Jazz came about through the marriage of African and European musical systems. It arose at the turn of the last century in the city of New Orleans and represents America’s principal contribution to the arts. This article summarizes the musical and historical events that lead to the emergence of jazz.
Musicologist, James Lincoln Collier, recommends the first four bars of King Oliver’s cornet solo in the song “Dippermouth Blues” as a good starting point for an investigation into jazz history. Collier argues that these four bars contain all the information needed to understand what jazz is all about. Oliver’s solo in this song has the following “jazzy” characteristics:
- It has an unusual—slightly shrill, but highly personalized—tone quality.
- It discards the Western convention of major and minor scales in favor of the blues scale.
- It displays a high degree of syncopation. (Syncopation, which is a rhythmic convention, consists of playing or singing accents on normally unaccented parts of the beat (Collier 5).
Not only is the ground rhythm of this song highly syncopated, but Oliver’s solo is even more syncopated than the song itself. Indeed, his cornet part is wholly detached from the song’s rhythm. It is like the song and the solo are travelers who have taken contrasting, but roughly parallel, routes through the countryside only to arrive at the same destination at the same time.
In a way, Oliver’s solo is like graffiti, because it’s a highly personalized artistic expression that can exist upon any backdrop.
Jazz is a product of African and European traditions. African traditions inform jazz’s rhythmic and social structures; European traditions inform jazz’s instrumentation and harmonic structures (Giddins and DeVeaux 43-44).
As “Dippermouth Blues” illustrates, jazz often has more than one rhythm happening at the same time. African drumming is like this, too. Both jazz and African drumming are said to be polyrhythmic, which means they exhibit simultaneous, un-congruent drumbeats. To the listener, polyrhythmic music sounds like it’s being continuously displaced by overlapping rhythms.
As far as its social structure goes, jazz is meant to be performed in front of a participatory audience. That is, one that is dancing, singing, and clapping along with the performance. Music in the African tradition is often of the call-and-response variety, so it is participatory by design. Jazz inherited this design.
In the European tradition, there is a clear boundary between audience and performer. It’s true, folk dancing and folk singing exist in European traditions, but these activities are nowhere near as ubiquitous, or as well ascribed to, as they are in Africa.
European traditions did, however, give jazz its instruments. The trumpet, piano, clarinet, guitar, saxophone—and most other jazz instruments—evolved in Europe. European traditions also gave jazz its harmonic conventions. Harmonic conventions are rules about simultaneously occurring note clusters known as chords. Nearly all jazz music is based on chord progressions, which travel like boxcars along the length of a song (Collier 6).
There are no chord progressions in traditional African music, but traditional European music is full of them. Jazz was invented by black Americans playing chord progressions on European instruments.
Some musicologists suggest that jazz is more closely related to European music than to African music. Despite this, jazz’s African heritage is a critical component to its makeup, so it deserves special scrutiny.
The African Heritage
In Africa, music is interwoven into every facet of daily life. There are rituals and accompanying songs for the mundane and the profound: songs for pulling in the fishing nets, songs for puberty rites, songs for funerals, songs for warriors, songs for hoeing the fields, et cetera (Collier 7).
In fact, speech itself is inflected in a way that western languages are not. The same word in African languages can be spoken differently—that is, sung differently—to change the meaning.
Consider the possible variants of the pronunciation of the West African word, ogun. It has more than twenty meanings. Say it one way and it means “medicine,” say it another and it means “god of iron,” still another and it means “property.” All the different meanings are determined by the word’s pitch inflection (“Ogun” para. 1).
Another feature of West African culture is a tradition of dramatic storytelling. Storytellers in this tradition often drift from sung words into spoken words in a manner not unlike the dramaturgical delivery that marked the speeches of Martin Luther King. .
African languages, because of their pitched nature, can be transmitted long distances via the talking drum. A talking drum is shaped somewhat like an hourglass and possesses cords affixed to the drumhead allowing players to perturb the tension and change the drum’s pitch. When the drum is played with a mallet, it can be used to create sounds approximating human speech.
Historian James Gleick offers this example of a West African birth announcement in his 2011 book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood:
Batoko fala fala, tokema bolo bolo, boseka woliana imaki tongkil gonda, ale nda bobila wa fole fole, asoka l’isika koke koke.
This is the translation:
The mats are rolled up, we feel strong, a woman came from the forest, she is in the open village, that is enough for this time (15).
In West Africa, the talking drum is used to transmit complex messages long distances. It predated the telegraph—the West’s answer to the problem of long-distance communication—by centuries.
Not all Africans play drums, but nearly all sing. Most African singing is highly rhythmic and exists in the call and response format. Here’s an example of an improvised poem recorded in 1826 by a Scottish naval officer and an English soldier in a book called Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa in the years 1822, 1823, and 1824:
Leader: Give flesh to the hyenas at daybreak,
Chorus: Oh, the broad spears.
Leader: The spear of the sultan is the broadest
Chorus: Oh, the broad spears.
