Vail Jazz: New Orleans was the birthplace of funk and R&B in addition to jazz
While it is generally agreed that the birthplace of jazz is New Orleans and that it was first performed there in the early 1900s, it’s not the only music style to come out of the Crescent City.
Following World War II, jazz was still the bedrock of popular music in New Orleans, but a new sound started to take over: rhythm and blues. R&B, as it became known, grew out of the very strong African-American jazz and blues music in the city, and it has held center stage in the city ever since. Today, R&B is extremely popular, with artists such as Rhianna, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean and Khalid commanding the genre.
But to flash back in time, legendary New Orleans pianist and blues singer Henry Roeland “Roy” Byrd — known as “Professor Longhair” or “Fess” for short — laid the foundation of R&B. His unique rhythmic approach, known as rumba-boogie combined African, Cuban and Caribbean rhythms. Fess’ approach greatly influenced other New Orleans musicians who adopted his captivating cadence, thereby changing the rhythmic pattern of the music. That ultimately led to a distinctive style of New Orleans R&B.
Many musicians added their own “secret sauce” to the gumbo of New Orleans music, and R&B continues to this day to evolve. Fats Domino, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint are a few of the New Orleans pianists who were greatly influenced by Fess, whose musical legacy transcends R&B.
By the very late-1950s, another new style of music, “funk,” emerged in New Orleans, and by the mid-1960s, it was everywhere. There is a split among etymologists about the origin of the term funk. Some trace its use in the United States to a French word, spoken in Louisiana, to connote something smoky or musty. Others focus on the slaves brought from the Congo region of Africa, who used a similar sounding term to describe a strong body odor. Whatever the origin of the term, it ultimately was used by the Creoles of Louisiana to mean earthiness and by the early-1900s, it was a slang term used to mean something deeply felt and authentic.
The foundation of funk music fuses the unique rhythmic pattern employed by African-American jazz marching bands returning from a New Orleans funeral – known as the “second line” because of the processional that dances and moves to the music leaving the funeral – and the rhythmic approach of Fess. Added to the mix are elements of R&B and soul music, with a de-emphasis on melody in favor of a very strong bass “groove,” established by an electric bass player.
Musicologists will quibble about whether R&B and soul are separate genres of music, some saying that soul is a sub-genre of R&B. Most can agree that both originated in African-American communities.
My opinion is that soul music is a distinctive style of music because of its stronger connection to gospel music and jazz. To a certain extent, soul music became the anthem of the working class and urban poor. Also, in its early years, soul had political overtones bound-up in the Civil Rights and the Black Pride movements, whereas R&B was apolitical.
As funk fanned out from New Orleans, many players and bands embraced the new music, and by the mid-1960s, funk had spread across the country. By the 1970s, it was an extremely popular music style that millions listened to and danced to. The mass popularity of the genre can be traced to one of the most famous singers/bandleaders of the 20th century: James Brown.
Originally a gospel singer, he switched to singing blues and R&B tunes, but his biggest influence in a 50-year career was as a funk performer. He’s celebrated for his innovative vocal techniques, including laughs, grunts and shouts. Combined with dance moves, stage antics and a remarkable band featuring great horn and rhythm players, he was perhaps the biggest performer for African-American audiences in the 1960s and 70s.
Brown paved the way for George Clinton, Tower of Power, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Earth, Wind and Fire, and many more, all of whom greatly expanded the audience for funk. In addition, jazz musicians, most notably Herbie Hancock, began to fuse jazz with funk, and it didn’t stop there. It wasn’t long before there was psychedelic funk, funk metal, G-funk, funk jam and funk rock, all traceable to Fess and James Brown. Curiously, Brown was known as “The Godfather of Soul,” although he clearly was the “Father of Funk.”
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. For more information and a schedule of summer events, visit vailjazz.org.