A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

The beginnings: New Orleans

TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Jazz music was, ultimately, the product of New Orleans' melting pot.

At the turn of the century, the streets of New Orleans were awash in blues music, ragtime and the native brass-band fanfares. The latter, used both in the Mardi Gras parades and in funerals, boasted a vast repertory of styles, from military marches to "rags" (not necessarily related to Scott Joplin's ragtime music). The Excelsior Brass Band, formed in 1880, raised the Creole drummer John Robichaux and the Creole clarinetist Alphonse Picou. The Onward Brass Band, formed around 1884, featured Creole cornet player Manuel Perez. Notably missing from this mix was religious music, that played a lesser role in the birth and development of jazz music. Also missing was white popular music, that would define the "commercial" format of jazz music, but not its core technical characteristics.

New Orleans' brass bands eventually spread into the saloons and the dancehalls of "Storyville", the red-light district created by a city ordinance in 1897. These bands (such as Jack "Papa" Laine's Reliance Brass Band, the first major white band, formed in 1892, John Robichaux's band, formed in 1893, the main popularizer of the Creole style, Buddy Bolden's band, formed in 1895, Alphonse Picou's Columbia Brass Band, formed in 1897, Manuel Perez's Imperial Orchestra, formed in 1900) probably played a mixture of blues, ragtime and traditional dance music.

The performers who shared a passion for syncopation and for improvisation were either brass bands (cornet or trumpet for the melody, clarinet for counterpoint, trombone or tuba or percussion for rhythm), that very often were marching bands, or solo pianists, who very often were ragtime pianists.

In 1898 the US defeated Spain (gaining Puerto Rico and "liberating" Cuba). The troops that were coming back from the Caribbean front landed in New Orleans with European brass instruments that were sold cheaply on the black market. Within a few years, every neighborhood in New Orleans boasted a brass band. The influence of blues music could be heard in the way these instruments were played, because they basically imitated the vocal styles of blues music (often on a syncopated rhythm borrowed from ragtime).

A fundamental attribute of New Orleans was the perennial party atmosphere. This was not New York's melting pot, very competitive in nature: this was a melting pot that allowed for a lot of fun. New York was a cosmopolitan financial center. New Orleans was a cosmopolitan amusement park. Thus music was always in demand, not just as paid entertainment but as the soundtrack of a never-ending party. In other cities ethnicity was a problem. In New Orleans ethnicity was an opportunity to improve the party, because each ethnic group brought its different style of partying (e.g., dances) to the party. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


During the first decade of the 20th century, these bands would compete in public contests that highlighted the virtuosi. For example, Charles "Buddy" Bolden's trumpet playing became legendary, as did his arrangements (brass instruments playing blues music), as did his division of instrumental roles (the cornet leading the melody, the trombone providing a bass counterpoint and the clarinet dancing around the melody in a higher tone) as did his repertory (Make me a Pallet on the Floor, The House Got Ready, Bucket's Got a Hole In It, Buddy Bolden's Blues), but he was locked into a mental hospital in 1907 before he could record any of his music. Bolden's band was probably the first New Orleans band to truly emphasize improvisation. His style was the epitome of "hot jazz", as opposed to the "downtown style" of the Creoles.

The most popular orchestras emphasized the cornet/trumpet (the main melodic instrument) and the clarinet (the counter-melody), while the trombone provided the bass counterpoint and the other instruments (drums, banjo, guitar, contrabass, piano) provided the rhythm section.

In 1911 Bill Johnson, a New Orleans bass player, moved to California and eventually managed to get his orchestra to follow him. From 1913 till 1917 the Original Creole Band was the first black orchestra to tour outside New Orleans.

Unlike blues music, that was exclusively performed by blacks, jazz music was as inter-racial as the melting pot of New Orleans. Blacks were not the only ones who played jazz. Jazz groups were formed by Italians, Creoles and all sorts of European immigrants. The "African" roots of the music may or may not have been obvious to the practitioners, but clearly it did not stop them from adopting it.

In the meantime, the dance craze that swept the northern cities in the 1910s, originating in New York from black musicians such as Ernest Hogan and James Europe, fostered the creation of "syncopated orchestras" both in New York and Chicago.

New York was the epicenter of a fusion of the three great fads of the time: syncopated orchestras, ragtime and blues.

Chicago soon became a middleground of sorts. The soul of the city's black music was Joe Jordan, and the main mentors were the clubs of the "Black Belt", such as the "Pekin Theatre". Tony Jackson's Pretty Baby (1915) was the first big hit. The New Orleans Jazz Band was performing at the "Royal Gardens". During World War I, Chicago witnessed the rivalry between the orchestras of Dave Peyton and Erskine Tate. They featured several young talents who had immigrated from the South, such as Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet. A tour by Will-Marion Cook's orchestra in 1919 introduced Chicago to the syncopated world of New York, and involuntarily led to an exodus of black musicians towards New York. At the end of the war Cook formed the American Syncopated Orchestra.

