Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans

Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans

Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans

Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans


Subversive Sounds probes New Orleans's history, uncovering a web of racial interconnections and animosities that was instrumental to the creation of a vital American art form- jazz. Drawing on oral histories, police reports, newspaper accounts, and vintage recordings, Charles Hersch brings to vivid life the neighborhoods and nightspots where jazz was born.

This volume shows how musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton, Nick La Rocca, and Louis Armstrong negotiated New Orleans's complex racial rules to pursue their craft and how, in order to widen their audiences, they became fluent in a variety of musical traditions from diverse ethnic sources. These encounters with other music and races subverted their own racial identities and changed the way they played- a musical miscegenation that, in the shadow of Jim Crow, undermined the pursuit of racial purity and indelibly transformed American culture.

"More than timely... Hersch orchestrates voices of musicians on both sides of the racial divide in underscoring how porous the music made the boundaries of race and class."- New Orleans Times-Picayune


In New Orleans, on a summer's day in 1892, a shoemaker boarded a “white” railroad car and was arrested. Four years later, the United States Supreme Court took up the case of this man, Homer Plessy, described in the opinion of the Court as “a citizen of the United States and a resident of the state of Louisiana, of mixed descent, in proportion of seveneighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood [such] that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him.” in a landmark decision, the Court ruled against Plessy, placing a constitutional seal of approval on a series of Jim Crow laws meant to preserve the purity of the white race.

Plessy confronted racial purity spatially, as it were, by placing his “colored” body in a “white” space, threatening it with impurity. More fundamentally, he challenged racial purity through his very identity: though Plessy is remembered as a “black” man fighting for civil rights, he was in fact a Creole of Color, of French and African descent. He argued that since a conductor would not be able to tell that he was black, the classification into black and white train cars was unworkable. in making this argument, he called into question the binary division between the races that is still taken for granted by many today, challenging uniformity with multiplicity, purity with impurity.

New Orleans in the 1890s also saw the birth of a new music, designated “ratty” or, later, “jazz,” that was also viewed as a threat to racial purity. Early attacks on jazz centered on its association with African Americans and claimed the music would produce national impurity and degeneration. As early as 1890, the New Orleans Mascot criticized a “nigger . . .

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