Music has always been a means of artistic expression and release for people. For African Americans, music has been the release from years of oppression, segregation, and ostracization. It began with slave songs and spirituals, and eventually progressed into a cumulation of African and European styles which we know today as jazz. Jazz has been possibly the most influential genre to those following such as rock and R&B, as well as cultural and social movements. Its history and importance are pivotal in the understanding of African American culture and issues even today.
Before looking at jazz as an art form, it’s important to understand the roots of African music itself, its many forms over the years, and how it informed what jazz is today. Being brought over from Africa and enslaved against their will, slaves turned to music as a means of communication. There were various amounts of languages spoken but music was the one they had in common as a way to get through a shared difficult experience.
The first music ritual of sorts to exist for African Americans was the ring shout. Samuel A. Floyd says of the ring shout, that it was “…foundational to all subsequent Afro-American music making.” It was the origin of aesthetic elements of African American music that are so recognizable today. Those include stylistic aspects such as “call and response, polyrhythms, off-beat phrasing, and blues notes.” Looking at jazz in relation to these stylistic motifs, it’s noticeable the influence the ring shout created on all that followed it.
Now for African American music, another important factor that transformed the music was religion. Initially there was secular folk music that contained no religious sentiment, and then after the Great Awakening of Christianity of the early 18th century, this changed. Out of this, emerged arranged spirituals which were meant for more educational purposes and contained more of a religious sentiment. Stylistically, the arranged spiritual differed from the secular songs. There was more structure, more harmony, and overall arrangement, hence the name. Both these secular and non-secular songs gave slaves a way to express what they were feeling; lyrically informing genres such as the Blues.
A place where African American music began to really become an entity of its own was in the city of New Orleans, the later birth place of jazz. In the early eighteenth century, there was a specific spot that held and continues to hold a lot of significance to the sharing of music for African Americans. Congo Square was a place where “on Sunday afternoons, people of African heritage, both enslaved and free, came together to enjoy themselves.” The performances would include playing of more traditional African instruments and African dances which continued for about one hundred years.
There were local Creoles of Louisiana, or people that had also French ancestry, and then those who gathered from outside of New Orleans. This allowed a mixture of the traditional African music featuring the elements mentioned before, along with European styles. New Orleans contained “an unprecedented mixture of European, Caribbean, African, and American elements-made Louisiana into perhaps the most seething melting pot of that the nineteenth century world could produce.” Later on, it was due to this cultural diversity that certain racial and social conflicts began and musically influenced jazz.
African American music changed significantly due to the Civil War of 1861. The emancipation of slaves, though still not free, granted the with “leisure… a novelty, and it served as an important catalyst for the next form blues took.” Blues originated in the South in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. The blues, opposed to genres like jazz, originated from rural areas opposed to urban heavily populated areas. The blues was one of the genres that broke rules in terms of European and Western standards with its overall structure and musical sensibilities.
There was the use of the “blue note or the minor third and seventh within a major melodic line.” There was the use of bends between two pitches that became its most recognizable stylistic aspect. Blues didn’t always have the typical twelve bar form that we recognize so easily today. In its beginning, it drew from that call and response and ring shout style mentioned earlier, and it was really through the new life for the “free” slave that it took a new form. Lyrically, blues touched back to those songs previously about the struggle.
Another effect of the Civil War was the emergence of military bands and big brass bands. African Americans soldiers weren’t allowed to have actual weapons so they turned to instruments. They had the opportunity to be in the war but were still viewed as less than and not trusted with a weapon. This was the sort of catalyst for brass players and these bands popularity that began to spread across the United States. There were more rural brass bands which then spread to more urban areas.
Another genre to mention prior to the boom of jazz that held just as much importance as blues was ragtime. Ragtime preceded and acted as a bit of a catalyst to jazz. The genre was upbeat and relied heavily on syncopation, later leading to the swing feeling that was used so much in following music. In terms of its influence on jazz, that syncopation is of great importance and was heavily used. African Americans were playing as musicians in vaudeville shows, contributing to the more energetic and theatrical feel to the genre.
