TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
All photographs are property of the label/agency that provided them
(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")
(You can also listen to a playlist of this chapter)
The beginnings: New OrleansTM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
At the turn of the century, the streets of New Orleans were awash in blues music, ragtime and the native brass-band fanfares. The latter, used both in the Mardi Gras parades and in funerals, boasted a vast repertory of styles, from military marches to "rags" (not necessarily related to Scott Joplin's ragtime music). The Excelsior Brass Band, formed in 1880, raised the Creole drummer John Robichaux and the Creole clarinetist Alphonse Picou. The Onward Brass Band, formed around 1884, featured Creole cornet player Manuel Perez. Notably missing from this mix was religious music, that played a lesser role in the birth and development of jazz music. Also missing was white popular music, that would define the "commercial" format of jazz music, but not its core technical characteristics.
New Orleans' brass bands eventually spread into the saloons and the dancehalls of "Storyville", the red-light district created by a city ordinance in 1897. These bands (such as Jack "Papa" Laine's Reliance Brass Band, the first major white band, formed in 1892, John Robichaux's band, formed in 1893, the main popularizer of the Creole style, Buddy Bolden's band, formed in 1895, Alphonse Picou's Columbia Brass Band, formed in 1897, Manuel Perez's Imperial Orchestra, formed in 1900) probably played a mixture of blues, ragtime and traditional dance music.
The performers who shared a passion for syncopation and for improvisation were either brass bands (cornet or trumpet for the melody, clarinet for counterpoint, trombone or tuba or percussion for rhythm), that very often were marching bands, or solo pianists, who very often were ragtime pianists.
In 1898 the US defeated Spain (gaining Puerto Rico and "liberating" Cuba). The troops that were coming back from the Caribbean front landed in New Orleans with European brass instruments that were sold cheaply on the black market. Within a few years, every neighborhood in New Orleans boasted a brass band. The influence of blues music could be heard in the way these instruments were played, because they basically imitated the vocal styles of blues music (often on a syncopated rhythm borrowed from ragtime).
A fundamental attribute of New Orleans was the perennial party atmosphere. This was not New York's melting pot, very competitive in nature: this was a melting pot that allowed for a lot of fun. New York was a cosmopolitan financial center. New Orleans was a cosmopolitan amusement park. Thus music was always in demand, not just as paid entertainment but as the soundtrack of a never-ending party. In other cities ethnicity was a problem. In New Orleans ethnicity was an opportunity to improve the party, because each ethnic group brought its different style of partying (e.g., dances) to the party. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
The most popular orchestras emphasized the cornet/trumpet (the main melodic instrument) and the clarinet (the counter-melody), while the trombone provided the bass counterpoint and the other instruments (drums, banjo, guitar, contrabass, piano) provided the rhythm section.
In 1911 Bill Johnson, a New Orleans bass player, moved to California and eventually managed to get his orchestra to follow him. From 1913 till 1917 the Original Creole Band was the first black orchestra to tour outside New Orleans.
Unlike blues music, that was exclusively performed by blacks, jazz music was as inter-racial as the melting pot of New Orleans. Blacks were not the only ones who played jazz. Jazz groups were formed by Italians, Creoles and all sorts of European immigrants. The "African" roots of the music may or may not have been obvious to the practitioners, but clearly it did not stop them from adopting it.
In the meantime, the dance craze that swept the northern cities in the 1910s, originating in New York from black musicians such as Ernest Hogan and James Europe, fostered the creation of "syncopated orchestras" both in New York and Chicago.
New York was the epicenter of a fusion of the three great fads of the time: syncopated orchestras, ragtime and blues.
