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Don Rouse

There seems to be a close similarity between the body of music known as New Orleans Jazz and what is known as West Indian, Caribbean and/or Calypso music, but which represents musical characteristics associated with Creole culture in the Caribbean. The melodic and harmonic ties are there, but the strongest ties are reflected in the use of the same rhythmic patterns in both geographic areas - in fact, exactly the same rhythmic patterns, and combinations of rhythmic patterns.

   John Storm Roberts may have found the key to the identity of New Orleans Jazz, if not all African-American derived music played in New Orleans when he identified the rhythm of Kid Ory’s version of the Creole song, Eh Las’ Bas, as having a “Caribbean” Creole beat (Roberts-Black Music of Two Worlds, Praeger, 1972).

   This seems to identify the single characteristic, Caribbean cross-rhythms, that makes New Orleans music recognized as something “different” or something that “swings” in a manner that is distinctive. A typical reference to New Orleans music singled out as something distinctive that “swings” is in the description of the New Orleans brass band playing Didn’t He Ramble in the Story of Jazz (Stearns,Oxford U., 1973). This popular image of New Orleans jazz as something special, as having a different beat than other types of jazz, is relatively widespread, and has existed over a period of time. Stearns also wrote about the tie between melodies in New Orleans and the West Indies, but he fixes on a blending with tangana [or habanera] rhythm, or the rhumba. The tango rhythm is a specific type of rhythmic phrasing that foreshadowed ragtime. However, the tie is illustrated by not just one specific rhythmic phrase, but the overlay of rhythmic phrases, as in West African music, in which the accents fall in different places. Each rhythmic line made of up these phrases has accents falling at intervals, but the intervals differ, line to line. It’s the extension of a musical piece, or compositional development, through the overlay of differing sets of rhythms.

   The tie appears to be an historic one, rather than a recent occurrence or the result of recent cross-acculturation. In other words, people from the apparently same culture historically had handed down to them the same musical tradition, in two separate geographic locations, New Orleans and the Caribbean. That the musical ties between New Orleans and Caribbean music seem to be more historic than contemporary, is based upon available published evidence. There is some historic documentation for the derivation of the New Orleans jazz style from Caribbean musical culture. There was, for example, the influx of immigrants from Haiti to New Orleans in the early part of the 19th century. There was also the close similarity of the rituals, dancing, and music described in Congo Square to that occurring in the Caribbean.


Both the Caribbean music and New Orleans jazz contain a multiple overlay of cross-rhythms above the metric foundation. The accents of the cross-rhythmic phrases fall around the regular meter, ahead or behind the regular meter. It is this overlay of cross-rhythms accented off the regular meter that identifies both music (as well as music of African societies) and relates it to New Orleans jazz. (Cross-rhythm is the use of two different rhythms at the same time according to Harper’s Dictionary of Music, Barnes and Nobel, 1973; or the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythmic patterns or accents, according to the Harvard Brief Dictionary of Music, Washington Square Press, 1960. The second definition captures what happens in Caribbean music, where the accenting is not regular, and the shifting accents create rhythmic tension.)

   Although Roberts believed that the ensemble on the recording was more familiar with a straight four beat, rather than Caribbean rhythm, a broad review of New Orleans recordings indicates that the greater difficulty and tentativeness may have been with the four beat; not with the Caribbean beat, since Caribbean culture, including Caribbean music, represented the cultural background of many of the musicians. Actually, on a number of recordings by New Orleans bands, the Creole beat is maintained throughout, and on a substantial number of them, the four-four rhythm precedes the all-out, ride-out, or “hot” choruses in which the band reverts to Caribbean cross-rhythms.


New Orleans Jazz often features Creole plectrum performers in New Orleans band recordings. The New Orleans style of plectrum playing reveals a strong tie to the style of guitar and cuatro (little guitar) playing which predominates in traditional recordings by Caribbean musicians. Not coincidentally, the New Orleans jazz recordings also reveal similar characteristics in New Orleans and Island ensemble instrumental styles. However, even where the plectrum instrument is not present, the same overlay of rhythmic patterns occurs.

