It is common knowledge that it takes tough conditions to generate a diamond. The same way, the most celebrated works of art have seen the light under devastating conditions for the artist that created them.
Musically, New Orleans Jazz is a style that honors its African American folk principles, which gave origin to the polyphonic blocks now known as collective improvisation (DeVeaux and Giddins 25). Historical processes such as The Great Migration helped in spreading Jazz work, but New Orleans’ style owes itself to the way Creoles and Uptown blacks were able to influence each other (DeVeaux and Giddins 34). Importantly, the difficult socio-cultural and political environment of the once French territory of New Orleans, may account for the rough conditions that allowed the birth of America’s pride: Jazz.
When stablishing the origins of Jazz music, Buddy Bolden is generally recognized as the first important jazz musician in history (DeVeaux and Giddins 28). Most of what is known today about what happened before the decade of the 20s is that of oral tradition. However, the stories about Bolden’s prowess are mostly about the loudness he was able to achieve, and the way he seductively played blues (DeVeaux and Giddins 28). Anecdotes that have survived to our days relate to how he made people turn to see him play even in loud bars, mostly because of his personal imprint; he was one of the firsts to claim that music was present at all stages of life, even under the sheets (Burns). DeVeaux and Giddins pose comments about the cover of the New Orleans Mascot from November 1890, in a time previous to Bolden, where a picture features negro musicians playing brass and percussion instruments apparently very loudly and without music sheets, which was very awkward for the time of the publication when most of musicians were Creoles or Whites with an academic background (28). Bolden’s main contribution to jazz may be the four stops, which is a characteristic highlight to the second tempo of a four-tempo bar still used today.
Interestingly, a musician that falsely claimed he was the creator of jazz was Jelly Roll Morton, a composer of Creole origin who epitomized the perfect alliance between improvisation and composition (DeVeaux and Giddins 35). The son of a Creole mother, his story is characterized by playing in the adult entertainment industry and lying compulsively from a young age (Burns). He is among the first musicians brought to our days through recordings and he was the first one to put jazz on paper. While he is part of the first recording session with integrated musicians, his recording of Dead Man Blues depicts the historical failure of not having been able to choose a version that transmitted emotions instead of one with precise execution (DeVeaux and Giddins 35). A musician with a seductive nickname and living on his own since he was 17, Jelly Roll Morton’s big contribution was to bring the piano to jazz music.
Worth mention is the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a formation of five Negro men consisted of Nick LaRocca, Eddie Edwards, Larry Shields, Henry Ragas, and Tony Sbarbaro, cornetist, trombonist, clarinetist, pianist and drummer respectively (DeVeaux and Giddins 33). While not the first ragtime players, they were described as “something genuinely new to the market” (DeVeaux and Giddins 32). However, those important White players, composers and teachers that influenced the repertory, harmony and technique of black musicians, are not mentioned in oral history (DeVeaux and Giddins 33). The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was part of the movement of jazz that carried the music outside of New Orleans, thus helping spread the style.
Around the same time in history, another man started his late path in music. King Oliver did menial jobs before turning to the trombone first and the cornet later (DeVeaux and Giddins 37). All comments focused on his way of performing in public since he had a protruding left eye, which he was self-conscious about. He would lean on walls or wear hats in order to cover the affliction (DeVeaux and Giddins 37). But his contributions are those of the many props he would use as mutes to modify the timbre of his instrument that for some, led to the professional manufacturing of them. He also created King Oliver’s Jazz Band, often referred to as Creole Jazz band (DeVeaux and Giddins 37). To our days, he is known as Bolden’s heir, leaving a legacy of innovation in ways to modify the sound of an instrument.
While jazz music owes it all to the combination between composition and improvisation, it possesses a particular instrumentation that comes from two sources, brass band societies and string ensembles. From brass bands, they took the front line and the parading percussion composed of trumpets, trombones, and clarinets, as well as bass drum, snares and cymbals. The violin, banjo, mandolin, as well as the guitar and bass, were taken from the strings. The piano joined jazz bands later as an adaptation from ragtime (DeVeaux and Giddins 30). Each instrument had a specific task in performance that used to be respected by all musicians. Moreover, even before jazz bands started to record its music, they had reached an ensemble style that was defined by synergic free playing, and that would be later be known as collective improvisation (DeVeaux and Giddins 31). Additionally, the form of jazz music was borrowed from the folk aesthetics, and usually consisted of a ragtime composition with a 12-bar blues structure, that would be played strictly at first and including improvisations by the time the audience got engaged in it. The great polyphonic structures achieved through collective improvisation, the structure of ragtime and blues, and the instrumentation, shaped what we know today as a jazz standard.
Jazz, with a history of Black people as protagonists, has New Orleans as the birthplace of racial appropriation with Whites dressing up as Blacks for theater and presentations, thus representing the difficult background of the society. African American musical traditions such as polyrhythm, vocalized timbres, cyclic and repetitive structures, were combined with the local influence from marching bands and dance music. It originated in socio economic conditions of precarity, telling stories of musical prowess and rough economic conditions. Those socio-economic conditions existing in New Orleans were key in the development of the distinctive style that America enjoys today.
Burns, Ken. “History of Jazz – Ep. 01 – Gumbo (Beginnings to 1917).” YouTube, uploaded by Art Archive, April 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=an9ZEE53YbM
DeVeaux, Scott and Gary Giddins. Jazz. New York, Norton, 2009