Afro-Caribbean Musical Influences on the American Jazz

The Synthesis of Afro-Caribbean Musical Influences on the Early Development of American Jazz

The Latin Tinge

New Orleans: A Confluence of Musical Cultures on Mississippi Delta
Segregation and Syncretism
Accounts of jazz history, such as Ken Burns’ PBS documentary Jazz, document the convergence of three diverse ethnic cultures and musical traditions as the precursor to the development of jazz music in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: African-American, Louisiana Creole, and European classical music.  Accurate as this and other accounts are, the influence of Afro-Caribbean musical forms and traditions is more than tangential to the early development of jazz in the United States.  The bookshelves are replete with how jazz music evolved from presumable casual and spontaneous gatherings of the New Orleans black underclass.  Missing in most of the documented history of jazz is the Afro-Caribbean influence of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Fiehrer (1991) disputes the “textbook cliché” (p. 30) that discount the Afro-Caribbean influence on early jazz; in fact, Fiehrer makes a case of a significant Afro-Caribbean influence of pre-jazz musical forms and traditions that can be traced to the early nineteenth century.  It is not a novel hypothesis that early jazz was a kind of Latin-American music.
Early jazz came due to geopolitical happenstance of black, Creole, and European cultures and influence (Fiehrer, 1991: 21).  Wynton Marsalis uses the culinary metaphor “gumbo” to describe the gestation period of jazz in the late nineteenth century.  The variety of ethnicities, religions and cultures living in New Orleans during the nineteenth century fostered a thick soup where divergent cultures would take upon the flavors of other cultures.  Before there were individual genres of jazz such as swing, bebop, and fusion, the sounds (or keeping with Marsalis’ metaphor “flavors”) of African-American, Creole, and European cultures mixed and blended into the early sounds of jazz.  I hope to add to the discussion of the influence and synthesis of Afro-Caribbean musical influences on the early development of jazz.  It is my belief that the peoples of the Caribbean exerted an influential role on the early development of jazz music in the United States throughout the nineteenth century.  Also, given its cultural diversity and proximity to the Caribbean, the city of New Orleans proved a fertile staging ground for the development of jazz. Given the limited scope of this paper, I will concentrate on the immigration patterns of Afro-Caribbean peoples to the United States in the nineteenth century and the result of segregation had on all people of color in the development of jazz in the United States.

The Latin Tinge

Jazz’s first accomplished composer, Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941) coined the phrase “Spanish Tinge” in describing the early period of jazz.  Morton believed that if the music did not have a “Spanish [Latin] Tinge,” it was not jazz.  The four “Latin” countries that prominently figure into the influence of music in the United States were Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba.   Of these four, Cuba, with its mixture of Spanish and African origins, has exerted the most varied and long lasting effect on jazz music (Roberts 1999b: 4).
The musical and cultural history of the Caribbean tells a narrative of continual transition and assimilation.  From its African and European origins, the peoples of the Caribbean have a long history of syncretism, or the creating of a distinctive new culture out of a prolonged encounter with two or more other cultures (Manuel 2006:15).  Given the region’s long history of struggle between political hegemony and self-determination, the peoples of the Caribbean created a new musical culture, assimilating their French, Spanish, English, and African origins into a distinctive “Latin Tinge.”   During the early half of the nineteenth century, the peoples of the Caribbean, especially those of African heritage, brought their music to North America as part of the slave trade.  During the same period, the United States experienced its own assimilation of African and European musical traditions.  Given the slave trade and the proximity of the Caribbean states to the United States, it was inevitable that Afro-Caribbean culture and music would influence the United States. There was no other fertile ground for a further assimilation of diasporic musical styles and practices as in the delta city of New Orleans.

