Jazz: The Music of America
Jack H. David Jr.

Wharton County Junior College
Spring 1990

        Jazz music is considered, by many, to be the only original American art form. The beginnings of jazz came about through a blending of the musical culture of Africa and Europe (Tanner 14). Jazz was created by American blacks by joining elements of the music they brought with them from Africa with the music of the whites who had come from Europe (Collier 33). Collier gives the analogy of mixing blue and yellow paint to make green paint; the green paint is neither yellow or blue, but a totally new color. Such is also the case with the blending of African and European music; it is no longer African or European but something new and totally different (33). The word "Jazz" is of uncertain origin, but first appeared in print in 1917 (Apel 440). One theory is that the word "Jazz" came from a black cabaret musician from Chicago named Jasbro Brown; there is also evidence that the word is of African origin (Cuney-Hare 146). One theory, that I heard from a jazz musician in Austin, is that jazz evolved from music played in New Orleans brothels, where prostitutes were commonly referred to as "Jezebels". The music, therefore, became known as "that Jez music".

          The story of jazz begins in Africa. Music in Africa involved the whole community. It was so interwoven with their work, play and social and religious activities that it is difficult to separate music from its total role in the life of the people. Many of the daily activities within a tribe were accompanied by the pulse and beating of a drum. Emphasis on rhythm is such a natural element in African life that even African languages are very rhythm oriented. Some researchers even believe that Spanish music is so rhythmical because the Moors from North Africa had once conquered Spain. If this is true, then European music brought to America was already influenced by Africa (Tanner 14-15).

          Mrs. Cuney-Hare cites several examples of visitors to Africa who heard the music there and acknowledged the survival of African music styles in American black folk music. She quotes James Barnes, the novelist and war explorer, who visited central Africa in about 1914: "It was surprising to me, to find how similar African music is to that of the Negroes in America. That is evident even to one who is not a professional musician" (34). Mrs. Cuney-Hare gives an even more specific example by quoting Bishop Frederick Fisher of Calcutta, India, who also visited central Africa. Bishop Fisher was in Rhodesia when he heard natives singing a melody that sounded very familiar to him. He recognized the melody to be "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Not only was the melody almost identical, but the story told in the African language was that of a chariot lifting the soul of a beloved chief into the sky (68-69). Even though the Africans were stolen from their native land and separated from their heritage and culture, certain elements of their music survived to combine with European music to create the music that we call jazz.

          The fusion of African and European music was a result of African negroes being brought to colonial America as slaves. The enslavement of the African people is one of the darkest pages in the history of the Americas, resulting in indescribable human suffering. The power of the human spirit, to rise above the oppression of the flesh, manifested itself in the music of the negro slaves. Work songs that evolved among the slaves helped to ease the monotony of manual labor. Difficult tasks were accomplished through the rhythmic coordination of singing; for example, railroad workers would stand in a circle hammering the stakes to the beat of a work song. Field workers would sing what were known as "field hollers" (Tanner 18). Band leader Duke Ellington theorized: "Fearful of the silence of the slaves, their masters commanded them to raise their voices in song, so that all opportunity for discontented reflection or plans for retaliation and salvation would be eliminated" (Feather 13).

          From the inhumanity of slavery arose a new kind of folk music that gradually developed into a distinctly American art form. Even after slavery was abolished, black people continued to be oppressed and their music reflected that oppression. Black Americans became a sub-culture, and their music was almost unknown to the whites. Black folk music did not evolve into a form that was universally known until the 1890's. In the final years of the nineteenth century, a series of fateful events occurred that brought this form of music to a new level.

          There were several different types of black music that preceded jazz such as minstrel show music and spirituals, but the most important pre-jazz form was ragtime. Basically a type of piano music, ragtime was at its peak from about 1890 to 1910. It was known for its unique rhythmic feel; complex right-hand figures were woven over a left-hand rhythmic bass line, giving it a distinctive syncopated or "ragged" feeling (Collier 48). The word "ragtime" refers to "ragging the beat" or changing the accents of the beats to create syncopation (Gridley 42). Ragtime found its creative centers in Sedalia and St. Louis, Missouri. The most famous ragtime composer was Scott Joplin (1868-1917), who wrote several ragtime piano pieces such as "Maple Leaf Rag" (Williams 857).

