustave Fontenette, in New Iberia in the 1930s. It was the same orchestra William "Bunk" Johnson played in during the 1920s after he decided to make New Iberia his permanent residence, while continuing his illustrious career. This area was a hotbed of jazz musicians during the 1920s and '30s. The Banner Orchestra was one of the most important and well-known jazz bands by the end of the decade. Many of these musicians not only played jazz but various other styles of music, including sacred music, quadrilles, blues and ragtime. They traveled extensively outside of the region, but decided to remain based in New Iberia.

The fact that the Banner Orchestra, like other rural bands, did not record their music presented a dilemma in documenting their importance. This case demonstrates the need for researchers to visit these communities to acquire information, to actually see and talk to people, to conduct research in the community library, courthouse and other depositories, and essentially to contextualize the space and region. There are other similar examples, and a number of elderly musicians (most in their 80s) have been interviewed. Some have passed on and others are still sharing their invaluable experiences. Among the many interviewed are Harold Portier, Mercedes Portier, Theophile Thibodeaux, Hypolite Charles, Leona "Mom" Zenon, Morris Dauphine, Joyce Robinski, Theophile Thibodeaux, and Joseph "Prez" Geraud.

Jazzscapes and Geomusicology

Over the past thirty years, music geography has become a legitimate and respected subfield of cultural geography. Geographers studying music as a cultural expression have long recognized that music provides innovative ways to explore ideas such as sense of place, perception of environment, and location (Carney 1993). Therefore, the jazz project uses computer mapping of relevant sites to link geographical data with musical tables, personnel charts, reports, and other textual data. These links reveal frequently traveled performance routes, processes of style diffusion, migration patterns, and jazz excursions, allowing us to better understand how musicians and their communities responded to environmental and geographical changes thrust upon them. The result is an integrated information resource on rural communities that had a certain level of early jazz activity. On a broader level, computer mapping demonstrates to what extent a region may have exerted an influence on the early development of jazz.

The geographic range of the project encompasses eighteen south Louisiana parishes, including the twelve River Road parishes comprising the Lower Mississippi River Delta Heritage Corridors between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, on both sides of the Mississippi River; two Lake parishes on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain; and four southwest parishes near the Atchafalaya Basin, in the area known as Acadiana. These areas are nationally recognized as containing significant endangered heritage resources, and are components of federal legislation (for example, the California Desert Protection Act of 1994) that has established the Lower Mississippi Delta Region Initiatives (Title XI).

Electronic Resources

Drawing on completed research, the Roots of Jazz Project is in the process of developing an interactive, electronic information resource, an important step in the management and conservation of resources associated with areas of national significance. These electronic technologies can be used for community development, education, and preservation in the rural and coastal zones of south Louisiana.

Specific features of the digital media component include a searchable database of facts about key people and places, an interactive mapping feature, a photo gallery, a virtual scrapbook, and a timeline of the development of jazz. Also included are sound clips of performances and interviews. The interactive mapping feature enables the user to create maps depicting musicians' birthplaces, performance venues, and other sites important to the development of traditional jazz. The photo gallery consists not only of pictures of musician and the places they lived and performed, but examples of their music. Another component features sound clips of selected performances, studio recordings, and interview, and the virtual scrapbook includes letters, handbills, contracts, newspaper clippings and other items. A timeline includes the births, deaths, and major events in the lives of early jazz musicians and other key people, and a narrative feature offers an overview and interpretation of cultural history. Additional resources include a list of other sources of information on traditional jazz, such as bibliographies, films, and so on. A DVD-ROM, now in pre-production, includes interview excerpts from artists and other participants, photographs, musical sound bites and vintage film clips.2

This project is of great interest and educational value to a wide regional audience, many of whom are members of the communities being investigated. Communities can use the information in a variety of ways, and I have already produced several public programs featuring local musicians in their respective communities. Through these resources, musicians, students, scholars, educators, and traditional jazz aficionados will also appreciate the contributions made by these musical pioneers.

The project resources will also have mass audience appeal to the general public outside of the region.

