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National Park Dedicated to Jazz Back In Operation Where the Music Was Born

New Orleans is recognized as the place where the music called “jazz” had its birth, around a century ago. It is also the site of a unique national park dedicated to the music and its history. Operations were disrupted by Hurricane Katrina last year, but, as VOA's Greg Flakus explains, the park rangers are back at work, not only talking about jazz, but playing it.

In the early part of the 20th century, jazz burst out of New Orleans and became a national craze. As depicted in the 1947 film "New Orleans," jazz went from small barrooms and rough dance halls to what some music critics proclaim as America's most important contribution to world culture.

Visitors to New Orleans can learn all about jazz and its origins at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, which was established here in 1994.

Bruce Barnes and Matt Hampsey are park rangers who provide the lectures and also play the music.

Within a few years the National Park Service plans to move the Jazz Historical Park to a site north of the New Orleans French Quarter in the city's Louis Armstrong Park, named for one of the most famous jazz players of all time.

Part of the reason for the move is that many historians believe the roots of jazz can be traced to this patch of ground in the park, known as Congo Square.

Ranger Matt Hampsey says this spot is where African slaves during the 17th and 18th centuries kept some of their music and culture alive. "It was a free day for African slaves who came here on Sundays under the code noir, which under French and Spanish colonial rule provided a loosening up of the regulations on slaves."

Hampsey says the music performed here wasn't jazz, but it was a beginning. "There are elements of jazz that you would have been able to pick out here: the syncopation, with the rhythmic drumming and singing, the call-and-response singing styles, those are all things that we find in jazz music."

Bruce Barnes helps educate visitors about such African traditional songs as "Legba," which would have been sung in Congo square. The conversion of African slaves to Christianity led to the birth of the spiritual, which also influenced jazz.

Many freed slaves, who had learned to play European musical instruments, and many white people as well came to appreciate the African sound, according to Hampsey. "The African rhythms and the blend of cultures between Africa and Europe is really what made jazz so special."

In recent decades the roots of jazz have been nurtured in New Orleans by benevolent societies and social organizations that sponsor parades and other events. But Hurricane Katrina scattered people from New Orleans all over the United States.

Matt Hampsey worries about what effect the disruption will have on New Orleans jazz. "That remains to be seen whether they will be back in full force to carry on the same kind of parading schedule and keep the music alive the way they did before the storm."

In the meantime, the park rangers are doing their part to keep the story of jazz alive.