Congo Square in New Orleans

Louis Armstrong Park is located on Rampart Street, behind the French Quarter in what used to be just outside the city of New Orleans, back o’ town. Bordering on Rampart Street is a section of the park called “Congo Square”. To American music this open area is Mecca, Calvary, and the Wailing Wall all rolled into one. And more perhaps than even these, another gathering place for nkisis (African deities) in the New World.

The establishment of Code Noir in 1724 codified Sundays off for slaves in French-ruled Louisiana, the day of leisure and its concomitant social gathering, dancing and singing. In 1817 all of this African-American activity was restricted to Congo Square…the only point in the broad and vast United States of America where African drumming and dancing could take place. It all came down to this cultural laser point. And it all reflected back out of it.

Much is made, and rightly so, of military bands in the development of New Orleans’ music. The same thing happened in Brazil. But one-two marches in hands reaching back to Congo, Angola, wherever, in non-military settings, became vastly more complex and moving. The tresillo — Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” without which he said jazz couldn’t be played — is usually thought of as being Afro-Caribbean. But a rhythmic cell common to African and Brazil and Cuba certainly would have been played by Africans in the United States as well. At least the ones who were permitted to drum.

Think of the irony. The slave owners in almost all of the United States of America forbade drums to their slaves. And from that mote, that speck, where drumming was permitted, grew the rhythmic backbone — and much else — of the music which would conquer the nation which had forbidden it.

And the world. For not just jazz grew out of Congo Square, but rhythm ‘n’ blues and soul and rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop and anything and everything based in American dance music…

It’s not like you go to Mecca, but turn on the radio or the record player (or their subsequent manifestations) and Mecca goes to you.

Above from History of Jazz by Ken Burns.