   As one important example, Danny Barker, like a number of plectrum artists from New Orleans, represents the New Orleans Creole tradition in American music. He has recorded Creole songs in several sessions and in the company of other New Orleans Creole musicians. These and other recordings reveal a strong historic tie with recordings by Caribbean musicians. The tie is to the style of guitar and cuatro playing which predominates in traditional recordings by Caribbean musicians. In addition, there are strong melodic ties.

   Mr. Barker was aware of the implications of his playing style. He has said that when he was in New York in the 1940’s he would go to parties with West Indians living in New York. They would call him “brother,” thinking that with his style of playing he was West Indian. He would tell them no, that it was just a way that New Orleans musicians always played. Danny Barker has said that he learned the style of playing he uses on the Creole recordings as well as other recordings from Lorenzo Staulz, who at one time played guitar with the legendary early New Orleans jazz and ragtime musician, Buddy Bolden (11/29/86 interview at Manassas, Va).

Creole Tunes

On the recording sessions with Albert Nicholas, where he recorded Salee Dame and other Creole tunes (Circle Records, year 1947), Danny Barker uses a distinctive rhythmic chording style. It uses repeated figures which seem to consist of a 16th followed by a dotted 8th note, on, for example, each quarter note beat of the measure. There is an effect of doubling the beat. The distinctive characteristic of this style, however, is that the first note can be employed in a figure in which the first note anticipates the beat. The primary effect is a dislocation or displacement of accents which sets up for the listener a feeling of rhythmic tension. On the final chorus Barker moves into repeated figures consisting of three 16th notes (secondary rag figures) which intensify the dislocation of accents. The last chorus, then, becomes climactic. (Hear also Moi Pas Lemme Cas from the same session, and Mon Cher Amie, Jazztone, 1950’s, recorded with his uncle, Paul Barbarin).

   Among other examples of this style there are Eh Las Bas (The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, Albert French, banjo; vocal; Verve, 1964; and in a recording by Preservation Hall, Narvin Kimball, banjo, 1966) and Ai Ai Ai (Wooden Joe’s Band, Louis Keppard, guitar; American Music, 1949).

Non-Creole Tunes

Even material which does not particularly seem to relate melodically to Caribbean or Creole material relates rhythmically, and in rhythmic compositional development. On various All-Star Stompers cuts from the “This Is Jazz” broadcasts (Circle Records, 1947) Danny Barker employs the style similar to the Caribbean examples. (Hear, for example, St. Louis Blues, and Avalon; again with Mutt Carey on Circle the same year Shimme Shawabble, Cakewalking Babies, Sensation (Rag), The Entertainer, and Chrysanthemum; and with Tony Parenti, Hysterics Rag and Sunflower Slow Drag). It is reasonable to speculate that Creole musicians traditionally played classic rags using the rhythmic patterns and accenting heard on these sides.

   On Hyena Stomp and Grandpa’s Spells, Jellyroll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, the rhythmic patterns throughout the entire performance are Caribbean, and the guitar style is the same as the Caribbean examples in the guitar and piano duet on Hyena Stomp, and the guitar style in the guitar duets with other instruments and in the introduction of Grandpa’s Spells. When Morton referred to the “Spanish tinge” in New Orleans music, he may very well have been referring to the Caribbean-Jamaican, Trinidadian, etc. connection, rather than a Habanera rhythm (Tango-like rhythm). It’s not that the music did not contain Habanera rhythmic phrasing, but that it might contain that together with a multiple overlay of cross-rhythms above the metric foundation. It is interesting to note that in his biography, Baby Dodds asserts that the Morton recording of Billy Goat Stomp (Victor, 1927) had a Spanish rythmn which was like the way so many of the numbers “used to be played in New Orleans” (The Baby Dodds Story, Gara, LSU Press, 1959, 1962). This “Spanish rhythm” on that recording is very definitely the Caribbean overlay of rhythmic phrases described here.

