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Before There Were Big Bands, There Were Little Orchestras

by TODD CRANSON

Many have heard New Orleans called the “birthplace of jazz,” but you may not be aware that about 100 years earlier New Orleans was also home to the first opera house in North America as well as the United States’ first professional orchestra! The Crescent City has a rich musical heritage, and the UIS Chamber Orchestra is spending much of its time this academic year exploring a slice of this history when “classical music” and jazz competed for popularity and influenced one another.

Dancing and dance music has been wildly popular in the Crescent City for almost as long as the city has existed. For much of its history, and through the early days of jazz, at least one dance could be found on any given night in the many dance halls of New Orleans. Weekends in the summer saw many dances at once, all around the city, each catering to different social classes, ethnicities, interests, etc. There are even accounts of dance hall owners pumping nitrous oxide into their venue as a way to increase patrons’ enjoyment. Can you imagine it … 19th-century raves! Today, this is an especially comical thought considering the fact that music at these 19th-century events was
frequently what we today call “classical music.”

This Spring the UIS Chamber Orchestra will perform a program of dance music from the library of famous New Orleans dance orchestra leader John Robichaux.

With a professional career stretching from the 1890s until his death in 1939, John Robichaux was a successful New Orleans “band leader,” and his dance orchestra was generally considered the number one dance group in town. His ensembles employed the best musicians, performed written arrangements, and were frequently in competition with early jazz groups for performance opportunities. Robichaux wrote over 350 pieces of music and was even more prolific as an arranger. His library numbers over 1,400 selections and is now housed at the William Ransom Hogan Archive of New Orleans Jazz at Tulane University. Though this collection hails from the Crescent City, much of it was published and played at dances across America.

A violinist, Robichaux’s dance orchestra typically included violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, clarinet, cornet, trombone, piano, and drums. Audiences today might perceive this group as a small chamber orchestra, with a traditional jazz band tossed in as lagniappe, or as a jazz band with strings. Additions and substitutions such as tuba, horn, banjo, or guitar might also sway one’s perception in a particular direction.

Regardless of how you perceive it, we invite you to check us out, form your own opinions, and have a good time as we explore dance and concert repertoire from this collection.

Although we’ll avoid the laughing gas, the UIS Chamber Orchestra will present a turn-of-the-century dance on Friday, May 1, 2010 at Springfield’s Dana-Thomas House. The Dana-Thomas House dates to the early twentieth century, and it is an easy connection to tie this popular dance music to Susan Dana’s famous affairs held at her home. We hope you will consider joining us for this unique event!