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Book Review

Jazz À La Creole: French Creole Music and the Birth of Jazz

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Jazz À La Creole: French Creole Music and the Birth of Jazz
Caroline Vézina
236 Pages
ISBN: #9781496842428
University Press of Mississippi
2022

The term "creole" is one of those protean things whose meaning hinges on the context in which it is used. At the very least, it tends to suggest some degree of acculturation or multiple ethnic influence, sometimes biologically, sometimes not. Whatever the case, it is a problematic word and must be deployed with some caution. One of the distinct merits of Carolina Vézina's study of French creole music and the birth of jazz is precisely the nuance, care, and precision she brings, because it is scholarly, but never dull or pedantic. Students of early jazz will probably learn from it, and even those much less attuned to the music will find much to think about. Vézina makes it very clear that facile characterizations about the ethnic origins of jazz, one way or another, are simply not going to do. The subject is as complicated as the music itself. Nothing less than such a considered and careful account will do, and here, one thinks, we have at least the basis for it.

Anyone who has spent time working in the history of Louisiana will recognize that Vézina is a fellow traveler. When she mentions the Bringier family, one immediately knows she is referring to one of the most distinguished plantation families of the antebellum period. This alone supports the idea that the synthesis of race and class that produced early jazz was no simple thing. Later segregationists who tried to drive a wedge through the complex but permeable hierarchies that people of the time recognized have done a grave injustice not only to human beings, but to their history. The French Ursuline religious order was indeed very important in antebellum New Orleans society, but few will suspect that its musical contribution, which embraced both Black and White members, the sacred cantiques, "acted as dynamic points of contact where musical interchanges could spontaneously happen." These interchanges were not even necessarily conscious, as if historical actors whispered to each other, "We are contributing to the melodic or rhythmic basis of what will become jazz music." History, alas, is rarely that clear cut, whatever contemporary political imperatives might require. It is precisely in such a careful and cool examination of the music (her transcriptions in Appendix 5 permit a reader to sit at a piano and make his or her own explorations). Nothing, even music, speaks for itself, but the signal to noise ratio in Vézina's study is high indeed.

There are also relevant and informative pen and ink portraits of early jazz players, such as the Tío family, Kid Ory, Sidney Bechet, Lizzie Miles, and Jelly Roll Morton. Although brief, they are revealing, and looking at the dates of the Tío family, for example, does make you wonder how "Mexican" the influence of the Tíos might have been. They were of French Canadian, French, Spanish and African ancestry, and were among the first Free People of Color in Louisiana. It may be pleasant to think that the President of Mexico, Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) contributed substantially to the origins of jazz, but somehow, it seems doubtful, at least to judge by the Tío family. On the other hand, her chapter on Creole songs show they belong to Black American folk music as a stream that produced jazz via Danny Barker, Kid Ory, and Lizzie Miles, with the evidence in lyric and musical form all there.

There is a bibliography, index, and endnotes. Everything that should be in a model monograph plus photos are to be found in this excellent book.

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