The Origins of Jazz

Through the Ages – The Origins of Jazz

Jazz is the first, and arguably the only, truly American musical export.

Until the popularization of this form, popularly accepted American music was strongly influenced by European musical form.

In African-American subculture, various styles and forms had been developed; these were still strongly tied to their African roots, or, in the case of the cakewalk, were deliberate mockeries of refined European styles. Whether or not these early African-American forms can be seen as specifically American, they were not widely accepted, but rather contained to the then-underground black subculture.

African-American Identity in Music
Early African-American music, though lush and passionate, will always be tainted by its inevitable ties to slavery.

One of the first form to emerge was the Field Holler. As African-American slaves worked in fields, on railroads, etc., they laboured to the beats of their work-songs, which would improve their mood, as well as serving as a distraction. As these chants increased productivity, slave overseers made no efforts to silence the black voice, allowing it to develop several distinct styles. Work songs included spirtituals, call and response, modified sea chants, and field hollers.

In addition to singing and chanting as they worked, African-American slaves were able to preserve some of the sounds of the old world through break-time music, and soon began to incorporate instruments, such as fiddle, banjo, drum, upright bass, and cornet. Instrument choice was strongly influenced by passing fads in the more privileged world; slaves were at the mercy of pawn-shops and cast-offs.

In the late 1800s, many of the instruments used in civil war bands found their way to pawnshops, giving way to the black Brass Band, which often led rowdy parades and dances. Cornets, clarinets, tubas, trombones, banjos and drums were the instruments that that typified the brass band.

The end of the Civil War saw the abolishment of slavery, however this was not the end of the African-American struggle. Although they were no longer human property, freed slaves did not enjoy financial security. Seen as second-class humans, freed slaves were at a loss to find employment. Thus, a generation of traveling musicians emerged, each one trying to create a unique sound to portray their struggle. The blues sound adopted the field holler to the new world, eventually developing into a standardized 12-bar form.

Somewhere in the murky area between African-American culture, and the underground, ‘disreputable’ culture of black-friendly white Americans, was the development of Ragtime, whose name originates from the term “ragged time.” Ragtime was a deliberate culture-clash, in which some of the formal styles of Europe were ragged by overlaying a straight-forward beat with a syncopated melody (a melody that felt like it was off by a beat). Ragtime was not only influenced by slave musicians, but by the sounds of the wild west, such as “Fast Western” or “Barrellhouse” piano. Ragtime was a written form, with published songs being widely distributed, though it was not considered very respectable.

New Orleans – Birthplace of Jazz
Although influential forms such as Field Holler, Brass Band, Blues and Ragtime were geographically scattered around the United States, New Orleans is widely recognized as the origin of Jazz.

What made New Orleans unique is not the one-time presence of slavery and the musical forms that resulted. Rather, New Orleans had a special mix of cultural elements stretching beyond ‘typical’ African-American culture, which allowed influences begotten only in New Orleans to infiltrate the developing musical form.

To understand the ethnic presences in New Orleans, it is necessary to look at the development of the United States as a nation, and even further back, to the European inhabitation of the New World.

As the New World was settled, three European nations were pushing and fighting to rule the continent: England, France, and Spain. Remnants of this settlement are clearly seen to this day, by studying the language usage throughout North America: English and French in Canada, Spanish in Mexico and Central America, and, in the US, English is the official language, though many states in southern regions use Spanish heavily.

The Louisiana Territory was populated with a black race originally from the West Indies: The Creoles. Creoles had lived under Spanish, then French rule, and eventually became ‘Americans,’ as a result of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). Thus, in addition to an enslaved African-American population, New Orleans had a population of free black Creoles, who were able to rise to high levels of society.

The Creoles lived in the French section, east of Canal Street, and were well-respected and both culturally and economically valuable in their area. They trained formally in classical, European musical styles, played in society bands, chamber ensembles, and Opera Houses.
With the abolishment of slavery, freed slaves took root west of Canal Street, where they delved in the emergent informal forms described above.

Thus, two very different black cultures developed on opposite sides of town: the refined, Paris-schooled Creoles; and the course, untrained, back o town ex-slaves.

In 1894, racial prejudices reared their nasty head, forcing the refined Creoles to move into the ‘black district’ west of Canal Street. And suddenly, two very different musical cultures were forced together.

Jelly Roll Morton is credited (especially by himself) as the inventor of jazz. Although it would be impossible to claim that any one man is wholly responsible for a form that was born out of so many distinct elements, he did contribute several important elements, such as the swing syncopation adaptation of a variety of music, including the most formal of European styles, the fusion of a 4/4 beat on a 2/4 rhythm, as well as scat singing, and other forms of improv.

Jazz absorbed the strong underlying beat carried over from African music, as well as polyrhythms, and playing a melody ‘above the beat.’ With this African sense of musical pulse, jazz incorporated formalized European dance rhythms, creating the characteristic jazz swing. European harmonies and scales were melded with African, borrowing a ‘blue note’ from the pentatonic scale.

Thus, jazz was the eventual result of a fusion of many different cultural elements which were brought together, and in some cases created by the unique historical situation of America. Only New Orleans could bring together so many unique elements from slavery to high-class ‘Europeanized’ blacks. Jazz was the result of the rapidly-changing diversity of the New World, and stands as a monument to a cultural struggle, and a dark and embarrassing period in America’s past. Perhaps it is no surprise that such a universal, emotionally evocative form can trace its roots back to an agonizing struggle such as racial conflict and slavery.

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