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For the week of October 18 through 24, 2000

A many splendored thing

A brief history of jazz

Express Arts Editor

Perhaps one of the attractions of jazz is that it is difficult to define. In a way, it is the perfect reflection of the American culture: vibrant and diverse. Drawing on different musical strains, relying on improvisation, evolving and spreading, jazz seems to be the very essence of human expression.

One of the great jazz musicians of all time, Louis Armstrong, once said to those trying to define jazz, "If you gotta ask, you’ll never know."

Perhaps, as Armstrong implied, jazz cannot be defined in a tidy, little box. And maybe one never truly knows a thing until he feels it in his bones. But for the many of us who do not experience and intuitively understand music like Armstrong did, exploring the history of the genre may be helpful.

Because the roots of jazz began before the advent of recordings, it is hard to know exactly how it originated. In general, it is thought to have been a mid 19th century mixing of the music and sounds of the African-American slave culture with the sounds of the western European tradition such as the work of Wagner and Stephen Foster.

The African tradition included work songs, field hollers and spiritual songs. With the Emancipation Proclamation, the music of the slave culture quickly merged with church and popular music to form the basis of what we now call jazz.

In the 1890s, ragtime, a style of piano playing originating in the southern United States, began to feed into jazz music. It had at its core a Sousa style march. The pianists left hand played a bass and chord pattern while the right had played a syncopated tune. This syncopated style became known as "ragging" and, hence, led to the term "ragtime." Scott Joplin and James Scott were two initiators of this music.

From the turn of the century to 1920, the blues began to influence jazz. It was primarily a vocal tradition that expressed the stories of African-American life. Based on a three line stanza the blues gained its unique sound from the use of "blue notes," those outside the major scale. Much of the blues played on saxophone and trumpet tried to imitate the growl and rasping sounds of blues singers.

It was in New Orleans during the early 20s that blues, ragtime and a heavy influence of brass sounds came together to become Dixieland or New Orleans jazz. A Dixieland band typically included rhythm instruments such as piano, bass, drum and tuba. Playing over the rhythm would be either trumpet or cornet, clarinet or trombone.

Some of the stars of this era included trumpeters Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke as well as pianist Jelly Roll Morton. This popular music quickly spread up the Mississippi river to Kansas City, Chicago and eventually New York.

On the heels of Dixieland style jazz came "big band" music. Big bands were just that: often including 10 or more players. They incorporated brass, reed, and rhythm sections to create a sound that was easy to dance to. The music and dancing became synonymous with "swing." For nearly two decades swing held popular appeal with the work of musicians such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey. Some of the vocalists who rose to prominence during this time included Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby.

Following World War II, jazz bands took on a slimmer look with the emergence of "bebop" music. Bebop bands consisted of four to six musicians playing more complex melodies and chord progressions than in big band. Further, the smaller sized bands allowed for more solo opportunities. Dizzy Gilespie and Charlie Parker were responsible for introducing more discordant sounds and musical phrases that were irregular in length. Unlike swing, bebop was not conducive to dancing.

Since the 50s jazz has further evolved with the styles of "cool," (Miles Davis, Chet Baker) "Latin," "free" (Ornette Coleman) and "fusion" (Chick Corea, Pat Metheny).

Perhaps one of the reasons jazz has continuing popular appeal is its resistance to stasis. It is a genre that seems to grow and expand as time goes on. Part of that growth is no doubt due to the role improvisation has always played in jazz. In this regard, the music is bound to continue on its journey. Its path can only be limited by the hearts and souls of the musicians who choose to play it.


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