If there ever was a shrine, a holy spot, for American music, it is Congo Square in the heart of New Orleans, in what’s now called Louis Armstrong Park, next to the French Quarter. Beginning in the late 18th century and continuing, with interruptions, until the Civil War, slaves gathered on Sunday afternoons in Congo Square. Elsewhere in the south, African culture was rigorously suppressed–the Protestant slave owners in other states maintained that ruthless suppression of African traditions was necessary in order to save their victims’ souls. But in Catholic Louisiana, black crowds in Congo Square spent each Sunday singing and playing and dancing to music from their ancestral lands.

Above all other places, then, Congo Square is where African musical traditions survived in the United States–in fact, free citizens continued the Sunday dances for some years after emancipation. And because African musics influenced African American musics, themselves the major force in 20th-century American music, Congo Square itself is arguably the most important symbol in our country’s musical history.

The park that encloses Congo Square, however, has now become a problem. Homeless people sleep there; in recent years violent crimes have occurred there. Proposals to develop the area have centered around its possibilities as a tourist attraction; the most prominent project would have remade the park into a replica of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. In the midst of Louisiana’s ongoing economic recession, the prospect of Danish investors developing the park, thereby saving New Orleans some much-needed money, seemed like manna from heaven. Fortunately, music lovers, neighborhood groups, and other organizations as diverse as Greenpeace and the Nation of Islam all fought the idea, and for now Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park remains a shrine, however decrepit.

Why was jazz born in New Orleans? Well, besides Congo Square, African American musicians had a long history in that most cosmopolitan of 19th-century American cities: their own symphony orchestra, dance music, parade music. Jazz historians often say that Confederate Army bands abandoned their instruments in New Orleans, and that the city’s French Opera musicians instructed African American musicians. As a seaport, New Orleans was open to Latin musics from across the Caribbean, and it also had a legal wide-open red-light district to service drunken sailors and other horny men. Folk music and low-life popular music had a vigorous life there. The first sprouts of jazz–syncopation, embellishing melody–had already appeared in American popular music in the latter part of the 19th century, and the prototypes of ragtime and blues were also available.

Jelly Roll Morton, in his 1938 Library of Congress interview-demonstrations, showed how ragtime, blues, French-Creole dance music, opera arias, folk and pop songs, marches, hymns, and tangos all were transformed into jazz in New Orleans. It’s probably true that jazz, in different forms, was played elsewhere at the turn of the 20th century, but New Orleans proved to be the music’s mainstream. New Orleans had the legendary players; the first recorded jazz was by a New Orleans band; the first genuinely great recorded jazz came from New Orleans musicians. And now the recordings that prove that a half dozen or so New Orleans artists are the greatest early-era jazz musicians, and among the greatest jazz musicians of all, are starting to appear on CD–fortunately, since phonographs are now going the way of Model T Fords.

Quite the best release of a New Orleans great on CD arrived recently in The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial: His Complete Victor Recordings (RCA Bluebird), a set of five CDs in two boxes. The music on the first two of these discs, by Morton’s 1926-27 Red Hot Peppers, has always been considered the climax of the New Orleans ecology, the most precious flowers to blossom from the early years of the art form. Morton was a fabulous character who’d been thrown out of his home at the age of 17 because his grandmother discovered he’d been playing piano in a whorehouse. He traveled the south and west in his earlier years, pimping, hustling pool, gambling, managing nightclubs, and performing as a vaudeville comedian (“he was as funny as a sick baby,” a friend said). He wore diamonds on his garters and had a diamond filling in a front tooth, and he claimed that he’d invented jazz in 1902. Maybe to lend verisimilitude to his bragging, he also claimed to have been born in 1885; not until recent years did a researcher discover that Morton was actually born in 1890–which is why this CD release is called The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial.

Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers were only a recording band. By 1923 Morton had landed in Chicago, and immediately made his first great recordings, a series of piano solos on original compositions. But he couldn’t break into the Chicago club scene; fortunately, the rest of the best New Orleans musicians had also gravitated to Chicago, and Morton had his pick of them for the Victor sessions. Those were the early years of electrical recording, and the Chicago Victor studios set a high standard of excellence–which was only appropriate for Morton’s wonderful bands.

