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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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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 superseded 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

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The History Of Jazz - Part 2 - Jazz In The Twenties

Most of the vital developments which occured in jazz during the twenties took place in two cities, Chicago and New York. Both were hotbeds of the entertainment industry and both were magnets for the black immigrants who were streaming out of the Southern States in the first half of the century in search of a better lifestyle.

By the twenties there was a black quarter in Chicago, the South Side with a population of around 100,000 people, whilst New York's Harlem was already a sort of capital city for the black population of the USA. In both Chicago and New York young white musicians were catching on to this novel black music as they had in New Orleans and were beginning to make their own bespoke contributions.

Chicago was the place where most of the classic recordings were made by New Orleans musicians like King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Baby Dodds, Freddie Keppard, Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmy Noone.

Other up-and-coming musicians came to Chicago from other parts of the country such as the dazzling young pianist from Pittsburgh Earl Hines, and young white musicians from allover the Midwest whose ears had been enchanted by jazz, the cornettist Bix Beiderbecke from Davenport, Iowa, guitarist Eddie Condon from Indiana, and the clarinettist Pee Wee Russell from Missouri.

There they met a native Chicagoan coterie who had all attended a single school, Austin High and which included a number of important musicians including the brilliant drummer Dave Tough and an extraordinary clarinettist named Frankie Teschmacher.

Some of these youths had flrst been inspired by the recordings of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), a rather frenetic copy of New Orleans jazz, but they soon realized that it was the great black musicians who were the fountainhead of the music and consequently went to sit at the feet of King Oliver at the Royal Gardens and Johnny Dodds at Kelley's Stables.

Curiously, this white Chicagoan jazz did not turn out to be a carbon copy of the sounds of these men. The feeling was different, New Orleans jazz was deeply relaxed. In comparison these middle-class white Chicagoans sounded individualist and anarchic which was probably because that was what they were i.e. middle class drop-outs, bohemians, they were the kind of people from whose ranks jazz (and later rock music) musicians and fans have so frequently been recruited.

Paradoxically these iconoclasts turned out to be surprisingly conservative. It was white players like Muggsy Spanier who preserved the archaic styles of King Oliver and company. The bands of survivors gathered by Eddie Condon in the Fifties and Sixties were playing much as they had in the Twenties, and still it should be added they were playing excellent music. In the music of men like clarinettist Kenny Davern the tradition still thrives today.

By the end of the Twenties, most of the major musicians in Chicago, white and black had moved on to seek their fortunes in New York. There they found some jazz developments that had been happening in the north-east. In New York jazz had also been taken up by white musicians, most of whom took their cue from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In general the results were more sedate than in Chicago, but the guitarist Eddie Lang, violinist Joe Venuti and trombonist Miff Mole evolved a refined chamber jazz idiom.

A more important factor in the north-east however was the local school of advanced ragtime pianists which is known to history as "stride". The name comes from the powerful and technically demanding bass patterns which were the hallmark of the style. These consisted of alternating widely spaced chords and single notes giving the impression that the pianist's left hand was striding vigorously up and down the keyboard.

Like classic ragtimers, the stride pianists wrote elaborate compositions intended to dazzle audiences and subdue their rivals, but in performance these could be extended indefinitely into a semi-improvised sequence of "tricks", such as harmonic runs or riffs (i.e. repeated phrases), designed to build up momentum and display virtuosity.

The stride pianists were loners and dandies inclined to silver-topped canes and elaborately pleated overcoats. When they met one another a gladitorial battle of music was likely to result, as might happen at the private fund-raising rent parties which Harlem dwellers would throw in their flats.

Of the Harlem pianists, the most typical was James P. Johnson (1894-1955), the most idiosyncratic William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith, known as Willie "The Lion" (1897-1973), and the most famous, Thomas "Fats" Waller (1904-1943).

Johnson's fiendishly difficult 'Carolina Shout' was the benchmark of stride, the piece that all younger players had to master, but it was perhaps Waller, Johnson's pupil and close follower who left the most irresistible examples of the genre.

One more key event was happening in New York at this time, various black musicians were finding ways in which to blend the freedom and improvisation of New Orleans Jazz with the instrumentation of the kind of large ensemble that worked in New York dance halls and clubs. In other words, this was the birth of Big Band jazz.

The most brilliant musician in at the delivery was Duke EIlington, but his contribution was so individual that it had little influence in the short term. It was in the band led by Fletcher Henderson that the standard formula for big band arrangements was worked out. Saxophonist Don Redman carried out the groundwork for this.

After his departure the easy going Henderson continued refining the division of the band into sections, trumpets, reeds, trombones and simplifying what they played into riffs. The result was a Big Band that would play with the pared-down ease of a small group, the blueprint for the forthcoming Age Of Swing.

Next Time in Part 3 - The Age Of Swing ( click link )

* Also see :- Louis Armstrong 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 Webmaster with Sony Jazz UK)  
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