Earlier this year I started compiling a history of jazz at the request of my nieces in California. So far there are six lessons which bring us through the rise of Bebop.I hope to post them here on a regular schedule, but knowing me. A lot of my facts are garnered from that font of all wisdom, Wikipedia. I try to source my quotes and factoids, but occasionally I fail. Apologies in advance. Comments, corrections, criticisms, and questions are always welcome.

Note also that the target audience for these posts are a pair of teenagers. Sometimes I’ll sound like a junior high school teacher.

Joe’s History of Jazz
Lesson 1
Jazz Origins

A music critic (whose name is lost to history) once noted that “talking about music is like singing about economics.” In the 70s this was updated to “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” (http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/11/08/writing-about-music/) The fact remains that learning about music is best done in the experience of music.

The origins of jazz can be traced to the music of pre-abolition slave gatherings, post-abolition minstrel shows, and the interchanges in the late 19th century between African-American musicians and those who had developed Afro-Caribbean musical forms. (A twice-daily ferry ran between New Orleans and Havana at the time. My guess is this ferry ran until Castro’s revolution in 1959.) The big difference between the two is that slaves in the American south where not allowed to use drums, whereas Africans in the Caribbean were able to maintain the drumming traditions brought over from Africa.

It starts in New Orleans, though others might argue that St. Louis, MO deserves the credit. Others will argue for Memphis. Later on, jazz will have centers all over the US – Chicago, New York, San Francisco, even Los Angeles (a most un-jazzy town, if you ask me). There are periods, one could argue, in which the purest jazz could only be found in Europe. Mind you, “pure” jazz sounds to be almost an oxymoron. Jazz is muddy, crazy, claims multiple inheritance, and is very hard to pin down.

The earliest recognizable jazz music includes ragtime and the blues in the 1890s and Dixieland from the period around World War I, though the forms of ragtime appeared as early as 1860 (!) in the music of a half-Jewish, half-Creole gent from New Orleans named Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Gottschalk performed extensively throughout the US, Caribbean, and South America before his death in 1869 (track 1).

Note that the term ‘ragtime’ does not indicate a time signature (as waltz time is 3/4, for example). “The defining characteristic of ragtime music is a specific type of syncopation in which melodic accents occur between metrical beats.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ragtime#Musical_form)

While Scott Joplin is the best-known proponent today of ragtime, he was far from the only one (and Joplin himself was prolific in other musical forms as well, including opera). Tom Turpin’s Harlem Rag (track 4), for example, was the first rag published by an African American. Whole books on the subject of music publishing have been written and much of the history of popular music is wrapped up in publishing and rights ownership. Suffice it to say that in the 1890s, publishing referred primarily to sheet music. Vess Ossman, a white banjo player and dance band leader, recorded popular versions of rags in the first decade of the 20th century, including the Buffalo Rag (track 3), another Tom Turpin composition. The Mississippi Rag (track 2), is considered the first ragtime composition, was published in 1897.

W.C. Handy was one of the first to document the blues, which evolved out of 19th century spirituals and work songs, publishing St. Louis Blues (track 9) in 1912. She’s a Mean Job Blues and Gulf Coast Blues (tracks 7 and 8) are examples of Handy’s own work. I preferred Armstrong’s take on St. Louis Blues to the Handy recording I found.

Other early published blues songs include Jelly Roll Morton’s Jelly Roll Blues (track 5, a band version featuring banjo and clarinet, and track 6 a solo piano version, composed 1905, published 1915). To my ears, however, this is more ragtime than blues.

“The basic 12-bar lyric framework of a blues composition is reflected by a standard harmonic progression of 12 bars in a 4/4 time signature. The blues chords associated to a twelve-bar blues are typically a set of three different chords played over a 12-bar scheme.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blues#Form) Note also the AAB rhyme scheme in vocal blues.

Memphis Blues (track 10) is sometimes considered the first published blues, it’s also argued to be more of a cakewalk, one of the precursors of ragtime. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jazz#Within_the_context_of_Western_harmony) I’d argue that Handy’s St. James Infirmary (track 11) straddles blues and what became jazz better than some of Handy’s other songs.

Dixieland includes elements of both blues and ragtime and is sometimes called Early Jazz or Hot Jazz. Louis Armstrong had early combos called the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, perhaps for this reason. (You’ll hear Armstrong’s name a lot in these little essays as he was one of the earliest jazz performers and had a long and prolific career.) “The term Dixieland became widely used after the advent of the first million-selling hit records of the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixieland#History) You can hear both ragtime and blues in their recordings. It seems to me that Satanic Blues (track 12) is really neither, but it sounds almost as quintessentially Dixieland as When the Saints Go Marching In.

When the Saints Go Marching In (track 13) was traditionally a funeral march. In the funeral music tradition of New Orleans, often called the “jazz funeral”, a band accompanying the coffin to the cemetery would play The Saints as a dirge. On the way back, the band would switch to the familiar “hot” or “Dixieland” style. You can hear a small taste of that dirge in Pete Fountain’s version, though I have heard versions which make the distinction much clearer.

Next: The Jazz Age.