Chicago soon became a middleground of sorts. The soul of the city's black music was Joe Jordan, and the main mentors were the clubs of the "Black Belt", such as the "Pekin Theatre". Tony Jackson's Pretty Baby (1915) was the first big hit. The New Orleans Jazz Band was performing at the "Royal Gardens". During World War I, Chicago witnessed the rivalry between the orchestras of Dave Peyton and Erskine Tate. They featured several young talents who had immigrated from the South, such as Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet. A tour by Will-Marion Cook's orchestra in 1919 introduced Chicago to the syncopated world of New York, and involuntarily led to an exodus of black musicians towards New York. At the end of the war Cook formed the American Syncopated Orchestra.
Well into the 1920s the term "syncopated orchestra" was much more popular than "jazz orchestra", but the term "jazz music" was beginning to spread, among both black and white musicians. The first black musicians who consciously boasted of playing "jazz" were vaudeville artists. For example, Benton Overstreet's Jazz Dance (1917) was for many years one of Estelle Harris' most popular skits. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
The term "dixieland jazz" had already been employed by another white band, Tom Brown's Dixieland Jass Band, also based in Chicago, and the first white jazz band to tour the north (although not New York).
Chicago had become a major center of ragtime music after the World's Fair of 1893. New Orleans trombonist Tom Brown was the leader of a white ragtime orchestra and moved to Chicago in 1915. He adopted the term "jass" that had been first been used on the West Coast and his success spawned a "jass" trend. "Jass" was identified not so much with a musical style but with a geographical place (New Orleans), with frenzied fun (bordering on slapstick) and with sexual innuendoes in a period when the authorities were trying to crack down on immoral dances. "Jass" was a term with sexual connotations, but the instrumental music of jass bands was tolerated by the moral bigots. Thus it found the right balance between being allowed to reproduce and appealing to an audience that craved morbid entertainment.
The backdrop for the boom of "dixieland jazz" was World War I: while millions of young men were being slaughtered in the trenches of Europe, Chicago was dancing at the sound of this exuberant and clownish music.
The new medium that helped spread the boom of "dixieland jazz" to the rest of the country was the record. It was the first new genre of music that spread thanks to the new medium. Previously a new form of music or dance had required the physical movement of its protagonists who had to personally evangelize the rest of the country. Dixieland jazz spread thanks to the virtual movement of the protagonists via the record. The history of jazz was, from the beginning, also the history of how the music industry learned to make music travel without making its musicians travel, first with the piano rolls of ragtime and then with the records of dixieland jazz. The appeal to see the protagonists live was still very high, but the live performance was becoming less and less indispensable. The market for records had boomed thanks to the dance craze. During the war the price of records had been significantly reduced, making records affordable for a much larger segment of society. In 1919 a law was introduced to break the monopoly of the two majors, Victor and Columbia, and allow their competitors to sell the same kind of "lateral-cut records" that could be played on the most popular phonographs. Despite the fact that the sudden popularity of the radio (followed by the Great Depression) caused a sharp decline in sales of records (that did not recover until the end of the Great Depression), the turmoil in the industry allowed more musicians to record and more fans to listen to them.
Dixieland jazz was a gross misrepresentation of jazz music for the white audience. It was a novelty architected for an unsophisticated audience that was interested only in novelties. New Orleans musicians who emigrated in the 1910s had never heard the term "jass" before they arrived in Chicago.
Black musicians were not recorded partly because of racial discrimination but partly also because they were much more jealous of their style: their aim was to hide their sound from the competition, not to spread it all over the nation.
Black songwriter William Handy (the same man who had inaugurated the age of notated blues) recorded one of the first songs with "jazz" in the title: Benton Overstreet's Jazz Dance (september 1917), and performed a "jass concert" in april 1918 at New York's Selwyn Theatre. The word "jazz" began to circulate throughout the dancehalls for white people of the USA. Although initially considered only a new kind of ragtime, jazz became rapidly a sensation both in the USA and abroad.