What a range of music he recorded! The very first piece, from the very first session, “Black Bottom Stomp,” is pure excitement from bar one: the fire of George Mitchell’s cornet (he eats up the beat like a starving tiger) inspires an ensemble that exemplified for all time the term “hot jazz.” There are other hot performances here that are almost as perfect–“The Chant,” “Grandpa’s Spells,” “Doctor Jazz”–and there are also beautiful works, with a delicate beauty that would soon disappear almost entirely from American music. “Dead Man Blues” and “Sidewalk Blues,” with their clarinet trios, are prime examples of this special kind of beauty; other examples are Morton’s arialike piano in the midst of the heavy, slow “Smoke House Blues” and the most elegant blues minuet imaginable in “Cannon Ball Blues” (surely some PhD student somewhere will write a thesis about Chopin’s influence on jazz piano). “Original Jelly-Roll Blues,” the first song hit Morton composed, is another high point, because of Mitchell’s muted cornet, Omer Simeon’s clarinet, and Morton’s noble–that’s the only word for it–melodies.

This first band of Red Hot Peppers essentially used the traditional New Orleans ensemble setup: cornet lead melody, clarinet countermelody, trombone rhythmic punctuation and harmonic support, over a rhythm section. (This setup parallels, says curator Bruce Raeburn of New Orleans’ Hogan Jazz Archives, the makeup of Congo Square singers, with their lead voice and two answering voices, one male and one female.) As a composer, Morton constantly modified this prototypical straight-ahead ensemble by altering balance and density and adding duets and solos, breaks, stop time, codas, vamps–in fact, his pieces are packed with these small routines. He’d spent much of his pre-Chicago years playing ragtime, so many of his pieces are in the multiple-theme rag form. Unlike the Dixieland players, Morton wrote out his pieces and even much of his soloists’ music; since this reissue box includes plenty of alternate takes, you can hear that he is the only Red Hot Pepper to consistently improvise his solos.

Mitchell, who was the only non-New Orleans musician in the 1926 Peppers, was also the only one of Morton’s sidemen to remain in the 1927 Peppers. The close musical unity of the first band loosened somewhat in the second, for Morton added a third countermelody instrument, an alto sax, and now the great Johnny Dodds–a far more vivid player than Simeon–was Morton’s clarinetist. In perhaps the loveliest of all Morton compositions, “The Pearls,” the loveliest section is the duet chorus by Dodds and alto saxist Stump Evans. In fact these second Peppers played some of Morton’s most inspired orchestrations, including “Beale Street Blues” take two, in which composer W.C. Handy’s theme almost vanishes, “Jungle Blues,” and “Jungle Blues” take two, an almost-modal piece released 30 years before modes became a fad. Drummer Baby Dodds had a sensitivity to his own sound and others’ and a concept of playing “for the benefit of the band” that made him kin with modern drummers. The Dodds brothers join Morton for some trio pieces; their two versions of “Wolverine Blues” are as ripe in detail, swinging, and full of dense energy as the Red Hot Peppers works.

These Morton band recordings were popular ones, and when Morton left Chicago in 1928, he expected to take New York by acclamation. In fact, his first New York Peppers recording dates almost rival his Chicago works. Outstanding tracks were “Kansas City Stomps” and “Shoe Shiner’s Drag” (band versions of his early piano solos), the closely unified, funk-reeking “Boogaboo,” and the darkly colored “Deep Creek,” with lovely solos by soprano saxist Paul Barnes, Morton, and clarinetist Russell Procope. It was downhill for Morton after that. New York’s hepcats considered Morton’s music old-fashioned, and he had trouble getting able musicians to play with him. The newer, simpler, more “modern” tunes and arrangements he recorded are no match for his earlier compositions.

He believed, probably correctly, that New Orleans-bred musicians could play his music best; but unlike Chicago, New York wasn’t rich in such expatriate talent. His best New York recording band, playing some of his weakest material, was made up of ex-New Orleanian Luis Russell’s sidemen, players who would thrive during the swing era while Morton languished. It must have been galling to Morton that bands in top New York ballrooms were thrilling audiences with his “King Porter Stomp” while the composer himself gigged in dime-a-dance joints.

Not that his 1929-30 recordings were bad ones; they’re of some historical and musical interest, and Morton gathered some good players. But as the Depression sent everybody’s record sales plummeting, Victor cut Morton off. He was running an obscure dive in Washington, D.C. when, after some dogged self-promotion, he was called back in 1938 to record two more Victor sessions. This time he chose and arranged some outstanding old New Orleans songs, including “Winin’ Boy Blues” and “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say”; he also inspired some soaring soprano sax playing by Sidney Bechet. But the old New Orleans ensemble feeling was dissipating: swing was king, and these were Morton’s last Victors, recorded less than two years before his death.

