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The JAZZ Story

The JAZZ Story
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An Outline History of Jazz

In the span of less than a century, the remarkable native American music

called Jazz has risen from obscure folk origins to become this country's

most significant original art form, loved and played in nearly every land on


Today, Jazz flourishes in many styles, from basic blues and ragtime

through New Orleans and Dixieland, swing and mainstream, bebop and

modern to free form and electronic. What is extraordinary is not that Jazz

has taken so many forms, but that each form has been vital enough to

survive and to retain its own character and special appeal. It takes only

open ears and an open mind to appreciate all the many and wide-raging

delights jazz has to offer.


Jazz developed from folk sources. Its origins are shrouded in obscurity, but

the slaves brought here from Africa, torn from their own ancestral culture,

developed it as a new form of communication in song and story.

Black music in America retained much of Africa in its distinctive rhythmic

elements and also in its tradition of collective improvisation. This heritage,

blended with the music of the new land, much of it vocal, produced more

than just a new sound. It generated an entire new mode of musical


The most famous form of early Afro-American music is the spiritual.

These beautiful and moving religious songs were most often heard by

white audiences in more genteel versions than those performed in rural

black churches. What is known as gospel music today, more accurately

reflects the emotional power and rhythmic drive of early Afro-American

music than a recording of a spiritual by the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers

from the first decade of this century.

Other early musical forms dating from the slavery years include work

songs, children's songs, and dances, adding up to a remarkable legacy,

especially since musical activity was considerable restricted under that



After the slaves were freed, Afro-American music grew rapidly. The

availability of musical instruments, including military band discards, and

the new-found mobility gave birth to the basic roots of Jazz: brass and

dance band music and the blues.

The blues, a seemingly simple form of music that nevertheless lends itself

to almost infinite variation, has been a significant part of every Jazz style,

and has also survived in its own right. Today's rock and soul music would

be impossible without the blues. Simply explained, it is and eight (or

twelve) bar strain with lyrics in which the first stanza is repeated. It gets its

characteristic "blue" quality from a flattening of the third and seventh notes

of the tempered scale. In effect, the blues is the secular counterpart of the



By the late 1880's, there were black brass, dance and concert bands in

most southern cities. (At the same time, black music in the north was

generally more European-oriented.) Around this era, ragtime began to

emerge. Though primarily piano music, bands also began to pick it up and

perform it. Ragtime's golden age was roughly from 1898 to 1908, but its

total span began earlier and lingered much later. Recently, it has been

rediscovered. A music of great melodic charm, its rhythms are heavily

syncopated, but it has almost no blues elements. Ragtime and early Jazz

are closely related, but ragtime certainly was more sedate.

Greatest of the ragtime composers was Scott Joplin (1868-1917). Other

masters of the form include James Scott, Louis Chauvink Eubie Blake

(1883-1983) and Joseph Lamb, a white man who absorbed the idiom



Ragtime, especially in its watered-down popular versions, was

entertainment designed for the middle class and was frowned on by the

musical establishment. The music not yet called Jazz (in its earliest usage it

was spelled "jass"), came into being during the last decade of the 19th

century, rising out of the black working-class districts of southern cities.

Like ragtime, it was a music meant for dancing.

The city that has become synonymous with early Jazz is New Orleans.

There is reality as well as myth behind this notion.

New Orleans: Cradle of Jazz

New Orleans played a key role in the birth and growth of Jazz, and the

music's early history has been more thoroughly researched and

documented there than anywhere else. But, while the city may have had

more and better Jazz than any other from about 1895 to 1917, New

Orleans was by no means the only place where the sounds were

incubating. Every southern city with a sizable black population had music

that must be considered early Jazz. It came out of St. Louis, which grew to

be the center of ragtime; Memphis, which was the birthplace of W.C.

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