          The true beginning of jazz music took place in New Orleans. The previously mentioned conditions and events came together with a few interesting twists of fate that created the first truly original American art form. During the slavery era there was a large field in New Orleans known as Congo Square, where slaves were allowed to gather on Sunday to sing, dance, and play their drums in their traditional African manner (Tanner 16). The white masters allowed the slaves to have dances and parties in Congo Square to "release tension," hopefully to increase work production during the rest if the week. These Sunday parties continued even past the abolition of slavery until they were outlawed in 1885, the same year that a young black man named Buddy Bolden was 17 years old. Buddy Bolden, a barber by trade, played the cornet in brass bands for funerals, parties, and parades. One day in the summer of 1894, in front of a crowd at Globe Hall, Buddy Bolden, to quote Buerkle: "turned his cornet into an extension of his very soul as he wailed a blues number. His playing had some of the Congo Square ease and flavor, but it was something more, something new". (13-14).

          At this time, in the city of New Orleans, there was a group of people known as "creoles". They were of mixed heritage, a combination of French, Indian, African and other groups. They were a sort of "middle class," in that they were not in the socially disadvantaged position that the true negroes were; however, they did not have the social status of the whites either. They considered themselves socially "above" the blacks and had very little interest in "black folk music". The creoles were able to receive quality musical training, some even traveling to Paris for study at conservatories (Gridley 41). In 1894, the same year that Buddy Bolden introduced his new style of cornet playing to the crowd at Globe Hall, a new law, the Louisiana Legislative Code No. 111, designated that anyone of African ancestry was "negro" (Buerkle 9). This placed the creoles on the same social level as the blacks they had previously snubbed. The creoles were forced out of their homes and into the uptown ghetto district. This profound social change in the city of New Orleans brought European and African music together in a way they had never been together before.

          Three years later, in 1897, the city of New Orleans passed an ordinance that restricted prostitution and other forms of "vice" to a 38 block area that came to be known as "Storyville," named after Sidney Story, the alderman who conceived the plan (Buerkle 17-18). The resulting brothels, dance halls, gambling houses etc., provided ample opportunity for the new jazz music to grow and develop. The next year, in 1898, the military bands from the Spanish-American War disbanded in New Orleans, flooding the pawn shops with high quality musical instruments (Collier 47). The uptown blacks gradually gained possession of these instruments and learned to play them. They did not have anyone to teach them or tell them the "official" limits of these instruments, so they just "blew them their own way" (Buerkle 14). Jazz music was thus born, and was soon to spread to the entire country.

          The instruments used in the early jazz groups each played an important role in the special sound of the group. Rhythm sections consisted of piano, string bass, and drums; the horn section was usually a trumpet, clarinet and trombone. Other instruments were used to a lesser degree, such as guitars, banjoes and violins. The saxophone soon became an important part of the jazz sound and in later years, jazz groups used a combination of five saxophones, four trumpets and four trombones with the rhythm section to create the now famous big band sound (Feather 57-192).

          One of the most important elements of jazz music is improvisation, or spontaneous composition. Improvisation could be colloquially defined as "making it up as you go along". Much of the music in the world was created in this way and was passed from generation to generation without being notated in a written form. Improvisation was an important part of European music through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. Ostransky states that manuscripts and printed scores of the baroque gives us only the vaguest notion of how the music sounded in actual performance. The composer considered his written score as an outline to be interpreted, in full, by the performer. Great improvisation was considered one of the highest forms of musical art, and the ability to improvise, a performer's "crowning artistic asset" (51-53). Even later composers, such as Beethoven, who were known for their written compositions, were accomplished improvisers. Czerny, a student of Beethoven, said of the master: "His improvisations were most beautiful and striking. In whatever company he might chance to be, he knew how to produce such an effect upon every hearer that frequently not an eye remained dry and many would break out into loud sobs" (Ostransky 53).

          In Africa, all music was improvised, as was early jazz music. The blacks in New Orleans that created jazz knew little or nothing about "proper" music notation. Improvisation gave the player the freedom to express his emotions and virtuosity beyond the limits of written music.

          Harder, in his appendix, gives a detail explanation of scales and harmonies used in western music. The scales used today began as modes that were created by the ancient greeks as long ago as 1200 B.C. These modes were later used by Gregorian monks in the 6th century A.D. to sing sacred chants. Only two of these modes are used to any extent today. One of these modes, the Ionian mode, is today known as the major scale; another mode, the aolian, is now called the minor scale.