Harlem musicians were evolving ragtime into a faster and louder syncopated style, that relied a lot more on individual improvisation. Its roots were still in blues music: the soloists were often trying to emulate the singing of the blues, and the counterpoint was trying to emulate the call-and-response of the blues. After all, many jazz musicians cut their teeth accompanying blues singers, and learned to respond to the nuances of those passionate singers. Jazz bands took the piano from ragtime, the saxophone and the trumpet from dancehall bands. But the popularity of blues singers in the 1920s was such that New York's recording industry did not show much interest for jazz orchestras.
If the origins of jazz music were confusing, the difference between New Orleans and the other epicenters was more clear: improvisation. The ragtime pianists, the syncopated orchestras (both black and white), the blues singers and even the various outfits (black and white) that used the proto-term "jass", were playing composed music with minimal (if any) degree of improvisation. The real improvisation was done only in the south, first by blues musicians (who mainly used vocals and guitar) and then by the musicians of New Orleans (who used also the horns). Improvisation introduced a different concept of musician. The musician of written music is, mainly, the composer, whereas the musician of improvised music is, mainly, the player. Because of improvisation, blues and jazz music were emphasizing the persona of the player to a degree unheard of among opera singers or classical violinists. The emphasis shifted from playing (or singing) the exact notes in a sublime manner to playing (or singing) as far as possible from the exact notes while still playing the same tune. Needless to say, the latter allowed the player a greater degree of personal emotion.
Among the early protagonists of New Orleans were: trumpeter Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, equally famous for his "scat" singing (wordless vocal improvisation); soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, another black Creole, the first master of an instrument that had not previously been identified with African-Americans; trumpeters Bunk Johnson and Freddie Keppard, another black Creole (whose "fat" sound was influential in Chicago); clarinetists Johnny Dodds (one of the wildest soloists of his time), Jimmie Noone (the epitome of elegance) and George Lewis; drummer Warren "Baby" Dodds.
Jazz music was very much a continuation of blues music, except that it took advantage of the instruments of the marching band. The jazz musician was basically "singing" just like the blues singers even though he was playing an instrument instead of using his vocals. The kind of dynamics and of improvisation was identical. The call-and-response structure was replicated in the dialogue between solo instrument and ensemble. Compared with European music, that for centuries had "trained" the voice to sound as perfect as the instruments, jazz music moved in the opposite direction when it trained the instruments to sound as emotional as the human voice of the blues. After all, many jazz instrumentalists made their living accompanying blues singers in the vaudeville circuit. The main difference between jazz and blues, i.e. the heavy syncopation, was the original contribution of ragtime.
Thus the marching bands contributed the instruments, blues singers contributed the improvisation, and ragtime contributed the syncopation (that ragtime had, in turn, taken from the "minstrel shows"). Jazz as a separate genre of music was born at the intersection of collective improvisation and heavy syncopation. Another defining feature was that it was mainly instrumental (blues music was mainly vocal). For some observers of the time jazz music may have sounded simply like the instrumental side of blues music, or the group version of ragtime, or a non-marching club-oriented evolution of the marching bands.
Soon new instruments were incorporated (such as the saxophone) and some habits developed (the "riff", a rhythmic phrase repeated several times, or the "break", a brief solo during a pause by the ensemble). The material that was played came from the most diverse sources: William Handy's songs, Scott Joplin's rags, pop songs, blues songs, and traditional slave songs. Initially, jazz musicians showed little interest in being also composers.
When Storyville was shut down in 1917, jazz simply moved with the black entertainers who had to relocate to Memphis and Chicago (e.g., King Oliver in 1918, Louis Armstrong in 1922). But the exodus of black musicians was also part of the "Great Migration" that saw thousands of blacks leave the South for the northern cities, mostly because of better job opportunities created by World War I in the North (the defense industry was mostly based in the North) and because of a boll weevil infestation that caused great damage to cotton plantations in the South. But also because of more tolerant attitudes: the industrialists of the North were literally luring blacks to their factories while plantation owners were still treating them like slaves. The result of the migration was the establishment of large black communities in Chicago, Detroit and New York, where they displaced white middle-class communities (as in New York's Harlem, that used to be a rich white neighborhood).