Characters who are merely fabulous are usually forgotten quickly by history. Because of his musicianship, Morton is remembered, particularly for three great periods of his life: the 1923-24 piano solos, his 1938 Library of Congress recordings–the very best guide we have to just how jazz began–and most of all, his 1926-27 Red Hot Peppers. Because the sound quality of CD reissues in general has been highly variable, the best news here is that the engineers have done a glorious job on The Jelly Roll Morton Centennial; the music is more eloquent than ever. (True, they made one serious blunder by using the same take of “Original Jelly-Roll Blues” twice on one disc, the second time with one note edited out.) Other reviewers have griped about the sound quality, but I find the very faint background hiss in my pressing is no distraction from the wonderful music.

Unlike Morton, clarinetist Johnny Dodds was a success as a Chicago bandleader in the 1920s, and by now virtually all of his important works are on CD. Johnny Dodds/South Side Chicago Jazz (MCA) shows the most old-fashioned of the major jazz clarinetists in two very fine trio pieces, “New Saint Louis Blues” and “Clarinet Wobble” (which features uncharacteristic vaudeville barnyard effects). Among the other tracks are an odd 1927 Dodds session with sidemen Louis Armstrong, trumpet, and Earl Hines, piano, both sounding strangely subdued. These were the two who would soon utterly overthrow the New Orleans ensemble idiom, and in fact the Dodds session includes versions of “Melancholy” and Morton’s “Wild Man Blues” recorded a week before Armstrong’s history-making Hot Seven versions. RCA Bluebird’s new Johnny Dodds/Blue Clarinet Stomp, again with glorious digital reprocessing, includes two versions not only of the title piece but of “Heah’ Me Talkin”‘–some of his very best playing. Again, most of his musicians are from New Orleans; they include Baby Dodds, cornetist Natty Dominique, whose two-beat-styled phrasing adds a ragtime element to the music, and non-New Orleanian Lil Armstrong, Louis’s wife, originally from Memphis. Lil Armstrong’s piano playing gains vigor from the digital reprocessing.

The best of Dodds’s CD reissues is JSP’s Johnny Dodds 1926-1928, simply because it includes the New Orleans Wanderers (also known as the New Orleans Bootblacks) sides. This band was essentially Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five with George Mitchell replacing Armstrong and an alto saxophonist added. Despite that alto, most of their performances are in the New Orleans ensemble idiom; these ensembles are most notable for Dodds’s inspired playing and the drive of Mitchell’s cornet and the beauty of his sound. Mitchell is an ideal lead voice in a New Orleans ensemble: his solos seldom deviate from the theme melodies; his playing is drenched in blues, and he’s ingenious with mutes; his concentration in the horn’s middle registers means he doesn’t compete with the higher clarinet and sax; and he plays as if he had absorbed the steady New Orleans four-beat time with his mother’s milk.

Among the most exciting moments in these eight strong, urgent tracks are Dodds’s compact solo in “Mad Dog” and his electrifying lines over the final ensembles of “Flat Foot”: both show his sensitivity to phrase contrast, his control, his special lilt. Dodds was a subtle player who could create chiaroscuro with tone and melody where other clarinetists could only conceive of broad statements; his sound, his vibrato might change from one piece to the next, but that sound always had a reedy quality, a roundness, and a weight that were unmistakably personal. Probably his greatest solo is in the stark, minor-key “Perdido Street Blues”–his piercing, held-note entrance is a sudden shock, leading to lines alternately flaring and painfully haunted; the angry, jagged melody he improvises over the final ensemble is excellently conclusive. In contrast to the fire of the Wanderers/Bootblacks, the ten Chicago Footwarmers’ tracks on this CD are almost breezy, featuring Dodds’s interplay with cornetist Dominique’s enthusiastic playing and pinched, tightly muted sound.

The two other great New Orleans clarinetists were Jimmie Noone, whose best music hasn’t shown up on CD yet, and Sidney Bechet. RCA Bluebird’s new three-CD Sidney Bechet/The Victor Sessions, which once again has glorious sound, includes about half of the best records he ever made. Bechet was another who moved from New Orleans to Chicago, in 1917; he stayed here two years, long enough to learn the soprano saxophone, which he then played at least as often as the clarinet for the rest of his life.

