Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

"If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools."

– Plato


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Birth of the Blues

     My wife can’t stand to watch the news anymore, so she retreats to another room and watches old black and white films.  Actually, I join her when I think my head will explode over the actions of the morons running our country.  Generally these old films have a good plot, no profanity, only suggested sex, some violence but devoid of entrails exploding on the screen, and most don’t require special effects. 

     Film noir is a cinematic style of the ‘40s and ‘50s depicting the dichotomy between the dark and the beautiful.  Taken from the French meaning, “black film,” most of these films are easily recognized by the use of light and shadow and usually involve detectives, crime, and mystery. 

     As you know, I have an interest in the emergence of traditional American jazz in New Orleans.  If a director could eliminate the criminal aspects of film noir and capture the mood of those early musicians in the dark style of film noir, I would be hooked.  See if any scenes pop into your mind as you read this article.

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     The twentieth century was still new when jazz was born.  It was the dawn of a new day portending scientific advancements and a better life for Americans.  But the optimism of the new century would be tempered by a depression, wars, and social unrest.  Yet, hidden deep in the south the pulsating rhythms and groans of slavery began to articulate a new and unique musical language called jazz

       As an art form, jazz is America’s unique contribution to the world. It is purely American.  It began and thrived in the south, nurtured by black musicians expressing emotions from blues to joy.  For example, funerals for musicians would begin with local musicians marching slowly in honor of the deceased playing a song like, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” soulfully and in a slow tempo on the way to the gravesite.

       Upon reaching the gravesite, the music changed, expressing the joy that their deceased brother had reached the promise land. Fast, happy, exuberant jazz suddenly turned the event into a joyous celebration.  The music would change to something up tempo with a positive message like, “Didn’t He Ramble.”

      Turn on the film noir and picture a smoke-filled brothel where black musicians join together and jam through the night - sometimes until the sun peeks through the dusty shutters covering smoke tarred windows.
      Patrons are long gone or busy upstairs while musicians from other venues stop in to continue playing music strictly for themselves.  Generally musicians play for other musicians who “hear what they’re saying” and understand the language of music. The audience is secondary. 

       Finally exhausted, spent, but deeply satisfied from a musical catharsis that temporarily extinguishes the struggles of life, the musicians succeed in replacing the shadows of their dreary lives with the glow that only music can provide.  After the last note is played, they slowly put their instruments in their cases, step on the last cigarette butt, and reach for what’s left in the bottle.  One more for the road.  After a few pats on the back they shuffle out into the cold morning air.

      A low fog hangs over a dark and wet street reflecting the moonlight. Steam rises from a manhole cover as a tired trumpet player shuffles silently down Royal Street, past a gas lamp, his hat pulled low over his forehead, his dark overcoat collar turned up, and a beat-up leather trumpet case under his arm.  He shuffles slowly from another all-night gig, his lips swollen from hours of pressure from the trumpet mouthpiece. The last tune he played runs over and over in his mind.

    As he stumbles into his humble abode this musician has no idea that he is building the first steps on a musical staircase to the future where Louis Armstrong will add a major step, Harry James will add another, Dizzy Gillespie will add a step, Miles Davis will add another, all the way up the staircase to Al Hirt, Doc Severinsen, and Winton Marsalis.

       That trumpet player jamming with his musical buddies at the turn of the century kicked off the colorful musical language that continues to evolve today.  Those were the days of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, , and many other New Orleans musical “saints.”  Generally the groups were made up of black musicians, but there were also white players like Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines in the '20s who spoke the same musical language.
        I used trumpet players in this example because that is my instrument, but you can follow the same evolution on the keyboard with Fats Waller, Count Basie, Dave Brubeck and other great jazz piano players, numerous sax players, and many others.

     There’s a part of me that would like to have been that lone figure in the film noir scene with a trumpet case under his arm, leaving an all-night jam session sharing Bourbon Street with those musical giants of the past.  The musicians who were at the bedside in New Orleans for the “Birth of the Blues” had no idea that they created America's only unique musical form.



  1. Nice reminder that we really do have a unique musical history. Thanks Ralph.

    1. Malcolm, it's true that jazz is uniquely American. I've played Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, and most great composers when I played in symphonies, but nothing is as much fun as jamming on those old tunes that Louis Armstrong and his contemporaries wrote and played.