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Discovering Jazz History

Although jazz is performed by musicians of many colors and mixes elements of many kinds of music, it's essentially African-American music. Interwoven with jazz's history is the history of the black experience in America. However, European music and blues also influenced jazz.

Adapting West African traditions

Essential elements of jazz arrived in America in 1619 with the first Africans brought as "cargo" by Dutch sailors who landed in Jamestown, Virginia. Various African musical elements that eventually surfaced in jazz came from areas where slaves were taken along the West African coast, known as the Ivory Coast or Gold Coast, stretching from Dakar in the north to Congo in the south, and including Senegal, Ghana, Guinea, Dahomey (now part of Benin), and the Niger delta. Many of the Africans sold into slavery weren't commoners but, instead, were kings and priests who led tribal rituals and musical performances. Among the tribes raided for slaves were the Yoruba, Ibo, Fanti, Ashanti, Susu, and Ewe; many of these musicians eventually became leading performers in both black and white cultures in the New World.

Various traders preferred slaves from particular regions and tribes, and the traditions of those slaves influenced the music in the traders' home regions. For example, the French acquired Dahomeans. Thus, Dahomeans who worshipped vodun (spirit) and the snake god, Damballa, brought rituals to New Orleans that became known as voodoo — elements of which appeared in early blues and jazz. Various bluesmen referenced mojo hands and black cats, and jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton blamed a voodoo curse for ill health and a declining career.

In Africa, music was a vital part of daily life and members of a community all participated. African musicians played a variety of string, percussion, and wind instruments, but after these musicians landed in America, they adapted to a new array of drums, fiddles, trumpets, French horns, and other instruments. Musicians found themselves relocated within a musical culture partially based on formal notation instead of the unwritten and improvised traditions of Africa, where griots — resident tribal poet-historians — sang and told tales that preserved tribal history, arts, philosophy, and mythology.

Much of the adaptation to the new musical setting occurred in white churches, where slaves were taught to read music from hymnals and song books and where they often performed alongside white people at services. The harsh change was difficult for African musicians who found their music restrained or redirected along Euro-American lines, yet the blending of African rhythms, melodies, harmonies, and improvisation, with more formal Euro-American music, was at the heart of the invention of jazz.

Even in the early stages, the impact of African musicians on American music began to emerge. Here are key elements:

  • Call and response: like when a preacher or dance leader shouts a statement, and his audience shouts back; when instrumentalists have a "conversation" consisting of traded musical "statements"
  • Improvisation: embellishment around a song's primary melody
  • Pentatonic scales: five-tone scales later used as primary scales in blues
  • Polyrhythms: the overlapping of different rhythmic patterns
  • Swing or forward momentum: a sense of urgency created by relentless rhythmic drive
  • Syncopation: rhythmic accents around the underlying beat

Borrowing from European classics

European musical traditions also make up a vital part of jazz. Elements like swing and improvisation found their way into jazz from Africa, but jazz's major instruments, including the piano, saxophone (invented in Belgium about 1840 by Adolphe Sax), and assorted horns came to jazz by way of Europe.

Largely because of the availability, popularity, and portability of violins, slaves received training in classical music and performed a range of music that also included dance and folk. In the 1700s, slaves sometimes accompanied their owners to colleges such as William & Mary for musical education. This classical training eventually turned up in jazz. Violin found its way into jazz in the '20s, playing the same sorts of melodies and solos as saxophonists and trumpeters.

Blacks who worshipped at some churches in East Coast cities often received training in European music including classical. During the 18th and 19th centuries, some congregations (and choirs) were interracial.

Contrary to the common belief that jazz was created primarily by uneducated blacks with roots in blues, folk, and field chants, African Americans had the ability to read music and to play classical and other styles of music well before the inception of jazz. Jazz pioneers such as Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, and James P. Johnson brought sophisticated musical knowledge to their music.

While jazz musicians brought classical elements into jazz, classical composers borrowed from African-American music. This transferring of styles proves that even before the invention of jazz and before African-American music was valued by American universities, concert halls, and arts patrons, the quality and originality of black music had already captivated the leading artists of classical music.

In turn, classical composers such as Bartok and Debussy inspired jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. These classical composers utilized folk music in their creations. Mingus, in the '50s and'60s, composed ambitious suites such as "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady" (1963) that, like pieces by Bartok and Debussy, combined a variety of influences (blues, jazz, folk, classical) into an elaborate piece that explored various themes using an 11-piece ensemble.

From Joplin and Johnson, to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Gil Evans, and, today, Maria Schneider, some jazz composers have brought a knowledge of classical arranging, composing, and musical theory to their masterful jazz compositions.

Adding some blues

Jazz partially builds on the blues, and some jazz directly grows on a blues foundation, utilizing the structure of the traditional blues known as 12-bar blues.

The tradition of call and response, and more simply improvisation, is a big part of jazz. In good blues, jazz, and gospel, players listen intently to each other's playing, and have an almost intuitive connection — an uncanny sixth sense felt between musicians. Here are some examples:

  • In the gospel church, the preacher sings out a line of sermon, and his congregation tosses it back to him.
  • In blues and jazz, one musician plays or sings something, and another player throws it back in slightly new, altered form, adding a new variation to the theme and exploring a song further.
  • Still another player may take a swing at the musical phrase, even adding a new melodic run.

Some of the earliest jazz musicians were vocalists who branched into jazz from roots in blues. Some notable singers give jazz its bluesy beginnings:

  • Ida Cox
  • Ma Rainey
  • Jimmy Rushing
  • Bessie Smith
  • Mamie Smith
  • Jack Teagarden
  • Ethel Waters
  • Louis Armstrong
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