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The History Of Jazz - Part 1
- Where It All Began

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The History Of Jazz - Part 1
- Where It All Began

If you are already a jazz aficionado you will already be aware of the following details so this article is aimed at those of you who are 'new to Jazz' or 'catching up'.

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Whenever an artist is mentioned in the articles, YOU can send us your take on THEIR BIOGRAPHY and we will link it to a separate page with your credits. Send us the Biographies to info@jazznet247.net (We will reserve the right to edit before publishing) - See Louis Armstrong

The History Of Jazz - Part 1 - Where It All Began

New Orleans is and was an exceptional place, originally a French settlement it only became part of the USA with the purchase of Louisiana in 1803. Sited on the banks of the Mississippi river it looked south to Latin America and the Caribbean, hence this element in New Orleans music which Jelly Roll Morton dubbed 'The Spanish Tinge'.

Throughout the nineteenth century, New Orleans retained a French-speaking upper class called 'The Creoles', who looked to Paris for their culture. It was tough, the street parades were still an essential part of city life and might result in pitched battles between the inhabitants of the rival areas. Jelly Roll Morton recounted " If they'd have ten fights on a Sunday, they didn't have many."

No doubt the reality could be squalid but with hindsight, old-time New Orleans sounds wonderful. the street parades, Mardi Gras, picnics, dances, funerals, brothels in the memories of those who lived through it, all of these merged into one enormous party.

Consequently there was a tremendous demand for one commodity, 'music'. It was met largely by two groups:- working-class blacks and the Creoles of colour. It is in this interaction between these two that many have seen to be the 'origin of jazz'.

The Creoles were craftsmen and small tradesmen, cigar-makers, shoemakers, tailors and jealous of their status who played with a conventional, legitimate technique.

As against the Creoles' well-trained fluency, the black musicians had one great asset, the rhythmic flair which came from Africa. They didn't, and generally couldn't, read musical scores, but instead played 'head music', i.e. by ear and memory.

When they got to New Orleans the black players took up the instruments of the creole bands e.g. cornet, trombone, clarinet, tuba, bass, but at moments of emotional climax they continued to roughen their instrumental sounds as a gospel or blues singer would, and like an African drummer - 'they swung'.

The exact sequence of events i.e. 'who contributed to what and when' we are never likely to know as no recordings were made of New Orleans jazz until 1917, and none by black or Creole musicians until several years after that.

The first major player of whom we hear was a black barber and cornettist named Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), but Bolden made no records and was committed to a mental hospital in 1907 where he remained for the rest of his life. He was noted for his forceful sound and blues playing, but probably he remained closer to ragtime rhythm than to fully-fledged jazz.

The first jazz musicians of whom we have adequate recordings were born a little later. Most important amongst them were Joe "King" Oliver (1885-1938), Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton (1890-1941), Sidney Bechet (1897-1959) and Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), all of whom recorded, but not in New Orleans as there were no studios there until later on, but in Chicago.

The cornet was the dominating instrument in New Orleans bands, the one around which the others pivoted. New Orleans jazz is an ensemble music, from time to time one instrument comes to the fore, then another, but much of the time most of the musicians are playing at the same time.

The cornet would give the music its basic melodic direction or as the players called it, ' its lead ' (" Play more lead on that comet! " Oliver would tell his young protegé, Louis Armstrong).

Above this the clarinet would weave a fluid, higher part, the trombonists, of whom Kid Ory was the most respected at this time, would fill in below in the choppy New Orleans style (known as 'tailgate', because when a band played on a cart, the trombonist had to sit facing rearwards so he could manipulate his slide over the back).

The rhythm instruments were generally drums, tuba or a string bass and perhaps a banjo, New Orleans produced some superb rhythm players in the drummers Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Paul Barbarin and excellent bassists in Pops Foster and Wellman Braud.The piano was a rarity in those days, partly because it was impossible to carry on parades, picnics and other mobile festivities.

During the thirties, the New Orleans style was forgotten, but at the end of the decade a small group of fans started listening to the old recordings. On the recommendation of Louis Armstrong, the cornettist Bunk Johnson (1879-1949), a colleague of Buddy Bolden, was summoned from retirement, provided with a new pair of false teeth and was soon performing and recording to great acclaim. This was the beginning of the ' New Orleans revival '.

In the wake of Johnson other unknown players started touring and recording, amongst them the clarinettist George Lewis and the trombonist Jim Robinson. It was discovered that the semi-professional street music of New Orleans was still alive and well.

Soon young white players were trying to emulate this pre-swing style which had been superceded by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Duke Ellington twenty years before. In terms of worldwide popularity, New Orleans traditional jazz, or 'trad jazz' was far more important than bop.

By the early fifties it was a tremendous craze in America and Europe, especially with students and bohemians. In Europe, 'trad jazz' was the immediate forerunner of Rock music and supplied many of the same danceable qualities. It is still played all over the world.

Today in New Orleans itself there are still street bands and performances at Preservation Hall, but hope for the future must rest on eclectic younger musicians, like those in the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth Brass Band who use the music of their native city as a basis for something new.

Next Time in Part 2 - Jazz In The Twenties

* Also see :- Chet Baker Biography
* Also see :- Dave Brubeck Biography
* Also see :- John Hammond Biography
* Also see :- Nica de Koenigswarter Biography
* Also see :- 52nd Street
* Also see :- Tin Pan Alley

Wes George (former Sony Jazz webmaster)
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