          European music, often called "classical" music, has a harmonic structure using chords based on the notes of the scale. The basic form of a chord is the triad, which is three notes called the root,third and fifth. Triads are formed using each note of the scale as a root note (Harder 285-314). Additional notes can be added to the basic triad to create more complex chords. The most common note added to the basic triad is the seventh.

          Chords are used as framework for the melody; when chords change, it is called chord progression. One of the most common chord progressions which appear in all types of music uses the chords built on the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale. This chord progression is the basic harmonic form used in jazz, particularly the blues. These scales, chords, and chord progressions are the most important European elements that blended with African rhythm to create jazz.

          The basic form that is the foundation of all jazz improvisation, even today, is the blues. During the earliest merging of African and European music, the slaves sang very sad songs about their extreme suffering. The blues are usually played in a repeating 12 measure pattern, hence the term "12-bar blues." A basic chord progression (by measure ) for 12 bar blues is I-I-I-I7-IV-IV7-I-I7-V-IV-I-V7; however, there are many variations possible. Melodies are played or sung using this harmonic structure as a framework for improvisation. In later years the progression of ii-V-I became very important to jazz. There usually is a basic melody or "head" as jazzers often call it, upon which the musicians base their improvisation (Tanner 28-30). On one or more runs through the form or "chorus", the head is usually played or sang "straight" with the melody easily recognizable. Then, upon subsequent repeats of the chorus, the players improvise, using only the chords as a guide. The head is often restated in some form on the last chorus.

          One of the things that gives the blues a sound that is like no other kind of music is the use of what is called "blue notes." By Europeans standards, these are notes that do not even exist. They are notes whose actual pitch fall "in between" some of the notes of the European scale. In pentatonic scales found in west Africa, however, these notes are common. The blue notes are most commonly found just a little more than a half step below the third, fifth and seventh notes of the major scale, but can occur anywhere (Tanner 30-31).

          A common misconception about the blues that they are always sad. The blues can sound melancholy and forlorn, but given a faster tempo and variations in playing style, a happier mood is the result (Tanner 32). Boogie-Woogie is a fast blues style that has eight beats to the measure and a moving bass line that "makes you want to move your feet." A good example of this style is "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Bugle Boy". Early rock-and-roll tunes such as "Johnny B. Goode" also used a blues chord progression at a fast tempo.

          The blues is often instrumental, but was first and foremost a style of singing. Some other early great male blues singers were Blind Lemon Jefferson, Huddie Ledbetter, and Lightnin' Hopkins; some of the ladies that sang the blues were Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (Tanner 33-37). Today, blues singers such as B.B. King, Aretha Franklin and Fats Domino carry on the tradition.

          The jazz tradition that was conceived by the union of European and African music, and was given birth by fate in New Orleans, has evolved into many different forms. In the 30's and 40's the big bands were at their peak, with band leaders such as Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller and many others. The 50's was the age of Bebop, a fast-paced jazz style with such virtuosos as Charlie Parker , Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Different cities developed their own unique sounds and jazz "crossed over" and influenced rock-and-roll, country-western, gospel and other music styles.

          This writer is a serious musician who has had classical training and enjoys "straight" music; however, jazz and blues is this writer's first love, and this music will continue to provide a source of great pleasure and emotional release. Jazz was created by black people, but is now the music of all people; it represents the amalgamation of many styes of music into one; it is the music of America.

Works Cited

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Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,

Buerkle, Jack V., and Danny Barker. Bourbon Street Black: The

New Orleans Black Jazzman. New York: Oxford University Press,

Collier, James L. Inside Jazz. New York: Four Winds Press,


Cuney-Hare, Maud. Negro Musicians and Their Music. New

York: Da Capo Press, 1974.

Feather, Leonard. The Book of Jazz: From Then Till Now.

New York: Bonanza Books, 1965.

Gridley, Mark C. Jazz Styles: History and Analysis. Englewood

Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall,Inc., 1988.

Harder, Paul O. Basic Materials in Music Theory: A Programmed

Course. 6th ed., Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc., 1988.

Ostransky, Leroy. Understanding Jazz. Englewood Cliffs,

New Jersey: Prentice-Hall,Inc., 1977.

Tanner, Paul O.W. and Maurice Gerow. A Study of Jazz. 2nd ed.,

Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Co., 1973.

Williams, Martin. "Jazz". The Encyclopedia America:

International Edition. 1988