The name ragtime originated from the “rhythmic acrobatics” that the style exhibited. The player’s left hand would stay at a steady rhythm whereas the right hand played intricate melodic lines that usually made it difficult for vocalists to sing, leading it to be a mostly instrumental genre. Ragtime was both a compositional genre and a performative genre. It took a lot of skill to play that genre, and it was popular until its decline in 1917 and jazz really took over.
With ragtime losing popularity, jazz really made its way to the forefront; so much so that people were not fans of the jazz genre when it began to become very popularized. Jazz was monumental as a genre for its introduction to improvisation and ensembles of musicians. It also required a level of musicianship that was unmatched in other genres. To be play in a big band or to be of a certain caliber, it required a great level of skill.
However, to the general audience, it wasn’t well received in the beginning stages. Jazz was viewed as the “devil’s music.” This was due to its unconventional style. People were used to a very structured European style of music, so for a genre to completely bend these rules it was looked down upon by people with more traditional sensibilities. This swing style became the hit of the 1920’s and 30’s.
Opposed to ragtime there was a looseness to swing music that made it more danceable and people were able to listen to it with more ease.
Jazz originated in New Orleans as a result of its cultural diversity. There were major band leaders and brass players cultivated the art and made it was it was. It was with certain cultural and social movements and issues such as the Harlem Renaissance and African Americans moving up North from the South, where jazz found its way in popular clubs and was becoming an appreciated genre. Jazz was moving from New Orleans and experiencing booms in New York City and Chicago.
There have been many of those social and cultural climates that informed the genre. A prime example would be in 1919 in the period of Prohibition, where there was a ban placed on both the making and selling of alcohol. However, it didn’t stop it from being consumed in underground clubs called speakeasies. There was an explosion of jazz clubs and underground establishment in culture. Women had just acquired the right to vote and being a little more risqu© in their appearance and smoke and drink. This underground culture of predominantly white audiences had the soundtrack by black musicians. Due to it being an underground culture, blacks weren’t as appreciated as white musicians would be as they played the material by those black musicians.
Jim Crow Laws were still in place and it was this dichotomy of racial unacceptance and bigotry, but an enjoyment of their culture and talent. Something that was so toxic and harmful to what should be an artform as beautiful as music, was the blatant racism that existed within this time period. Black musicians were praised for their musicianship, but shunned for the color of their skin. White musicians had a much easier time securing the gig and would get much more public recognition. This was challenging for male black musicians, but especially for female black musicians.
This Jazz Age and popularization of Jazz in New York City and Chicago was only the beginning stages of all the different forms jazz has taken over the decades. With the political climate that came from the 1940’s post World War ll, jazz underwent a significant change from this swing era and big brass bands into a more intense sub-genre of jazz called bebop.
Bebop came from jazz musicians innovating a new style and straying from the swing era. Players were not happy with swing era and wanted to play a new style. It went from big bands to smaller bands playing way more intricate and intense form. A big purpose of swing bands in the 1920’s and 30’s was for those entertainment purposes in the clubs. For bebop players and these black musicians, they wanted to stray from that. Harmonically and melodically it required a lot more complexity, speed, and intricacy. There more emphasis put on the soloist rather than the ensemble. It was most popular in New York City, buts due to the war it actually ventured over into European territory.
A big social aspect of African American music was the gender roles in place. Women in the music industry have always had a challenging time. Especially for a black woman in the 1940s, it would be incredibly difficult to get the same amount of respect as a man would. There were women musicians who wrote many popular hits but were taken by men who got all the credit for them.
Approaching the 1950’s, the Civil Rights Movement emerged. African Americans were moved by actions by those such as Rosa Parks, to fight for the equal rights they were so rightfully deserving of. They were under segregation which meant they were not allowed in the same vicinity as white people and were completely treated as subhuman. In terms of music, this movement had a massive impact on the music that followed it. White musicians were overpowering black musicians and were getting recognition for things that they were taking from them. Black musicians were being more vocal about these issues.
