The Roaring Twenties brought forth a new musical style in the United States. Piercing together the complex blend of European and African American musical traditions, merging the soulfulness of the blues and the syncopated rhythms resulted in a unique, rhythmic compelling music that is known as jazz. It is a music dominated by improvisations and a definitive beat (Kamien, 1998, p. 359). This popular music has produced some of the best American musical figures- Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker.
Indeed, it has become one of the more popular music the world has known and continues to enjoy today. There are two clear-cut jazz features: syncopation and rhythmic swing. It boasts of lively rhythm that is oftentimes hard to describe but easy to recognize and listen to. Its call and response feature, wherein a voice is answered by an instrument or an instrument is answered by another instrument arose from the African American church services where the congregation responds vocally to the preacher’s call (p. 360).
But more than the percussive sounds, improvisations, call and respond, and the performance techniques that accompany jazz music, jazz music is popularly known as the “only truly American contribution to the world of music” (Wright, 1996, p. 390). While jazz music is an amalgam of different musical streams, it is in America where jazz was planted and flourished. There is no contest about that. There is no concrete record that show when jazz started or how it first sounded because the music was only heard; hence no musical notations were traced.
However, its origin was placed somewhere in 1900 (Kamien, 1998, p. 359). What was certain about jazz music though was where it was first heard: in southern and Midwestern cities. Jazz music was first heard in the streets, bars, brothels and dance halls in New Orleans, St. Louis, Kansas City and Chicago (Wright, 19976 p. 390). Furthermore, it was in New Orleans where many jazz legends began- Armstrong, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton (p. 391). One of Oliver’s finest works is the Dippermouth Blues, which showcase instrumental blues in its unique New Orleans style.
This style is usually rooted on a march, a church melody or a ragtime piece (p. 365). On the other hand, Armstrong was best known as the inventor of scat singing, warbling nonsense syllables like dat-a-bat—a-dip-da (p. 365). He was also an outstanding jazz trumpeter and his performance of Hotter than That with this group The Hot Fives focused on the improvisatory solos. When the Spanish-American War ended, there was a surplus of military band instruments sold at a cheap price. Many black musicians brought instruments and took up employment in bars and brothels (Wright, 1996, p.
391). Band instruments were instrumental (pardon the pun) in shaping jazz music. It was a reflection of the African Americans’ love of music and importantly, their determination to succeed. The precursors of jazz music were ragtime and the blues which existed in the 1890s to 1915 (Kamien, 1998 p. 360). Ragtime was generally played by black pianists (Wright, 1996p. 390). Black pianists experienced difficulties looking for employment so they were reduced to playing in brothels, saloons, and dancehalls. Despite that, the popularity of ragtime music could not be discounted.
By the end of World War I, roughly two thousand piano sheets of piano ragtime music were sold (p. 390). Scott Joplin, the man behind famous pieces like Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer was the best-known composer of ragtime music. Similar to ragtime music, blues was another music that grew out of the African Americans. It is said that blues were a kind of black folk song that originated in the 1880s-1890s in the South (Wright, 1996, p. 387). It was developed out of the work songs, spirituals and field hollers of the black slaves (p. 387).
Typical blues subjects were of poverty, loneliness, oppression, and melancholy. By 1912, the blues were printed as sheet music (p. 387). Ragtime music, with its upbeat sound, and the blues, which reflected the hard life and the tough-minded humor of the African Americans, helped uplift peoples’ spirits. The Progressive Era, which covered 1900s up to the First World War, was a period of marked changes in the country. Problems on capital, labor, immigration, and corruption in politics pervaded the country (Jordan and Litwack, 1991, pp. 570-594).
Adding more reason to be depressive was the aftermath of the First World War. Repression and intolerance pervaded the country. The post-war years brought despair for many African Americans. With the Jim Crow restrictions, the lynching, beatings, and revival of the Ku Klux Klan, Americans, especially the African Americans, turned to music for comfort. Their desolate living unleashed their creativity. Out of ragtime and the blues came the expressive, raspy style that became the jazz. The end of the war and the great black migration made it possible for jazz music to spread in America.
As aforementioned, jazz became the rage in the 20s. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald even dubbed the time as the “Jazz Age” (Wright, 1996, p. 394). Jazz music became so popular that it was now performed in large dancehalls and even in movie houses (p. 394). In the years to follow, jazz developed into a rich sub styles such as swing, bebop, cool jazz, free jazz and rock fusion. Ellington was one of the most revered composer, arranger and conductor in the swing era. Some of his works include Ko-Ko, Air shaft, and Blue Serge (Kamien, 1998, p. 367).
Other notable jazz piece is the bebop-syled Bloomdido performed by alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, bass player Curly Russell, pianist Thelonious Monk and percussionist Buddy Rich (p. 368). Meanwhile, Miles Runs the Voodoo Down from trumpeter Miles Davis exemplifies jazz rock. No doubt, jazz music is one of the most important American contributions to twentieth century popular culture. At the heart of jazz is improvisation. Looking back, people were probably drawn to jazz music precisely because of this.
Through music, they had the freedom to follow their own flights of fancy. It is this appeal that made it popular with people during that time. Jazz music became a diversion, bit at the same time, an aspiration that perhaps one day, they would do more than make do. References Kamien, R. (1998). Music An Appreciation 3rd ed. USA: McGraw-Hill. Jordan, W. and Litwack, L. (1991). The United States Combined Edition 7th ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. Wright, C. (1996). Listening to Music 2nd ed. Minnesota: West Publishing Company.
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