“If music is a place, then jazz is the city.” – Vera Nazarian.
Talk about jazz is talk about a music genre that has been so historically wide and so socially cultural that is hard not to see this music style as something that is intrinsic to a particular moment in time and a specific demographic. But it’s, at its heart, one of the purest essences of what music is all about–transparency, passion and class, all combined in a delightful state of euphoria.
How was jazz created? Why the name? Who were the pioneers to establish this music genre and what were the consequences of said creation? Here we are going to explain to you the origin of jazz and how it became the music style that we love so much.
The 19th century’s musical revolution
“The resulting amalgam –an exotic mixture of European, Caribbean, African and American elements- made Louisiana into perhaps the most seething ethnic melting pot that the nineteenth-century world could produce.” – Ted Giola
One of the first defining elements that helped conceived jazz as a music genre was the factor of improvisation, and it’s essential that we talk for a moment about that before advancing. Swing has changed a lot throughout the years and decades, but improvisation has always remained as the main characteristic to define this music genre–it’s that capacity to make brilliant music out of thin air that made jazz so appealing since its appearance in the United States of America in the late 19th century.
There were particular areas in African territory, which would, later on, be called Congo Square, where many slaves would gather to do very famous and popular dances, which became a custom for those people. Later on, in the 19th century, many Africans were traded to North America due to the Atlantic slave trade, which provided the opportunity to take those musical influences to the other side of the world.
It is interesting to look at jazz as one of the first actual musical mixes of Western civilization because they managed to combine so many different influences in a brilliant and raw melting pot. Thus leading to what we know and love today, even though it has been going through several different stages of progression and development in almost two hundred years, which is why that the history of jazz is always in constant research and development. There is so much to pick from and to comprehend one of the wealthiest musical genres, historically speaking.
It was during this second half of the century where the musical style that would later be known as jazz would start to take place. It was in this particular moment in time where there would be a massive combination of styles, thus delivering a brand of music that was taking a little bit from everything and making songs, rhythms and paces that were unheard until that moment of human history.
The city to make this happen was New Orleans, mostly due to the fact that it was the only city at the time that allowed slaves to own drums, so they had the space to play the African music that they used to practice in their homeland. As years progress, this music from West Africa started to mix with the church hymns that the black slaves incorporated, the Afro-Cuban music and the more than obvious European classical music that was so felt during that period of time in American culture.
The first great generation of jazz musicians would come after the abolition of slavery because many former African slaves would seize their freedom to make life as musicians and that was the first wave of musicians from the genre, when it didn’t even have that name and it was mostly viewed as ragtime music.
Where did the name come from?
“Jazz is a beautiful woman whose older brother is a policeman.” – Sid Caesar.
Sadly, the history of jazz developing as a music genre and how they got their name is something that doesn’t go hand in hand, so before progressing we have to understand where the jazz name came from.
Named as the Word of the 20th Century by the American Dialect Society, the term jazz originally appeared as more of a slang term in 1860 that was roughly known as “jasm”, which African slaves used to say to refer to things such as “energy” or “vim”. It was until mid-1910s that the press at New Orleans started to refer to these bands as “jas bands”, with the “jas” term coming as an evolution of what “jasm” originally meant and it was used in the same style, often talking about the energy, the swagger and the style that musicians of this particular ilk had.
One of the first groups to use one of these terms as part of them was the Original Dixieland Jass Band, although there have been rumors that this was used more as a euphemism for sex rather than as a way to identify themselves as a group within these musical frames. It has been established that this word, “jass”, was viewed as an ugly word in more glamorous cities, such as New York City, so when the press started to pick this band, they used the word “jazz” instead and the Dixieland Band decided it was better to switch to that term because it was going to cause a lot less trouble at long term.
It is also worth pointing out that these are all assumptions and there is no proven and assured way to determine where the jazz name came from; it was a combination of situations, consequences, and influences that led to what we know today, but these are some of the biggest signs of how we got to that particular name.
Being one of the main precursors of the 20th century to develop this music style, the genre started to be called jazz and that is how it has progressed throughout the years: with the name working as a reflection of sorts of how jazz has evolved throughout the decades until finally reaching the shape and form that we know today.
The new century
“If jazz has to be termed as a wave, then music is a sea, but if the reflectors in the water is the chord.” – Thelonious Monk.
By the end of the 19th century, many different musical styles were emerging in the United States due to the fact that there was a wide mix of multiple cultures, thus allowing for a lot more creativity and uniqueness within that nation, often leading to the creation of various genres that we know and love today, such as the blues, to make an example.
But blues, for all its wonderful sounds and its raw and somewhat dark singularity, was a bit more structured, a bit more subdued. Jazz was all about freedom and all about expression, which makes considering that the African slaves used to practice music as a way to express themselves during very tumultuous times in their lives.
It could be considered that what preceded the lavish and wonderful times of the New Orleans jazz scene was the Afro-Latin music of the 1890s, due to many ferries coming with people from Cuba to stay in the United States. The Caribbean rhythms were important in the early stages of the jazz movement because they share the same flair and similar musical traits to what was made by the African musicians, so it was understandable that both styles could be merged quite nicely.