In addition, the Rural Jazz Roots Project addresses the need for multicultural curriculum resources on a local and national level. The scarcity of publications on current approaches to traditional music education has been particularly problematic in the changing landscape of educational reform. Folklorists and folk artist who work with schools have had few print or online resources to offer teachers, especially ones that make a compelling case for folk arts education using language relevant to the concerns of contemporary educators. In response to this gap, we will soon offer a curriculum guide on traditional jazz, accompanied by a CD with musical examples. This will not only fulfill curriculum goals, but foster student participation and exploration of subjects relating directly to their own communities and experiences, because it focuses on the importance of family and community, and the transmission of traditional arts from one generation to another. The CD, also now in pre-production, will be distributed to libraries, schools, museums, and the general public through catalogs, brochures and the Internet, making the project accessible to the broadest possible audience and offering forums through which this music, and the music-makers, can have an impact once again.


Notably absent from such reform efforts are exhortations for the systematic investigation of a world of jazz activity beyond urban borders. With a handful of exceptions, jazz historiography has consistently failed to look in rural areas to add to the narrative. It has been the purpose of the Rural Jazz Roots Project to address this deficiency in jazz literature by gathering primary and secondary sources, conducting ethnographic fieldwork, and collecting oral histories that point not only to the global impact of traditional jazz, but also to the variety of local rural responses it elicited, and the significant alterations to which it has been subjected to in these areas. This ongoing research testifies to the need for expanding the geo-cultural setting of the jazz historical narrative, thus helping to reshape our notions of where the music came from, who created it, what it means, and how it functioned in society. As this study demonstrates, people in these rural areas have long been actively constructing their own systems for performing, understanding, evaluating, and discussing jazz.


I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Austin Sonnier, Jr., professional musician, composer and independent scholar; Charles Flanagan, Ph.D., Geographical Information System Specialist; Z öe Morris, and Mariam Huett, both Ph.D. candidates and graduate research assistants and Randy Feauchaux, graduate research assistant.

1. This project would not have been possible without grant funding from a number of agencies. We are grateful to the Louisiana Division of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Inc. (the Grammy Foundation), the Louisiana State University Board of Regents' Awards to Louisiana Artists and Scholars (ATLAS) program, and the LSU Seagrant Program for their generous support.

2. The DVD-Rom and CD are currently awaiting music copyright releases and packaging.


Baraka, Amiri. 1960. "Jazz and the White Critic. " Black Music. New York: Morrow Publishing.

Carney, George. 1994. The Sounds of People and Places: A Geography of American Folk and Popular Music. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Dent, Ernie "Maestro. " Interview with author. 10 October, 1999.

Hentoff, Nat. 1991. Young Saviors of Old Jazz. Wall Street Journal, 4 January 1991: Section A. p.5.

Hentoff, Nat and Albert J. McCarthy. 1959. Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz by Twelve of the World's Foremost Jazz Critics and Scholars. New York: Da Capo Press.

Kennedy, Al. 2002. Chord Changes on the Chalkboard: How Public School Teachers Shaped Jazz and the Music of New Orleans. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press.

Koenig, Karl. n.d. "The Mother of All Jazz Waters: Lake Pontchartrain, " Unpublished monograph.

_____. n.d. "The Musical History of Donaldsonville and Claiborne Williams, 1868-1952, " Unpublished monograph.

Marsalis, Smithsonian Folkways. Music From the South, Vol. 1: Country Brass Bands. Folkways recording FA 2650.

Pareles, Jon. 1991a. Lincoln Center is Adding Jazz to Its Repertory. New York Times 10 June 1991.

_____. 1991b. Jazz Festival: Young Musicians Find a Future in the Past. New York Times 24 June 1991.

Sonnier, Austin M., Jr. 1989. Second Linin': Jazzmen of Southwest Louisiana, 1900-1950. Louisiana Life Series, No. 3. Lafayette, LA: University of Southwestern Louisiana.

_____. 1977. Willie Geary "Bunk" Johnson: The New Iberia Years. York, NY: Crescendo Publications.

Joyce Marie Jackson is a folklorist in the Louisiana State University Department of Geography and Anthropology. This article was first published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 21, 2011.