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The JAZZ Story
An Outline History of Jazz
In the span of less than a century, the remarkable native American music
called Jazz has risen from obscure folk origins to become this country's
most significant original art form, loved and played in nearly every land on
Today, Jazz flourishes in many styles, from basic blues and ragtime
through New Orleans and Dixieland, swing and mainstream, bebop and
modern to free form and electronic. What is extraordinary is not that Jazz
has taken so many forms, but that each form has been vital enough to
survive and to retain its own character and special appeal. It takes only
open ears and an open mind to appreciate all the many and wide-raging
delights jazz has to offer.
Jazz developed from folk sources. Its origins are shrouded in obscurity, but
the slaves brought here from Africa, torn from their own ancestral culture,
developed it as a new form of communication in song and story.
Black music in America retained much of Africa in its distinctive rhythmic
elements and also in its tradition of collective improvisation. This heritage,
blended with the music of the new land, much of it vocal, produced more
than just a new sound. It generated an entire new mode of musical
The most famous form of early Afro-American music is the spiritual.
These beautiful and moving religious songs were most often heard by
white audiences in more genteel versions than those performed in rural
black churches. What is known as gospel music today, more accurately
reflects the emotional power and rhythmic drive of early Afro-American
music than a recording of a spiritual by the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers
from the first decade of this century.
Other early musical forms dating from the slavery years include work
songs, children's songs, and dances, adding up to a remarkable legacy,
especially since musical activity was considerable restricted under that
BIRTH OF THE BLUES
After the slaves were freed, Afro-American music grew rapidly. The
availability of musical instruments, including military band discards, and
the new-found mobility gave birth to the basic roots of Jazz: brass and
dance band music and the blues.
The blues, a seemingly simple form of music that nevertheless lends itself
to almost infinite variation, has been a significant part of every Jazz style,
and has also survived in its own right. Today's rock and soul music would
be impossible without the blues. Simply explained, it is and eight (or
twelve) bar strain with lyrics in which the first stanza is repeated. It gets its
characteristic "blue" quality from a flattening of the third and seventh notes
of the tempered scale. In effect, the blues is the secular counterpart of the
BRASS BANDS AND RAGTIME
By the late 1880's, there were black brass, dance and concert bands in
most southern cities. (At the same time, black music in the north was
generally more European-oriented.) Around this era, ragtime began to
emerge. Though primarily piano music, bands also began to pick it up and
perform it. Ragtime's golden age was roughly from 1898 to 1908, but its
total span began earlier and lingered much later. Recently, it has been
rediscovered. A music of great melodic charm, its rhythms are heavily
syncopated, but it has almost no blues elements. Ragtime and early Jazz
are closely related, but ragtime certainly was more sedate.
Greatest of the ragtime composers was Scott Joplin (1868-1917). Other
masters of the form include James Scott, Louis Chauvink Eubie Blake
(1883-1983) and Joseph Lamb, a white man who absorbed the idiom
Ragtime, especially in its watered-down popular versions, was
entertainment designed for the middle class and was frowned on by the
musical establishment. The music not yet called Jazz (in its earliest usage it
was spelled "jass"), came into being during the last decade of the 19th
century, rising out of the black working-class districts of southern cities.
Like ragtime, it was a music meant for dancing.
The city that has become synonymous with early Jazz is New Orleans.
There is reality as well as myth behind this notion.
NEW ORLEANS: CRADLE OF JAZZ
New Orleans played a key role in the birth and growth of Jazz, and the
music's early history has been more thoroughly researched and
documented there than anywhere else. But, while the city may have had
more and better Jazz than any other from about 1895 to 1917, New
Orleans was by no means the only place where the sounds were
incubating. Every southern city with a sizable black population had music
that must be considered early Jazz. It came out of St. Louis, which grew to
be the center of ragtime; Memphis, which was the birthplace of W.C.
Handy (1873-1958), the famed composer and collector of blues; Atlanta,
Baltimore, and other such cities.
What was unique to New Orleans at the time was a very open and free
social atmosphere. People of different ethnic and racial backgrounds could
establish contact, and out of this easy communication came a rich musical
tradition involving French, Spanish, German, Irish and African elements. It
was no wonder that this cosmopolitan and lively city was a fertile breeding
ground for Jazz.
If New Orleans was the birthplace of Jazz in truth as well as in legend, the
tale that the music was born in its red light district is purest nonsense. New
Orleans did have legalized prostitution and featured some of the most
elaborate and elegant "sporting houses" in the nation. But the music, if any,
that was heard in these establishments was made by solo pianists.
Actually, Jazz was first heard in quite different settings. New Orleans was
noted for its many social and fraternal organizations, most of which
sponsored or hired bands for a variety of occasions -- indoor and outdoor
dances, picnics, store openings, birthday or anniversary parties. And, of
course, Jazz was the feature of the famous funeral parades, which survive
even today. Traditionally, a band assembles in front of the church and
leads a slow procession to the cemetery, playing solemn marches and
mournful hymns. On the way back to town, the pace quickens and fast,
peppy marches and rags replace the dirges. These parades, always great
crowd attractions, were important to the growth of Jazz. It was here that
trumpeters and clarinetists would display their inventiveness and