Jazz eventually spread to every corner of the USA. In fact, jazz was one of the first musical genres to owe its diffusion to a whole new world of communication of information. The birth of jazz music parallels a revolution in music "media". The first revolution was caused by the networks of vaudeville theaters that were formed by entrepreneurs such as Pericles "Alexander" Pantages in 1902, Martin Beck in 1905 and especially Fred Barrasso in 1907 (whose brainchild, the Theater Owners's Booking Association, or T.O.B.A., became the most important for black performers). These circuits created a low-inertia way to distribute musical novelties to the entire country: the musicians would simply follow the circuit. The dance craze of the 1910s was spread around the USA mainly by "territory bands" (both white and black) that traveled the circuit of vaudeville theaters and other improvised dancehalls. Many of them converted to jazz music after 1917. Another revolution came (in the following decade) with the popularity of the phonographic record, that turned a local phenomenon into a city-wide, state-wide and eventually country-wide phenomenon. And later (in the 1920s) the boom of jazz would come thanks to the radio, that dramatically accelerated that communication from region to region. Jazz was as much the product of New Orleans' melting pot as the product of an organizational and technological revolution. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
If Morton was basically still playing ragtime, Oliver's band was basically still a brass band (with the traditional interplay of cornet, clarinet and trombone). The real innovation was to be found in Oliver's solos: that "was" indeed a new form of music. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
After Louis Armstrong, the trumpet revolution was completed by Henry "Red" Allen, a New Orleans trumpeter who moved to New York in 1929 and became the second master of creative phrasing, both with Luis Russell's orchestra and with his own orchestra, that cut Biff'ly Blues (july 1929), Feeling Drowsy (july 1929) and It Should Be You (july 1929). Allen's and Russell's orchestras represented the natural bridge between the New Orleans era and the swing era. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
However, these masters of jazz were largely unknown to the masses.
Jazz "dance" was popularized by the same white syncopated orchestras
(such as Paul Whiteman's)
that had popularized previous styles of dancing. Only black communities were
familiar with the authentic jazz bands.
Jazz music had been, ultimately, the product of New Orleans' melting pot, and, in general, of the black culture of the southern states. The big difference between jazz and blues (or the spiritual or the work song) was that jazz was indeed an "American" phenomenon, not an "African" one. The roots of jazz music were in the South of the USA, not in West Africa. There was little relationship between the instruments of jazz and the original instruments of the West African slaves. The instruments of jazz came from the European brass bands. Quite simply, jazz was the product of blacks who had not been slaves, and, in most cases, couldn't even remember the ancestors who originally came from Africa: they were, quite simply, USA citizens (albeit second-class ones). Most blacks were in fact even more "American" than many of the European immigrants who were crossing the Atlantic by the millions in the years before and after World War I. Of course, the condition of blacks in the USA was one of great inferiority. However, jazz was the product of urban blacks from New Orleans, and then Chicago and then New York: the blacks who lived the least segregated life in the USA.
In fact, most jazz musicians were striving to get accepted and integrated in the USA society. They wanted to be like white people. They de facto repudiated the culture of their ancestors and were eager to adopt the culture of the whites.
Jazz music was a USA phenomenon and not an African phenomenon the same way that country music was a USA phenomenon and not a British phenomenon. The fact that country music was a descendant of British folk music does not make it any more British than, say, baseball (derived from cricket). On the other hand the fact that both jazz and country music were born in the South was very relevant: the South was more prone to create the musical identity of the new country than the industrialized North, with its close ties to Europe. In other words, the brass bands of New Orleans' funerals were more important for the development of jazz music than the rituals of West Africa.
The lyrics told the same story. The lyrics of blues songs were emotional and documentary representations of harsh conditions of life. Jazz music had no lyrics or lyrics that were as artificial as the lyrics of pop songs. Jazz lyrics were, ultimately, disposable. In fact, jazz would become a mostly instrumental genre. Blues music, on the other hand, was very much about the lyrics: instrumental-only blues music was almost an oxymoron. Thus, in spirit, jazz was closer to pop than to blues music.