   And it appears again in a performance by Doc Paulin’s band of Little Liza Jane (El Paso, Tex., 1986; from a recording of a live performance in the files of the National Council for the Traditional Arts). That this style was common in New Orleans is supported by Mitchell Davis, who plays guitar with Doc Paulin, and in a manner similar to Danny Barker. Mitchell Davis advised that he never met Danny Barker, but that he learned to play the way everyone in his neighborhood played guitar when he was coming up (interview, NYC, July 1986).

Out Choruses As A Part of Compositional Development

Often early New Orleans band recordings (1920’s) have the band following a West African musical characteristic of developing a composition rhythmically. The band may initially play several choruses of straight four beat rhythm before shifting the rhythmic patterns to create climactic penultimate and ultimate choruses (3-4 minute recording times obviously dictate the number of such choruses).

   This is heard in Original Tuxedo Rag by the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra (Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra, John Marrero, banjo, Okeh, 1925). Typically, this and the other recordings by the New Orleans bands follow a routine; by the time the last chorus is reached, the rhythmic patterns have developed to coincide with rhythmic patterns used on the Caribbean recordings. The entire ensemble shifts accenting to anticipatory, off the beat accents, and the plectrum instrument is playing in the manner described for Danny Barker and the Caribbean guitar, banjo, and cuatro players. The shift away from straight 2/4 or 4/4 with the on the beat accenting may occur before the final chorus, but the characteristics are almost always in place in the last chorus. Thus, on these records, the “hot” choruses, “out” choruses, or “ride-outs,” become synonymous with Caribbean rhythmic patterns. On Black Rag (same session) the band accents throughout the entire performance in the prescribed manner.

   There are more recorded examples. Hear Bouncing Around, Louisiana Swing, and Mamma’s Gone, Goodbye (Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra, Victor and Okeh, 1923). The performances begin with standard four beats to a measure in the rhythm section, and in the final choruses, the accent patterns shift, including the banjo accenting. Note the same thing on New Orleans Stomp, Ain’t Gonna Tell Nobody, and Buddy’s Habits (King Oliver’s Jazz Band, Columbia and Okeh, 1923); and Muskrat Ramble (Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, Okeh, 1926); Frankie and Johnny (Fate Marable, Okeh, 1924); and Sweet Mumtaz (Russell’s Hot Six, Vocalion 1010, 1926).


In calypso style recordings by Caribbean musicians, there are rhythmic and melodic similarities to recordings by New Orleans style groups. All such recordings contain the Caribbean plectrum style similar to that of the New Orleans plectrum musicians. Banjo, cuatro, and guitar are widely used . The recordings are not only tied melodically to music emanating from New Orleans, but also demonstrate the plectrum style of New Orleans players. Just a few examples:

   The Bandsman Shooting Case, Wilmouth Houdini (Melotone, 1934), also contains the West Indian plectrum style similar to Danny Barker’s. The riff choruses, by the way, use the same phrasing as riff choruses played by New Orleans bands recording in the 1920’s. (Houdini said to have identified the New Orleans bass player, Al Morgan, as playing on some of these recordings. The other string players, including guitarist Gerald Clark, seem to have been Caribbean). The plectrum instruments play in a style used by Danny Barker and other New Orleans musicians.

   Mama Teresa-Rumba has Colombo y Garcia, Cuban musicians recording in Buenos Aires (Victor, 1909). This is labeled a Son, but the guitar or cuatro plays the rhythmic phrasing that is like the West Indian style and Danny Barker’s examples. This seems exceptional, based upon Cuban recordings such as the twenties son quartet recordings, for example, which generally cannot be categorized in the same manner as the Caribbean recordings to which I am referring.

   Although my main thrust has been to call attention to the similarity between the New Orleans guitarists’ and banjoists’ rhythmic style and that employed by Caribbean musicians, this and other New Orleans and Caribbean records demonstrate that the entire rhythm section could phrase the same way, with other instruments providing the rhythmic phrasing we have ascribed to the plectrum instruments. In just one example from many, Man Man Biscoe (Attila the Hun, Decca, 1937) the entire rhythm section again accents with the guitar.