Bechet almost always dominated his musical surroundings like a colossus, which destroyed the possibility of New Orleans-style ensemble interaction. He was a very melodic player; but unlike Dodds, there was no subtlety about Bechet. This man was larger than life, with a ferocious attack, wide vibrato, rhythmic aggression, and big sound that cut through every band he ever played in. At times he was florid and sickeningly sentimental, though not on his Victors. Like Dodds, he was a great blues player, and his “Really the Blues” and “Nobody Knows the Way I Feels Dis’ Mornin”‘ are wonderfully melodic solos. Unlike Dodds and Morton, he adjusted to swing; especially after 1939, he surrounded himself with swing musicians, and he even played ballads, including a sweet “Indian Summer.” Some of these 1940s Victors have a strong atmosphere of late-swing, New York small groups, including a mysterioso “The Mooche” that composer Duke Ellington preferred to his own version.

All 60 of Bechet’s Victors come from 1932-43, when New Orleans had declined as the center of the jazz mainstream. Tommy Ladnier, from New Orleans, plays trumpet in the first ten tracks; he’s content to be a straight man, and he certainly stimulates the leader, especially in “Weary Blues.” Swing trumpeter Charlie Shavers played some of his very best music with Bechet in 1941. And in one remarkable 1940 session, Bechet joined with both New Orleans and modern musicians. He and Baby Dodds and Earl Hines, the great piano liberator, clash melodically and rhythmically with each other, yet in the masterpiece “Blues in Thirds” they reconcile their differences with generous sensitivity.

The first great jazz ensemble on record, even before Morton’s Peppers, was the 1923 King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. All 37 of their recordings are now on CD from a French label, Music Memoria; the discs should be available in the United States soon. The grand Oliver was the leading inspiration for 1920s jazz cornetists–George Mitchell, for instance, was very much an Oliver man. Second cornetist was Louis Armstrong; Lil Armstrong played piano; and the Dodds brothers also played. Despite the primitive, premicrophone recordings, the band’s unity, the vigor of its playing, the expansiveness of its feeling, and Lord knows, that ever-graceful New Orleans four beat shine through joyously. Oliver’s band was “the finest full flowering” of the New Orleans idiom “in its pure form,” according to historian Gunther Schuller; by 1926, Louis Armstrong was transforming the jazz world and, in the process, signaling the end of the New Orleans jazz idiom.

Columbia Jazz Masterpieces has been reissuing on CD, one by one, Armstrong’s Chicago sessions in chronological order, and you can hear, especially in Volumes II and III, The Hot Fives and Sevens, and Volume IV, Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, the Armstrong revolution begin. Never mind that Lil Armstrong and New Orleans vets like the Dodds brothers and trombonist Kid Ory joined him at first–the New Orleans ensemble was too confining for the range, high detail, internal drama, and grand design of Armstrong’s ideas. It’s a rich, complex, melodic solo that Johnny Dodds plays in the Hot Seven’s “Wild Man Blues”–but the Armstrong trumpet solo it follows is an intense, tragic epic. After such brilliance, all other jazz sounds small indeed. And of course, with Armstrong’s recordings with Hines in 1928, he virtually abandoned any lingering connection with New Orleans jazz.

What happened to New Orleans jazz after the Armstrong revolution? Dixieland. Trad-jazz revivals. Though most of the best players had gravitated to Chicago in the 1920s, there were still good ones back home to maintain the old ways of playing. At the beginning of the century, trumpeter Bunk Johnson played in the first of all hot jazz bands, Buddy Bolden’s; and when Johnson finally made his first recordings, in the early 1940s, listeners were amazed. “That collective ensemble style was the missing link, the closest music we have to the Buddy Bolden sound,” according to Hogan archivist Raeburn. Certainly the rough, get-down way the Johnson band plays in Bunk Johnson/King of the Blues (American Music CD), and the complex relationships between the three horns and between the horns and the strict four-beat rhythm section, offer the same ragged, unpolished, hard-hitting qualities that history books tell us were typical of the first jazz. What’s best about this band is the leader’s melodic lead trumpet (this is all ensemble music, almost all improvised, with no solos), drummer Baby Dodds’s ever-colorful interactions with the others, and its infinitely relaxed rhythmic momentum, a graceful kind of swing that somehow rarely survived beyond the bounds of the New Orleans ecology.