It’s important for the recognition to be given to the black artists that so rightfully deserve praise. There were some artists that were monumental before and during this time period and really helped the shift in jazz. Musicians today cite them as influences and aesthetics of their singing or playing can be heard in contemporary artists. Those impacts have lasted decades and influenced many musicians that followed them. There were five that are some of the most recognizable. Billie Holiday, Wes Montgomery, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. They are household names that each brought something new to the genre that made a lasting impact.
Billie Holiday was one of the most influential female jazz vocalists there has ever been. Her voice was haunting and similar to Ella Fitzgerald, she was known for her phrasing. In 1939, Holiday put out one of possibly the most famous protest songs “Strange Fruit.” Speaking of the Civil Rights Movement, this song was so pivotal to the movement and dialogue surrounding it.
Jazz clubs had both white and black audiences, and for Holiday to sing a poignant and heavy song to such an audience was a very powerful and daring move. The song tackled the lynching of African Americans and the segregation that was still taking place at that time period. Disguised in a jazz ballad, it was the protest song of the age. Her haunting vocal made the song all that more impactful.
When looking at the guitarists of the jazz genre, Wes Montgomery is a player that comes to everyone’s mind right away. His sound was very distinct and recognizable to anyone who listened to him. A big contribution to this was his technique of playing with his thumb. This was something that wasn’t very common, and he was able to pluck the strings in a way that was unusual and very unique to him. Viewing a documentary on him, he was described as “playing like a horn player rather than a guitarist.” This was an interesting approach to guitar and set him apart from anyone else.
One of the most recognizable names of in jazz would be Ella Fitzgerald. She was known as Lady Ella and was praised for her specific vocal style. She didn’t invent the vocal technique of scatting, but she definitely contributed to popularizing it and doing it impeccably. Her vocal tone is one of the most recognizable within the genre and has influenced artists from Adele to Lady Gaga. For a black woman to have the impact in music that she did, she was important for future black females to know they could do the same thing. She as well as Billie Holiday were heavily involved in Civil Rights issues and helped influence the movement.
A real pioneer of jazz was trumpeter Miles Davis. His career spanned over five decades and is still world renowned as one of the best trumpet players and jazz musicians. He was within the bebop genre, and then within the 1950’s really introduced the concept of modal jazz to the world. Despite all of his trials and tribulations regarding addiction, he remained to be a superior force within the genre. His style has been described as lyrical. His most famous release would be 1959’s “Kind of Blue” which was famous for its heavy introduction into modal jazz. This record is looked at as one of the best because the chord progressions weren’t very elaborate, but his style of modal playing and creating modal melodies made the album what it was.
One of the pioneers of bebop was John Coltrane. A saxophonist, Coltrane was known predominantly for his style of improvisation. Improvisation is a big aspect of jazz, but Coltrane used a lot of modes and introduced a modal approach. For a genre that was so new, Coltrane’s approach to the genre was revolutionary and really shaped what came after it. He played with many other pioneers of the genre but set himself apart enough to become a real household name.
In the contemporary age within jazz, there are many hybrids of styles that exist. There is Latin jazz, jazz fusion, jazz-funk, smooth jazz, etc. Even through these hybrids, the sensibilities and aesthetics of jazz have remained true to its origins and pay homage to musicians before. The five artists I previously mentioned are all played and alive through their music. However, in this country there is still racial conflict that effects music.
In the United States, I find that black people, culture, and music are something that are completely fetishized by white folks while simultaneously being feared. Even through cultural evolution and the acquirement of lawful rights, black people still experience hardship to be truly recognized. It’s a shame that these divides still exist and there are people that want them to stay in place.
It is thanks to African musicians and African American musicians that we enjoy any of the genres that are so popular today. Pop, R&B, rock, and funk all derive from black music.
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