Just to support the notion of a common musical heritage, there are instances of similar or the same melody lines played by Caribbean and New Orleans musicians. The melody of Me Pas Lemme Cas is similar to a Creole tune included in SLAVE SONGS OF THE UNITED STATES (1867); Aurore Bradaire (1st strain), and to Caribbean melodies. It is 4 bars repeated, each 4 bars containing a melodic statement with a response. Many of the these recordings compared here are of 8 bar form, or based upon two or more 8 bar forms combined. This is also true of a number of the New Orleans recordings cited here, representing tunes from the late 19th, early 20th century; of the “Slave Song” collection, and of many of the Caribbean melodies.

   Me Pas Lemme Cas is from the second session of Creole tunes listed in discographies that included New Orleans Creole musicians Danny Barker, Albert Nicholas, as well as New Orleans bass player Pops Foster. This tune and the others that follow from this recording session are like Caribbean melodies such as Angeina (Sam Castendet, Columbia, 1950). Angeina was recorded in Paris by musicians from Martinique. (The Salee Dame melodic intervals are also close to Angeina’s.)

   On Original Tuxedo Rag, after the first strain, the composition is the same as West Indies Blues (both first and second strains). Although West Indies Blues was published by New Orleans musicians Spencer and Clarence Williams, it has a 1st strain melody similar to The Bargee (Sam Manning, acc. by the Cole Jazz Trio, Okeh, 1925) . On Black Rag the first strain is the same as Down Home Rag; the second strain is similar to the composition, West Indies Blues (first strain), and also to the New Orleans street song The Girls Go Crazy About the Way I Walk (Kid Ory, Decca, c. 1946).

   Sally, You Not Ashamed? (Lionel Belasco’s Orchestra, Decca, 1937) is the same as the New Orleans Creole tune, Eh, La Bas (first strain), as Samuel Charters points out (notes to Folkways RF 4). Women’s Sweeter Than Man, is sung by Sam Manning, a calypsonian accompanied by Caribbean musicians and recording in NY (Brunswick, 1928). The melody is similar to Remon (“Slave Songs”, 1867), second strain.

   Here are some other similarities:

   Blanche Touqoutoux (Kid Ory, Decca, mid-40’s)/Why Me Neighbor Vex (Lionel Belasco, Banner, 1933).

   Aurora Bradaire (first strain) and West Indies Blues (first and second strains)/Rum and Coca Cola (first strain) (Houdini, Decca, 1940’s); Mussieu Dollar (second strain) (Alexandre Stellio, Odeon, 1929).

   Blanche Touqoutoux and Remon (first strain)/many, such as Belle Madame (first strain) (Orchestre Creole Delvi, Decca, 1932); En Sens Unique SVP (first strain) (Stellio, Odeon, 1929); Why I run (second strain) (June Nelson, Jubilee, 1949); Lignum Vitae (Sam Manning, Okeh, 1927).

   Remon (second strain)/En Sens Unique SVP (second strain) (Stellio, Odeon, 1929); Why I Run (first strain).

   Eh Las Bas (first strain), and Salee Dame (first strain)/Asi Pare (second strain) (Don Barreto, Decca, 1932); Ba Mouin En Ti Bo Dou Dou (first strain) (Delvi, Parlophone, 1932).

   Eh Las Bas (second strain) and Salee Dame (second strain)/Asi Pare (first strain but in minor) and Ba Mouin (second strain).

   Rag Bag Rag (first strain) (Dink Johnson, American Music, 1947)/Mettez I Dero (second strain) (Alphonso et son Orchestre, Odeon, 1940’s). (Rag-Bag, by Harry J. Lincoln was published in 1909. What Dink Johnson plays on the American Music recording is not in that published sheet music.)

   Almost all of the above examples have been available on LP in the past. I don’t know anything about CD’s.

   As for my conclusions, I could be wrong, of course. For example, maybe these similarities derive directly through a heritage from West African societies. But, if so, how account for the triple similarities of cross-rhythm, form, and melody? (all titles as they appear on the recordings).

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