Before jazz, Black people drummed and danced in New Orleans’ Congo SquareJuly 15, 2022
The foremost authority on Congo Square today is Freddi Williams Evans. She’s not only an author and historian, she’s an activist in the battle to preserve New Orleans’ unique cultural heritage. She wrote a great Congo Square story for 64 Parishes in 2018.
Congo Square, now Armstrong Park in New Orleans’s Treme neighborhood, served as a gathering ground for Africans in the early years of the city.
Congo Square is a public plot of land located in New Orleans on North Rampart Street between St. Ann and St. Peter Streets. In the nineteenth century, it served as a gathering place for Africans, most of them enslaved, where traditional music, dance, and cuisine of the mother continent could be openly enjoyed. Unique in the antebellum South, Congo Square’s cultural milieu has led many scholars to believe it was the very ground that ultimately gave birth to New Orleans jazz. At present, it is situated in the southwest corner of the Louis Armstrong Park located in the Tremé neighborhood, the oldest African American neighborhood in New Orleans. Today’s Congo Square encompasses 2.35 acres, approximately one-half the measurement that existed during the nineteenth century, when its most celebrated events took place.
This public space holds a long and diverse history under French, Spanish, and American rule that includes recreational, religious, military, cultural, and political events involving diverse groups of people. However, it was the gatherings of enslaved Africans on Sunday afternoons and the influence of their traditional practices on popular culture that made Congo Square known around the world. This location hosted public performances of African and African-based music, song, and dance over a longer period of time and at later dates than any other public location in North America
The influence of those African cultural practices (rhythmic cells, songs, music, dances, religious belief systems, marketing, and cuisine) on the culture of New Orleans is significant. The rhythms and variations played in Congo Square are found at the core of early New Orleans jazz compositions and became an integral part of indigenous New Orleans music. They are still heard in second line and parade beats, the music and songs of Mardi Gras Indians, and the music of brass bands that play for jazz funerals and black social aid and pleasure club parades.
Williams Evans’ 2011 book, Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans, is available from UL Press.
If you have some time, this 40-minute lecture she gave in Berlin back in 2018 contains a wealth of information about not only Congo Square, but the history of NOLA.
Here’s how the lecture was promoted at the time:
It has been called the Ground zero for African American music culture: The Congo Square in New Orleans is where in the 18th and 19th century enslaved as well as freed Africans and their descendants gathered every Sunday to speak and sing in their native languages, practice their religious beliefs, dance according to their traditions and play African-derived rhythms on instruments modeled after African prototypes. While creolized and European styles of music and dance were appropriated, too, the determined will to perpetuate their African cultural heritage in the “New World” was essential for its survival and for establishing a collective cultural self-understanding. In having a decisive influence in the origins of Jazz and other African American musical styles, the performance, preservation, and hybridization of African-derived practices in Congo Square has been ground-breaking for modern American culture.
Congo Square has been immortalized by numerous NOLA musicians over the years, none more beloved than New Orleans’ own Neville Brothers, heard here performing “Congo Square” live on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1994.
The son of another famed New Orleans music family, Wynton Marsalis, offered a tribute of his own in 2006. As Marsalis notes in the YouTube upload below, Congo Square is “a ground-breaking new work written by Wynton Marsalis with Ghanaian drum master Yacub Addy.” The composition “debuted in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in the spring of 2006 before a wildly enthusiastic audience in Congo Square (inside Louis Armstrong Park).”
Here’s most of the performance of Congo Square in Montreal.
Another son of New Orleans is jazz trumpeter Terrence Blanchard.
Born in New Orleans in 1962, Blanchard began playing piano at the age of 5. He added trumpet three years later. In summer music camps, he became friends with Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis. After a teenage stint touring with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, in 1982 Wynton recommended him to take his place in Art Blakley’s Jazz Messengers. Blanchard joined and served until 1986 as the band’s music director—the same role Shorter, the band’s primary composer, filled from 1959-1963. “With Art, we played all of Wayne’s tunes and we loved them,” says Blanchard. “Oh my God, his music was amazing. He and Thelonious Monk set the table for me for composition.” That fit with Blakley who wanted his band members to write new music to keep the band fresh. Blanchard estimates that he wrote between five and ten tunes for the band—some of which were never played or recorded.
While Blanchard continued to be a Jazz Messenger until 1990, he and fellow band member Donald Harrison formed a quintet that recorded seven albums for different labels. Blanchard began his solo career at CBS Records with his 1991 eponymous album. At the same time, he began working with Spike Lee, first performing on the soundtracks to Do the Right Thing and Mo’ Better Blues. Blanchard’s score for Jungle Fever in 1991 marked the beginning of the long-standing collaboration. Blanchard was nominated for a best score Oscar for Lee’s 2018 film BlacKkKlansman and 2020’s Da 5 Bloods. He became the second African-American composers nominated twice in the category—duplicating Quincy Jones’ honors for In Cold Blood in 1967 and The Color Purple in 1985. While Blanchard says he and Lee have lost count of how many projects they’ve worked on together, it’s estimated to be in the range of twenty, including 17 films and three television projects. Highlights include 1992’s Malcolm X and the 2006 Hurricane Katrina documentary film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.
In 2007, Blanchard produced an album, which grew out of the score for Spike Lee’s aforementioned Katrina documentary. As JazzWise reviewer Kevin Le Gendre, says of that album, Tale of God’s Will (a requiem for katrina):
This is a strong statement about a natural disaster that was turned into a tragedy by racism and incompetence. Blanchard’s requiem shows what else man is capable of. An album of sombre beauty that exudes raw, stark emotion.
Here is Blanchard’s tribute to Congo Square from that album.
I hope that, if you ever find yourself in New Orleans, you stop by Congo Square. Hang out and check out the gathering of drummers. Activists in the community are fighting to preserve the space as sacred ground, which Delfeayo Marsalis discusses in this news report from December.
Join me in the comments for lots more music from NOLA, and be sure to share your favorites!