New Orleans: A Confluence of Musical Cultures on Mississippi Delta

From its beginnings in the early eighteenth century, New Orleans contained a pot-pourri of races constantly mixing genetically, politically, culturally, and musically.  The musical culture of New Orleans included French opera and popular song, Neapolitan music, African drumming, Haitian rhythms, Cuban melody, native Creole satiric ditties, and American spirituals and blues—all sounding side by side in the streets of New Orleans (Roberts 1999a: 1). European immigrants, political refuges, and slaves arrived by the thousands in New Orleans throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  New Orleans’ close proximity to the Caribbean, writes Washburne (1997), was a constant source immigration fueling the diversity of the region.  New Orleans’ distinctive “Caribbean flavor,” Washburne adds, “distinguished New Orleans culturally from other North American cities” (p. 62).
Caribbean culture began a slow and gradual absorption into North America soon after the acquisition of New Orleans by the United States in 1803 (Washburne 1997: 62).  Refugees and imported slaves came to New Orleans by the thousands during the first half of the nineteenth century.  Although the United States Constitution banned the importation of slaves after 1808, illicit slave importation continued in the United States, especially in New Orleans, throughout the first half of the nineteenth century.  Also, Haitian and Cuban immigrants began pouring into New Orleans as a result of the Haitian Revolution of 1804 when war erupted between Spain and France on the island of Hispaniola.  French speaking blacks and their former masters fled as refugees first to Cuba and then to New Orleans.  By 1810, New Orleans had nearly 25,000 French speaking Haitians.  These same Haitians had temporarily taken refuge in Cuba for ten years, bringing to New Orleans their French, Haitian, and Cuban music traditions (Washburne 1997: 63).
By 1850, black slaves, free Haitian and Cuban blacks, people of mixed Anglo and black heritage, and Creoles interacted with one another freely throughout the streets of New Orleans.  The Crescent City possessed a tolerant laissez-faire attitude toward people of color that did not exist in any other city in the United States.  By the mid-nineteenth century the sounds of bata drums coming from Congo Square, Negro spirituals at Sunday slave gatherings, and habanera and danzon coming from the dance halls along Lake Pontchartrain echoed freely throughout the area.  This unique patch work of ethnicities permeated the culture and music of New Orleans reflecting the racial, moral, and political ironies of the city.  Christian church choirs sang in close proximity to Vodou and Santeria rituals in the next neighborhood.  Young trumpet players like Joe “King” Oliver and Louis Armstrong would play in brass bands that would play solemn funeral dirges as the cortège slowly walked to the cemetery.  The same musicians, at the conclusion of the funeral, would play a quick march that accompanied mourners to the local watering hole for an evening of libation.  Musicians like clarinetist Sidney Bechet, Oliver, and Armstrong would also play Cuban habanera and danzon at the dance halls throughout the city.  The effect of Afro-Caribbean music remained with Armstrong well in to the 1940’s.  Along with Chano Pozo, Armstrong is credited with melding the percussive Cuban beat to the big band instrumentation.  This was known as the Cubop movement. 
Nearly a century of immigration, creolization, and adaptation made New Orleans a city unlike any other in the United States.  Antebellum New Orleans, Fiehrer (1991) writes, was American only by propinquity.  Culturally and ideologically “New Orleans remained an island, keeping its distance from the rest of the United States, maintaining its spiritual affinity for Europe, and reflected its musical expression to the Caribbean” (p. 29).  This ideological and cultural distance from the rest of the United States provided a temporary safe haven from the discrimination that would eventually befall all people of color in the United States.  As people of color converged upon New Orleans to escape the ever tightening noose of segregation, New Orleans became a flash point in history where events and circumstances would converge to create something new.
Segregation and Syncretism
 Ustratos focus on the economic and geo-strategic analysis, security problems of the nations, economic development, the history of the world, the geopolitical conflicts and strategic issues in Europe, America, Asia, Africa, and their strategic problems. Tags:geopolitical, strategies, economies, war, military, armed, economic development, international relations, history, geography, environment, , NGO, alliances, European Union, flags, USA, United State of America
Between 1876 and 1896, a system of institutional discrimination and disenfranchisement permeated the South. Black codes (local laws) and Jim Crow laws (state laws) steadily took away the rights and privileges of African-Americans fostered during Reconstruction (1865-1876).  Blacks of all types, poor sharecroppers, educated middle class blacks, and mulatos migrated to the only safe haven in the south, New Orleans.  By 1896, New Orleans was again a plethora of peoples and refugees living closely with one another sharing musical ideas and experiences. Former slaves and uneducated sharecroppers, brought to the Crescent City the blues.  Evangelical blacks contributed their hymns and praises to the mix.  Haitians and Cubans improvised on bata drums and tres guitars. Classically trained in sol fegg and music theory, educated blacks and Creoles organized symphony and chamber music guilds and played in brass bands.  In fact, the popularity of the brass band began in New Orleans during the Cotton Centennial Exposition (1884-85) when the Mexican government sent to the exposition the Eighth Calvary Regiment Brass Band.  According to Roberts (1999b: 35), the pre-jazz sound of European, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean music amplified its voice through the introduction of the brass band in New Orleans.
Segregation became national policy in 1896 with the Supreme Court decision Plessey v. Ferguson.  This decision disenfranchised and forced segregation on all Negro and part-Negro citizens in New Orleans.  Segregation had a dramatic effect in the creation of jazz in New Orleans as both Creole and black musicians brought together different, but crucially important, musical elements to the mix that might never have come together if these groups did not find themselves forced together socially and politically.  Segregation made it possible for further black cultural syncretism to take place.  Because of the Creole influence, jazz was always open to European and parlor influence.  Because of black influence, jazz always had a foundation of African expressions that continued to inform the music throughout the twentieth century (Early 2000).
The syncretism forced upon African-American and Creole communities also occurred among the Afro-Caribbean communities.  As "blacks", Afro-Cubans shared with African-Americans a subordinate social position that placed stringent limits on their opportunities for employment, education, entertainment, and advancement.  The law and the culture of the Jim Crow south considered Cubans people of African descent.  Cubans, however, held peculiar place in the social hierarchy based upon their belonging to the Cuban ethnic community, which opened opportunities for inter-racial cooperation not available to native-born African Americans.  They were "black when with Cubans and Cuban when with blacks" (Fuente 2003: 533).  Given the propinquity of all races in New Orleans, Early’s (2000) thesis that African-American and Creoles were the principal players in the “black cultural syncretism” can be expanded to include the Afro-Caribbean peoples.