Johnson not only sustains this rhythmic grace in his eight tracks on Bunk Johnson-Lu Watters/Bunk & Lu (Good Time Jazz CD) but communicates it to the traditional-jazz revival band that accompanies him; again, this is most enjoyable music. Lu Watters usually led that band, and in trumpeter Watters’s eight sides here it sounds comparatively stiff. San Francisco’s Watters was a leading stimulus of the 1940s traditional-jazz revival; he had drilled his band of young players in the early Oliver-Morton-Armstrong repertoire. Authenticity was these players’ aim, and Watters’s “Original Jelly-Roll Blues,” for instance, reproduces the Red Hot Peppers classic fairly faithfully. Though the traditional-jazz revival kept some older musicians employed, eventually it led to nostalgia mongering and amateurism. The straw hats-garters-red suspenders Dixieland phenomenon was the result. Several modernized New Orleans and other musicians join in the 1955 Kid Ory/The Legendary Kid (Good Time Jazz CD); this band and the semiprofessionals of The Firehouse Five Plus 2 Goes South (Good Times Jazz CD), from the early 50s, used to play on a simulated Mississippi riverboat at Disneyland.

Possibly the best of the American trad-jazz revivalists was Bob Scobey, a trumpeter of the 50s who captured some of the feeling of early Armstrong. His Scobey and Clancy (Good Times Jazz CD) like most of his recordings is burdened with the belligerently unswinging banjo playing and singing of Clancy Hayes, who also had an insatiable appetite for turn-of-the-century pop songs better left on the compost pile of history.

In general the most satisfying results of New Orleans jazz in modern times were produced not by revivalists but by survivors: those contemporaries of Armstrong who remained based in New Orleans. They may have been rough-hewn, harsh, and sometimes out of tune, but they presented, at best, a melodic, expressive vitality and graceful New Orleans swing that fairly shouted, “This music is not nostalgia–it is blood, breath, life!” Most of those players have now vanished, and the best of them have yet to show up on CD.

What is the meaning of New Orleans jazz today? Last April I spent a weekend at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival; there were a few players there who had kept the city’s jazz traditions alive in the face of seven decades of jazz development in the world outside and slick tourist jazz at home. The 90-year-old Chester Zardis, once Bunk Johnson’s bassist, played with one band of veterans; another was led by Kid Sheik Colar, cover model for the festival’s program book. Colar is the second generation of New Orleans trumpeters, and his imaginative set ranged from early 1900s pop songs to Ellington. Both of them were at the festival’s traditional-jazz tent. Some 16 clubs were also offering traditional jazz, including the Palm Court Cafe, where Jimmie Noone Jr. sat in with Danny Barker’s band one night. Noone is the son of the early New Orleans clarinet great, and his sensitive playing was very much like his father’s refined art of 60 years ago.

The trad-jazz tent, invariably packed with listeners, usually had a higher concentration of middle-aged and older folks than the other festival tents. Younger fans were more likely to be at competing stages, listening, for instance, to Boozoo Chavis’s zydeco band, Frankie Ford’s rock-and-roll revival, Toots and the Maytals’s first-rate reggae, and modern jazz hack Charles Lloyd. Among the trad-jazz musicians were plenty of younger, stylized revival players; indeed, only revivalists played ragtime or Jelly Roll Morton songs. Worst of all was a non-New Orleanian, Sammy Rimmington, who endlessly strung together sax and clarinet licks–what a contrast to the clarinet of another outsider, Butch Thompson (better known as a pianist), who exhibited a really alert sense of musical flow.

While Rimmington was bleating, there was a commotion outside the tent. A teen-aged brass band was parading along the path, playing the old song “Little Liza Jane” with a merry funk rhythm from tuba and drums; at times a bawdy trombonist and a nervy trumpeter burst out of the ragged ensemble. It sounded as rough and low-down as the history books tell us the earliest New Orleans jazz sounded. Following the band was an enthusiastic young crowd dancing to the music.

Is this the future of New Orleans jazz? Danny Barker’s grandfather led an early New Orleans marching band over a century ago; Barker himself, after playing guitar in top swing bands for years, is back home working in New Orleans again and teaching traditional New Orleans brass-band music to young players. “They want to play the fast numbers, not the dirges,” he says, and smiles: “Young people are in a hurry to get nowhere.” The young brass band on parade at the festival was exciting to hear, and their listeners’ spontaneous response showed the music’s connection to New Orleans life today. There may be another chapter to come in the story of New Orleans jazz.