Is The Origin of Jazz Music A Black & White Affair?
After 1917, jazz music started trickling into the crevices of American popular culture. The Jazz Age was a phenomenon in the Roaring Twenties, transforming the sound and style of a plain, white society to something more colorful and diverse. It was a rebellious streak that brought out a swinging side that listeners had never heard before. Tracking the lineage of the Jazz Age is difficult, but the majority of sources will pinpoint New Orleans, Louisiana as the central place where the genre was planted and blossomed by African-Americans. From the Deep South, jazz flowed upstream along the Mississippi River and took off with the wind in Chicago. While Caucasians played a role in spreading the jazz movement, I disagree with Richard Sudhalter and would not credit them as integral pieces in the history and development of jazz during the period of 1890-1940. I acknowledge the fact many Caucasians from this time period were fond admirers of the genre, but based on evidence from American history, we can conclude that African-Americans created the foundation of most musical genres and Caucasians duplicated their techniques. It was a give and take relationship that mostly benefited the Caucasians because of their upper hand in society, but at the end of the day, nobody knew how to swing better than African-Americans.
All of the roots of jazz can be traced back to Africa, specifically in music from the West African region. Some of these elements include basic traits such as group participation, emphasis on rhythm, call and response structure, improvisation, application of vocal sounds to instruments, and riffs (Hasse, 29). During the 19th century, jazz music also fed off elements from the blues, a style of music that derived from a vocal call and response referred to as “field hollers”, another West African tradition. Throughout slavery in the early 1800s, blacks were often forbidden to perform music from their native lands by their whites masters. Little did the slave owners know that the songs and rituals were another form of communication between the slaves as they passed along secret messages.
New Orleans is exclusively accredited for a set of six conditions that contributed to the rise to jazz: loose cultural boundaries, active Afro-Caribbean culture, vital music life, strong dance tradition, pervasive “good times” atmosphere, and numerous brass bands (Hasse, 32). Thus, the diversity of the jazz style sound can be attributed to its Afro-European heritage. Charles “Buddy” Bolden, Larry Pops Foster, and Sidney Bechet are among a few of many famous jazz musicians from the soul-filled city. Two of the Founding Fathers of Jazz were Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong; without their essential contributions, the genre would have never flourished.
The main traits of swing-era dance music derive from the work of composer and arranger Duke Ellington. Born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C., Ellington was known for paying attention to detail. The man was a multitalented musical legacy—he was a composer, conductor, poet, artist, philosopher, and a pianist (Current). Ellington created extremely intricate musical arrangements that dipped into a variety of genres such as jazz, blues, gospel and classical music. In 1927, Ellington performed at The Cotton Club in Harlem, which led to the formation of his band, the Cotton Club Orchestra. The jazz craze spread like wildfire across the Northeastern region as Ellington’s band toured non-stop and exposed audiences of all shades to his original music. His work could not be touched, matched or imitated by anyone—it had a soul of its own.
On August 4, 1901, one of the most prominent jazz musicians of all time was born in New Orleans: Louis Armstrong. Though his music was actually inspired from fundamentals of European and Italian opera such as dramatic bursts of melody, florid embellishments, operatic and bravura gestures, the trumpeter still managed to pave a musical path of his own that defined what jazz music is commonly known for today (Hasse). After he joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1921, he met pianist Lillian Hardin, who ended up marrying him a few years later. When she realized how talented Armstrong was, Hardin encouraged Armstrong to embark on a solo career and record in New York. Before Armstrong, artists rarely recorded solo. Immediately after taking her suggestion, his career took flight. Together, they composed some of the most popular pieces with this Hot Five and Hot Seven groups.
Originally, black jazz musicians recorded their music on race records, which were intended for a black listening audience only. Contrary to their purpose, Caucasians developed a strong attraction and attachment to the music. As a result, Caucasians supported the jazz movement from a financial standpoint by listening to black jazz music and purchasing the race records. (The first of these blues records was Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920.) New York City, the core of the entertainment industry, contained the largest concentration of all-black revues and musicals on Broadway (Hasse, 60). Some writers have argued that Caucasians were drawn to black music because it gave them the chance to “express aspects of themselves [that] they [could not] adequately express through music from European roots” (Benzon). We cannot deny the fact that jazz music was often associated with accenting a sexual undertone, a huge controversy that traditional and conservative Caucasians did not hesitate to slander the genre with. A portion of middle-class blacks also shared an opposition to jazz and blues, deeming it as “the devil’s music” (Hasse, 85). But for the most part, jazz music appealed to “the lover of sensuous and debasing emotions” (Lucien White, in New York Age, ca. 1921; Hasse, 85).
As public dancing became increasingly more accepted in dance halls, the music of Frank Sinatra, one of the most famous jazz singers of all time, emerged to the spotlight in the 1930s. With his immediate popularity grew the success of big bands. His songs are timeless classics that are still played on occasion even today. Let it be known that some white musicians during the Jazz Age were directly involved in the creation of jazz music. I want to give credit where credit is due and will not denounce these select few such as clarinetist Larry Shields or cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, musicians who contributed to the actual production of jazz music in the 1920s. However, white musicians simply were not the key players in the big brass game. They knew how to makes the sounds, but they weren’t the ones who originally crafted the bluenote.
In conclusion, Caucasians played an important part in helping the jazz movement expand across America, but African-Americans were the prime forerunners in getting the genre started. Additionally, advances in communications and recording technology factored into further development. Without reaching out to a white audience, jazz music definitely would not have become as popular as it did in American culture and society, but we the people can not be blind to the origin where jazz music truly comes from: African-Americans. Frankly, this is not a black and white affair—the blueprint of jazz was always marked by the hands of the black man.
Benzon, William L. “Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United
States of the Blues.” Mind Culture Coevolution. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Mar.
Hasse, John Edward, and Tad Lathrop. Discover Jazz. Upper Saddle River: Pearson
Education, n.d. Print.
Current, Gloster B. The Black Perspective in Music , Vol. 2, No. 2 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 172-178