The musical history of New Orleans reflected the cultural, political, and religious plurality that defined life in Crescent City during the nineteenth century.  The term “Latin Tinge” as coined by Jelly Roll Morton could also be coined the “African Tinge,” “Spanish Tinge,” or even “Anglo Tinge,” given the influences within the city of New Orleans when he made that statement.  However, Morton recognized a distinctive Afro-Caribbean sound in early jazz.  The musical gumbo pot of New Orleans, according to Roberts, had a distinct Latin flavor of son, montuno, danzon, andhabanera  sounds as its main ingredient, mixing with the many musical cultures that converged upon New Orleans. Regardless of the completeness of the history of jazz and its inclusion or exclusion of the Afro-Caribbean experience in its history, what made jazz was the parallel syncretization of diverse cultures converging upon one city, New Orleans.  There was no other place at any other time in history that the sounds we know as jazz could have developed. 

Burns, Ken
2000    “New Orleans: The Birthplace of Jazz.” Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns (Accessed 1 July 2006),

Early, Gerald
2000    “Jim Crow Era.” Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns (Accessed 1 July 2006),

Fiehrer, Thomas
1991    “From Quadrille to Stomp: The Creole Origins of Jazz.” Popular Music 10(1): 21-38.

Fuente, Alejandro de la
2003    “More than Black: Afro-Cubans in Tampa (Review).” Journal of Social History 37(2): 533-535.

Manuel, Peter
2006    Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae.  Revised and Expanded Edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Roberts, John Storm
1999a  Latin Jazz: The First of the Fusions, 1880s to Today.  New York: Schirmer.

1999b  The Latin Tinge: The Impact of Latin Music on the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Singer, Roberta L.
1983    “Tradition and Innovation in Contemporary Latin Popular Music in New York City.” Latin American Music Review 4(1): 183-202

Washburne, Christopher
1997    “The Clave of Jazz: A Caribbean Contribution to the Rhythmic Foundation of an African-American Music.” Black Music Research Journal 17(1): 59-80

Wilkinson, Christopher
1994    “The Influence of West African Pedagogy upon the Education of New Orleans Jazz Musicians.” Black Music Research Journal 14(1): 25-42.
 Ustratos focus on the economic and geo-strategic analysis, security problems of the nations, economic development, the history of the world, the geopolitical conflicts and strategic issues in Europe, America, Asia, Africa, and their strategic problems. Tags:geopolitical, strategies, economies, war, military, armed, economic development, international relations, history, geography, environment, , NGO, alliances, European Union, flags, USA, United State of America