Jazz was born as music to dance to. Blues music was born as music to mourn to. Again, jazz was closer to dance music than to blues music.
Last but not least, there were white jazz musicians from the very beginning, whereas there were no white blues musicians until the 1950s.
All in all, the view that jazz was "African" was a racist view. White intellectuals claimed that jazz was "African" simply because the ancestors of black musicians had come from Africa. But no white intellectual claimed that country music was British. The difference was that white society still identified blacks with a separate race. On the contrary, jazz probably represents better than anything else the historical moment when blacks stopped being an isolated, frozen culture, and became just one of the many ingredients of the melting pot, just one of the many groups of (very poor) immigrants; the moment when blacks started contributing to molding the shape and the soul of the society. Even when they rebelled against that society, they were part of it and wanted to be part of it. After all, few blacks desired to move back to Africa. They wanted to improve the society to reflect their values, just like any other member of that society.
Thus it is not surprising that it would be blues music, not jazz music, to send seismic shock waves into white music, once it began to percolate into white society. Jazz would eventually be assimilated by white pop music (from Broadway show tunes to Tin Pan Alley ballads) without causing any major upheaval. But the assimilation of blues would cause a Copernican revolution.
Early jazz was more properly a descendant of ragtime than of blues. Jazz was about embellishing a melody, an old European paradigm. Blues was more about rhythm than melody, thus remaining closer to the original African paradigm. In its early phase, jazz was recognized by both white and black audiences as a close relative of ragtime. Jazz initially had no name. For a long time, many people called it "ragtime" but they never called it "blues". There were white ragtime musicians, just like there were white jazz musicians. De facto, jazz was an evolution of ragtime, which was an evolution of the "coon song" of the minstrel shows, which were written by white people to make fun of black people: hardly an "African" tradition. The main difference between ragtime and jazz was, of course, the means of transmission. Ragtime was written composition, distributed as sheets. Jazz was improvised music, distributed as records. Other than that, the line between the two was blurred. Only in the 1920s did jazz music begin to employ complex harmonies that went well beyond ragtime harmony.
Last but not least, jazz was another stage in the ongoing process of black assimilation of white technology. Most of the instruments were as "un-African" as possible. And this was going to be the theme of black music for the rest of the century (from the electric guitar of rhythm'n'blues to the organ of gospel to the drum-machines of hip-hop). Jazz was, indirectly, also another stage in the process of black assimilation of white musical styles, because jazz was founded on ragtime, and ragtime was fundamentally the grafting of European musical styles (such as marches and waltzes) onto West-African syncopated rhythms. All in all, jazz was a lot more "white" than it appeared to be on the surface.
The West-African element of jazz music was the emphasis on (syncopated)
rhythm and the widespread use of polyrhythms, or, from the viewpoint of
instrumentation, the drums.
(In fact, the drums remained a distinguishing feature of black musical genres
until Bill Haley turned rock'n'roll into a white genre).
Also largely West African was the passion for timbral exploration: where
European music had always favored crisp tonality and harmonic rules (i.e., only
some sounds and some combination of sounds are lawful), black
music tended to explore the whole range of timbral and harmonic possibilities
(something that white academic music was beginning to do independently and
for different reasons at the beginning of the 20th century).
This also included the prominence of blue notes (notes that are not part of
the European pitch system).
The focus on the performer in jazz was real, but perhaps it simply masqueraded the rise of a different kind of composer.
The real dichotomy was to be found in the "composer": it is always singular in classical music, whereas it is often plural in jazz (and rock) music. The sound of a band is rarely due only to the ideas of the leader/composer. More than one member is usually responsible for the "composition". That remained the real difference between jazz and classical composition (but it also applied to rock music). TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.