The Early Days of Jazz
Jazz music has been described in many ways in its relatively short
history. The genre has only been around for hundred years (like
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so they claim) or so and
surely many of the earliest jazz songs have been lost to an era with
very little recording technology. The jazz movement was poised to
explode at the beginning of the twentieth century, coming up as it
did with electric technology and industrialization.
Since then jazz has become a rather broad umbrella term that can
cover all sorts of sub-genres and fusions. A couple of the traits
that make jazz what it is are improvisation and offbeat rhythms,
things that have little to do with any particular scales or
instruments. They combine quite nicely with many different
instruments and techniques.
Like many new musical trends, in its early days jazz was sometimes
disdained by the established guard who deemed it decadent or sinful.
This was partly due to its association with gin joints and dance
clubs during Prohibition in the twenties and thirties. It also
happened because jazz was a whole new thing to the ears of the time,
a melding of European musical theories with those of
African-Americans. It is often said to be the a uniquely American
music genre with roots that could only grow in such a hodgepodge mix
The west African slaves of the new world brought with them their own
music, which was more dependent on complex drum rhythms and
interactive group singing than it was on the harmony and written
composition seen in the music of Western Europe. Symphonic pieces
often stuck to more standard time signatures as a base for more
complicated melodies and harmonies.
The first jazz musicians combined all of these aspects. New Orleans
is called the birthplace of jazz because its position as an
important center of the slave trade made it a place where these
traits came together early and often. After emancipation, as blacks
slowly began to integrate they also started using instruments and
musical theory of European origin more and more.
Jazz music spread rather quickly through the United States. Many
black people worked as entertainers, no doubt because employment
options for African-Americans of the time were, to say the least,
limited. Some of them worked on the riverboats that brought the new
sound up the Mississippi. When New Orleans's famed Storyville
district closed in 1917 a good portion of the demand for musical
entertainment in the city went with it. This caused more performers
to depart in search of greener pastures, bringing jazz to New York,
Chicago and other cities.
One of the stars of early jazz was Buddy Bolden, a cornet player who
was quite popular from about 1900 to 1907. He left no recordings,
unfortunately. Bolden departed from the common written ragtime
compositions and improvised quite frequently to make a potent mix of
ragtime, hymn, blues, and marching band music. His band relegated
stringed instruments to the rhythm section and put woodwinds and
brass at the forefront.
Another important early jazzman was Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton.
This Afro-Creole piano player also got his start in Storyville, but
he enjoyed a much longer career than Buddy Bolden. He penned an
extensive collection of jazz standards like "King Porter Stomp" and
"Jelly Roll Blues." He left town with a traveling troupe around 1904
and wound up traveling extensively throughout the United States.
The very first jazz recording was not made by either of these
fellows, however. That distinction belongs to The Original Dixieland
Jass Band, who released "Livery Stable Blues" in 1917. Other bands
followed suit and jazz was on its way to the top.
Copyright reserved worldwide Gordon Parry 2008