Getting into the 20th century, things would prove to be quite interesting for this nascent genre because it was the time where it would establish itself and grow to better and bigger things. We are also talking about the period in time where music specialists came into the genre and jazz was starting to present itself as a music genre that was commercial viable, which would come a long way to influence a wide variety of people to get into the genre and to make it a much more accessible and likeable musical choice for a lot of people out there.
The 20th century, New Orleans and Jazz as we know it
“What is my definition of jazz? Safe sex of the highest order.” – Kurt Vonnegut.
You cannot comprehend the origins of jazz in a complete way without New Orleans; this was the city that defined the early stages of jazz music after the end of slavery and it became a haven of sorts for musicians that wanted to play this genre. After all, every time a new music genre appears, and this was something that rock and roll and hip hop would have to cope with, later on, it tends to be despised by the media and become something of a dirty word, which was what happened with jazz music in the early 20th century.
The red district Storyville was one of the most crowded places for jazz musicians, with many of them establishing there and having a somewhat popular and fruitful scene among the young people of New Orleans. It was also during those times that George Vital Laine arrived in the scene, who was one of the first white guys to play jazz music and became something of a pioneer by creating one of the first (if not the first) integrated marching bands that played a few jazz tunes and he would go on to be known as “the father of white jazz”.
It was in the many bars and brothels of the Storyville district that many African jazz musicians managed to honed their skills, practice a lot more and play on a somewhat consistent basis. It was also in this place where they had the freedom to perform some of the customs from their continent, such as voodoo and play with their drums, which were very hard to find and to use during that point in time in the United States.
All of this was viewed and perceived with a certain degree of rejection by most conservatives areas and citizens of the United States because this was a period in time where racism was still quite strong and vivid, so African-Americans didn’t have a lot of opportunities for a normal life and jazz music, being so influenced by the African ancestors of these citizens, was widely rejected at first as rebellious music and one that had no artistic merits, but we all know that was proven wrong throughout the course of time.
That is how we ended up having dance bands, marching bands and swing bands, with the latter going on to become one of the biggest sensations in the first decades of the future, all rooted in everything that the jazz stood far: a lot of rhythm, a lot of musical freedom and a lot of expression, which has always been the constant in what is otherwise a very wide music genre.
By the time that 1910s had arrived and Laine had started to gather both black and white musicians for his bands, jazz started to open up beyond New Orleans, gaining more and more popularity among young people, like any rebellious art of form does, and this allowed many African-American jazz musicians to play in some of the cities in the north and west of the nation.
“Jazz stands for freedom.” – Dave Brubeck.
Experimentation and pioneering is a fascinating element to analyze in any nascent music genre because there are so many choices, so many moments and so many musicians that have a certain influence in what ended up becoming the modern concept of jazz–there are many individuals that played a key role to develop the genre as we know it and to give it the shape and the form that allowed millions out there to become the great musicians that they are today.
One important figure in the early 20th century for jazz music was Jelly Roll Morton, who became a pioneer in the genre by adding the tresillo/habanera, of marked Cuban and Caribbean origins, in his Jerry Roll Blues song, which became, at least in a historical sense, the first printed jazz track of all times. While there can be discussions about if this is actually first track or not, there is no discussion that this is the first one considered as such.
There was also the rise of swing bands, which were born out of the rise and development of the jazz world, which is why that the brass section was so fundamental in taking both styles to a further step in its evolutions. It’s worth pointing out that from the swing musical racket, leader of the Camelia Brass Band, D’Jalma Garnier, would teach Louis Armstrong how to play trumpet and this would prove to be a pivotal moment in the genre because Armstrong would go on to become one of the most important musicians in trumpet playing and a heavily influential figure in the jazz genre.
Being the jazz genre so focused and centralized in New Orleans, the sense of community and influence was much stronger because they were all learning from each other and the sense of experimentation was so great that is impossible to determine sometimes who came up with what first and who was the precursor for several different aspects of the genre, thus making the New Orleans scene such a pivotal musical time.
Of course, when it comes to one of the earliest and most important figures in the history of Jazz in the early 1900s, we have to mention the Original Dixieland Jass Band because they were the first group in the history of the United States in recording a jazz record, called Livery Stable Blues, which is one of the biggest staples of the genre.
This was a big moment for the genre because, until that point, jazz had always been this, raw passionate and yet undefined music style that was in a constant state of evolution and didn’t have a commercial platform. The Original Dixieland Jass Band’s Livery Stable Blues was that moment where they showed what was jazz all about and presented in a digestible and enjoyable format for every single kind of listener–now jazz was starting to gather itself as a music genre that was commercially viable, which was something that would be key for further developments in the genre as the years went by.
Despite being events that happened roughly one hundred years ago, the evolution of jazz from its African years was certainly palpable and it’s a testament to human nature how drum patterns that were played as a means to express themselves during a time of slavery went on to become a music genre that has inspired millions of people all over the world and has managed to change the lives of so many, often giving art, beauty, and dreams to those that want to be captivated.