Leader: I behold thee now — I desire to see none other,
Chorus: Oh, the broad spears.
Leader: My horse is as tall as a high wall,
Chorus: Oh, the broad spears
Leader: He will fight against ten, he fears nothing
Chorus: Oh, the broad spears (Krehbiel 102).
It’s almost as if the repeated refrain “Oh, the broad spears,” is acting as a percussion motif or as a drum part.
The pitch set, or scale, from which African songs of this sort are derived is called the pentatonic scale. It is comprised of five notes, just like its name suggests.
More remarkable than the presence of the pentatonic scale in this music is the presence of distorted, exaggerated timbres.
Timbre refers to tone quality. Consider that bass guitars and tubas can play the same notes but we, as the listeners, can tell which one’s which—even with our eyes closed. This is because the tuba and a bass guitar initiate and sustain their note differently, thus producing different timbres.
An African singer’s pitch delivery will often fall off at the end of a phrase and usually feature slurring between notes. Because the general concept of pitch is much less defined in these traditions, the music delivered using this approach may sound out of tune to our Western ears.
Another oddity is that African singing technique often uses guttural, back-of-the-throat growling sounds mixed with shouting. Techniques such as these create timbres designed to stand out.
Classically trained musicians in the Western tradition strive for an idealized and perfected tone. This approach creates the exquisitely balanced timbres of a symphony orchestra.
There is nothing like this sort of balance and homogeneity in African musical traditions. Instead, each voice is meant to be an individual.
As mentioned above, most African music is polyrhythmic. That is, most of the music features a complex interplay between multiple overlapping rhythms. The trained Western musician understand polyrhythms such as these as three against two and or as four against three.
The African version of these polyrhythms often takes the form of repeated phrases that sometimes overlap, and sometimes contrast, other repeated phrases happening at the same time.
In fact, the phraseology of African polyrhythms may overlap differently every time, or it may not overlap at all.It’s as if each rhythm exists within a separate but simultaneous song. (This is just like Joe Oliver’s lead break in “Dippermouth Blues.”) The results of this approach are complex, often bewildering, rhythmic textures.
As it happened, these rhythms were imported to America along with the Africans.
Check out this art film featuring a montage of African traditional music:
An American Tradition
Jazz represents a curious mix of style and form that could only have evolved in America and could only have been created by black Americans.
The transformation of African music traditions into African American music traditions occurred principally through the vehicle of the work song.
The work song has almost no analog in European traditions. (A sea shanty is a sort of work song, but it is the exception and not the rule.) European Americans, by and large, carried on with their work without musical accompaniment. Consequently, singing while working—though unusual to the whites—was not discouraged by slave owners because it did not interfere with any white traditions (Collier 18).
Closely related to work songs were the field hollers, which were shouts and moans issued forth while working alone in the fields. Historians believe that these yowls and yammers were used to communicate with fellow slaves working in distant fields.
The work songs and field hollers sung by the slaves were not necessarily related to the task at hand. Often the songs were used to express discontent and anger.
The rhythm of the work songs usually dictated the movement of the work—shucking corn, hoeing fields, rowing boats, etc.
Listen to this work song recorded in 1922 by a South Carolina chain gang:
Here are the lyrics to a typical work song:
Ooooh, the sun going down,
And I won’t be here long,
Ooooh, the sun going down,
And I won’t be here long.
Ooooh, then I be going home.
Ooooh, I can’t let this dark cloud catch me here.
Ooooh, I can’t stay here long,
Ooooh, I be at home.
During American colonialism, many blacks adopted Christianity. Some (in the north) participated in white church services and learned how to sing some of the songs from the hymnal (Collier 19).
By the beginning of the 19th century, blacks had begun to develop their own Christian congregations. They also began to develop their own repertoire of religious music including a form of hymn known as a spiritual. Spirituals were influenced by—and closely resembled—work songs. Like work songs, spirituals were quite dedicated to the call-and-response format (Collier 21).
A curious ritual, known as the ring shout, evolved by way of the spiritual. During a ring shout, blacks would whip themselves into a kind of religious ecstasy while shuffling and dancing in a circle. Often the participants would clap hands and sing songs. Some musicologists suggest that the ring shout exerted a considerable influence on the blues, which was an important form of black music that evolved during the second half of the nineteenth century (Collier 20-21).
Historians suggest that the blues made the most substantial contribution to the formation of jazz. Like work songs, ring shouts, and spirituals, blues used call-and-response, blues used unusual pitch sets, and blues used guttural, ragged timbres.
African Americans would often sing songs during leisure time that were stylistically akin to their work songs. These songs would have the same slow tempos, paired verses (sing a line, answer it with the refrain; sing another line, answer it again with the refrain, etc.), and ragged, sliding timbre as work songs. Moreover, since the song was not sung at work, the subject matter could be more self-reflective and personalized. Blues songs were often about sex or discontent.
It’s thought that the blues emerged as its own format sometime about 1880 and continued to evolve over the next generation. It arrived in its recognizable form sometime about 1910. The historical record is absent any mention of “the blues” until this time.
