Explainer: The History of Jazz
By: Kuheli Biswas
At one point in history, Jazz was considered so appalling that Serbian villagers used it to scare away bears, other stories say that a celebrated conductor had a heart attack on hearing the music. The genre itself became a huge discussion on whether it could be considered as proper music or not. In the 1924 issue of ‘The Etude,’ a popular magazine dedicated to music wrote that jazz “In its original form it has no place in musical education and deserves none.” However, no one can deny that the spontaneity of jazz that The Etude called ‘sloppy’ is the reason it remains, even today, a popular style of music.
So how and where did this interesting style of music start?
Going back to the 19th Century, America as a new world full of opportunities attracted people from all across the globe. And the port of New Orleans became one of the major connecting points between Europe, Africa and Northern America. And half a century before slavery was abolished, the city council of New Orleans first granted an official open space, “Congo Square,” to freely perform ‘slave music and dance’ in 1817. In fact, in 2011 City councilwoman of New Orleans, Gisleson Palmer said: “Jazz is the only truly indigenous American art form, and arguably its genesis was Congo Square, a true gift to the entire country and world.”
The first ratification of the thirteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution had just freed Slaves across Louisiana including New Orleans. African-Americans were free to celebrate their traditional rituals, music and customs. Anybody could go to New Orleans. The afro-western hybrid in the new world became a boiling cultural hotspot with the French, the Spanish, the British and the Africans. “So you have all these ingredients but if you are really gonna have a good dish served up you need a chef,” says Phil Schaap, curator at the Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Then Charles “Buddy” Bolden was born in 1877. “He heard music differently than it’s ever been heard before. He heard the musical gumbo and the cultural gumbo of New Orleans” says Schaap. He went on to join a barbershop dance band. By 1897, at the age of 20 created ‘Bolden Band’ with two clarinet player, a guitarist, bass player and drummer, with him in the lead as a coronet player. Due to the band’s collective lack of literacy, Bolden and his troops improvised spontaneously on ragtime, music developed by the African American community. But it didn’t have a proper name yet.
In the following years, its popularity grew and Dixieland Jazz Band become the poster child of the music, which led traditional jazz to be categorized as ‘Dixieland’. It was 1913 when San Francisco Bulletin first termed the music ‘jazz’ to describe Art Hickman’s music played during a baseball game. The editor wrote “The team which speeded into town this morning comes pretty close to representing the pick of the army. Its members have trained on ragtime and ‘jazz’.”
And with Dixieland’s first recording in 1917, the rest of the USA became aware of this new form of New Orleans music based on two-beat rhythm improvisation. In joined other formal instruments such as string bass and chordal instruments to the traditional list of tuba, trumpets, and trombones. And in 1920s Chicago became the hotspot, with names like Nat King Cole and Gene Ammons giving more importance to the rhythm and fixed ensembles missing in the New Orleans style.
The transformation of Jazz over the century
“What a wonderful world” sang Louis Armstrong to the world. It’s catchy lines have been used in popular media from Freaky Friday to The Simpsons several times over the year. It is perhaps one of the most famous and widely known Jazz songs both among laymen and connoisseurs. To Armstrong, jazz was nothing new even though he was one of the mainstream pioneers of the music in the early 20th century. He had grown up in New Orleans listening to ragtime, the bustle around French quarters and the stories of Congo Square. Alongside, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and to some extend Frank Sinatra’s contribution solidified Jazz’s place in the history of music. In fact, the Coltrane changes created by John Coltrane in the 60s, considered as one of the hardest harmonies became the standard harmonic substitution for most jazz improvisation.
Over the century, Jazz liberated from its traditional string and wind instruments and evolved into styles such as Bebop and Latin in the 30s, Bebop and Miles Davis’ Cool Jazz during World War II, progressive and free jazz in the 50s, Avant-grade in the 60s, Smooth Jazz of the 80s popularized by Kenny G, Nu Jazz and Jazz Rap of the 90s. And that is not all, people reinvented jazz all of the worlds to fuse the unique improvisation techniques with their local musical and cultural taste. And styles such as the Afro-Cuban jazz fused with Mambo, African-jazz funk, Indo Jazz of India, Frevo and Bossa Nova in Brazil, European free style, West Coast jazz, a calmer form of bebop that developed around Los Angeles and Acid Jazz in London, a unique mix of disco, jazz and funk were formed. Today, thanks to streaming services such as Spotify and Soundcloud jazz is gaining traction among a new generation of music fans since its decline in the 1980s.
The significance of Jazz’s unpredictable lasting impression was not only underestimated by ‘The Etude’ but was quite unimaginable to them. Musicologist Dr. Peter Elsdon in an interview with the BBC described jazz as “a chameleon” that constantly changes its colour to reflect its environment. In just over a century, the spontaneity of Jazz made it relatable and accessible to both the kaleidoscope of cultures brought by immigrants in the United States as well as the changing musical taste around the world.