The first, and most primitive form of the blues is known as country blues. Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929), popular in the 1920s, represents the prototypical country bluesman—he played guitar and sang the blues.
The guitar’s availability, and affordability, increased at the end of the nineteenth century, so it was a practical choice to accompany the blues form. Reflecting a desire by the bluesmen to emulate ragged vocal timbres, the guitars were sometimes played with a knife’s edge or with a bottleneck.
In the strictest sense, blues is an organizational plan for black-dialect poetry. Here’s a typical example from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song, “Rambler Blues”:
Well, it’s train time now, and the track’s all outa line.
Well, it’s train time now, and track’s all outa line.
And I come here soon, I wanna catch that Number Nine.
Most unusual about the blues is its modal ambiguity. Most of the world’s music exists in one of two primary modes—the major scale or the minor scale. Blues, on the other hand, exists right in between these two modes. The blues scale is neither major nor minor: it’s somewhere in between.
Another style to influence jazz is ragtime. Ascendant in the last decade of the nineteenth century, ragtime was an upbeat and jangly piano music similar in style to the march of a brass band. Ragtime’s hallmark is heavy, near-ubiquitous syncopation.
Ragtime features the same three-over-two feel that is common in West African music. But ragtime takes the syncopation a step further. Ragtime divides the part of the rhythm featuring three beats unequally. Usually, in ragtime, the middle beat is twice as long as the other two beats.
On the other hand, the two-beat groupings were even in ragtime. They were usually played by the pianist’s left hand and provided a propulsive ground bass..
In the parlance of their time, playing this sort of mixed rhythm was know as ragging the beat or as playing ragged, hence the name ragtime. Scott Joplin (1868-1917) is the most famous exponent of this style. Listen for the ragged rhythms of his famous “Maple Leaf Rag”:
The last antecedent of jazz to be covered here is a European tradition: the brass band. The principal components of a typical turn-of-the-last-century brass band were cornet, trombone, tuba, and percussion. Brass band music sits squarely in the tradition of Western harmony, melody, and rhythm.
Brass band music was very popular in America during the nineteenth century. Many small towns and hamlets had their own bandstands, and community bands would occupy these stages to proudly play all the popular marches of the day. One popular march, John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” featured all the essential attributes of the style—upbeat melodies, energetic drumming, and thick brass harmonies.
The end of the Spanish American War in 1898 resulted in many leftover military band instruments turning up in southern pawn shops and thrift stores. This allowed blacks in these areas easy access to the popular band instruments.
By the turn of the twentieth century, all of jazz’s co-conspirators were in place: African-American folk traditions, ragtime, and brass bands. Just one more step was required—a shift in rhythm.
Historians have converged on New Orleans as the true birthplace of jazz. It is here that a subculture within a subculture existed—the black creole.
The creoles of color, offspring of wealthy French and Spanish men and slave women, were often trained in the European tradition of music. Then, when Jim Crow laws of the late nineteenth century deemed the creoles to be blacks and not whites—and thus subject to segregation—they were forced to intermingle and work with the African blacks.
The creoles of color, therefore, absorbed the cultural traditions of blues and ragtime and superimposed their own inherited European traditions onto these styles—namely, their skillful instrumentation and knowledge of harmony.
The musical synergy between the creoles and the blacks is what turned ragtime into jazz. The critical step was having their rhythm sections play four beats for each musical bar, or measure, instead of the usual two. This is sometimes referred to as the big four.
Another critical step in the birth of jazz was playing the blues on brass instruments. Until this time, blues had principally been a vocal form melodically speaking. That is, the singer handled the blues inflections—the shouts, the growls, the pitch bends, etc.
We will never know who was first to do this, but we do know of an early exponent: cornetist Buddy Bolden. Some musicologists, in fact, credit him and his group with the invention of jazz. But facts of the matter are cloaked in historical darkness. Mythology and apocryphal stories are all we really have about Bolden.
In any case, Bolden is thought to have played a brass-band version of ragtime that used blues conventions like improvisation, ambiguous modality, and gruff timbres. This is thought to have happened around the year 1900 in the city of New Orleans.
There are no known recordings of Bolden or his band, but the Joe Oliver cornet solo referred to at the beginning of this article likely sounds very similar to Bolden.
Allegedly, there was a phonograph cylinder recorded in the 1890s that possessed three Bolden tracks. It was probably made for private music dealers, so it was likely not widely distributed.
If found, this cylinder would be the holy grail of jazz artifacts.
Collier, James Lincoln. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978.
Giddins, G., & DeVeaux, S. Jazz. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.
Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon, 2011.
Krehbiel, H. E. Afro-American Folksongs: A Study in Racial and National Music. G. Schirmer, 1914. Google Books 2016.
“Ogun: A Yoruba Word With More than 20 Meanings.” Nairaland.com. Oluwaseun Osewa,” 2005. Web. 4 July 2016.
“Slavery and the Making of America.” pbs.org Thirteen/WNET New York., 2004. July 2015.