Well into the 1920s the term "syncopated orchestra" was much more popular than "jazz orchestra", but the term "jazz music" was beginning to spread, among both black and white musicians. The first black musicians who consciously boasted of playing "jazz" were vaudeville artists. For example, Benton Overstreet's Jazz Dance (1917) was for many years one of Estelle Harris' most popular skits. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


In 1917, after relocating to New York from Chicago, some white veterans of New Orleans, led by an Italian-American, Nick LaRocca, who back home had been playing in Jack "Papa" Laine's mixed-race band specializing in private and public events, rechristened themselves Original Dixieland Jass Band and recorded the first jazz record (with their Dixie Jass Band One Step). The success of that novelty prompted many other New Orleans musicians to move to New York. The Original Dixieland Jass Band went on to cut many more songs, mostly composed by the members of the band, in a variety of styles: Barnyard Blues (august 1917), Tiger Rag (august 1917), based on the traditional square dance Praline, Ostrich Walk (february 1917), At The Jass Band Ball (september 1917), Clarinet Marmalade Blues (july 1918), Fidgety Feet (february 1918), Lazy Daddy (july 1918), Skeleton Jangle (february 1918), Satanic Blues (august 1919), Bluin' The Blues (december 1920). But their specialty remained the frantic group improvisation, with a staccato style influenced by syncopated ragtime, the kind of jazz performed by white musicians that came to be called "dixieland jazz". In april 1919 LaRocca took his orchestra to London, where it was equally successful, particularly with Soudan (april 1920). The British recordings actually slowed down the tempo a bit, proving that some of the frenzy was simply due to the need to fit a song into the three minutes of a 78 RPM record (in Britain they recorded four-minute 12" records). These songs were "jazz" only insofar as they mimicked black styles of music.

The term "dixieland jazz" had already been employed by another white band, Tom Brown's Dixieland Jass Band, also based in Chicago, and the first white jazz band to tour the north (although not New York).


The most sophisticated of Chicago's "dixieland" bands was perhaps the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, assembled in 1922 to exploit the popularity of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Tom Brown's band. They, too, featured an "Italian" from New Orleans, clarinetist Leon Roppolo, as well as cornetist Paul Mares (the original founder), trombonist George Brunies, pianist Elmer Schoebel (the main composer) and bassist Steve Brown. Initially they recorded as the Friars Society Orchestra: Oriental (august 1922), Bugle Call Blues (august 1922), Farewell Blues (august 1922). But achieved their artistic peak with Tin Roof Blues (march 1923), and for the first time Chicago heard white musicians play jazz music worthy of the black masters. Unlike the stormy collective playing of the Original Dixieland Jass Band, these pieces also contained solos.

Chicago had become a major center of ragtime music after the World's Fair of 1893. New Orleans trombonist Tom Brown was the leader of a white ragtime orchestra and moved to Chicago in 1915. He adopted the term "jass" that had been first been used on the West Coast and his success spawned a "jass" trend. "Jass" was identified not so much with a musical style but with a geographical place (New Orleans), with frenzied fun (bordering on slapstick) and with sexual innuendoes in a period when the authorities were trying to crack down on immoral dances. "Jass" was a term with sexual connotations, but the instrumental music of jass bands was tolerated by the moral bigots. Thus it found the right balance between being allowed to reproduce and appealing to an audience that craved morbid entertainment.

The backdrop for the boom of "dixieland jazz" was World War I: while millions of young men were being slaughtered in the trenches of Europe, Chicago was dancing at the sound of this exuberant and clownish music.

The new medium that helped spread the boom of "dixieland jazz" to the rest of the country was the record. It was the first new genre of music that spread thanks to the new medium. Previously a new form of music or dance had required the physical movement of its protagonists who had to personally evangelize the rest of the country. Dixieland jazz spread thanks to the virtual movement of the protagonists via the record. The history of jazz was, from the beginning, also the history of how the music industry learned to make music travel without making its musicians travel, first with the piano rolls of ragtime and then with the records of dixieland jazz. The appeal to see the protagonists live was still very high, but the live performance was becoming less and less indispensable. The market for records had boomed thanks to the dance craze. During the war the price of records had been significantly reduced, making records affordable for a much larger segment of society. In 1919 a law was introduced to break the monopoly of the two majors, Victor and Columbia, and allow their competitors to sell the same kind of "lateral-cut records" that could be played on the most popular phonographs. Despite the fact that the sudden popularity of the radio (followed by the Great Depression) caused a sharp decline in sales of records (that did not recover until the end of the Great Depression), the turmoil in the industry allowed more musicians to record and more fans to listen to them.

Dixieland jazz was a gross misrepresentation of jazz music for the white audience. It was a novelty architected for an unsophisticated audience that was interested only in novelties. New Orleans musicians who emigrated in the 1910s had never heard the term "jass" before they arrived in Chicago.

Black musicians were not recorded partly because of racial discrimination but partly also because they were much more jealous of their style: their aim was to hide their sound from the competition, not to spread it all over the nation.


The Original Creole Band, led by Creole trumpeter Freddie Keppard, was one of the New Orleans bands that never recorded for fear of being copied, but was nonetheless influential in exporting the sound of New Orleans to Los Angeles (1911), where they were lured by bassist Bill Johnson (who already had a Creole Band there), New York (1915) and Chicago (where in 1918 Johnson engineered the mutation of the band sans Keppard into King Oliver's orchestra). Keppard had been raised in Creole bands (that prevailed downtown), but, after Bolden's death, became the archetype of "hot jazz", the style of black musicians (who ruled uptown). Johnson himself popularized the swinging four beats per bar of jazz bass that made the two beats per bar of ragtime bass obsolete.


Bill Johnson transplanted jazz into the West Coast, and may be responsible for exporting the very name of the new music because "jass" was the term used around San Francisco for any kind of black music. The first group to use the term "jazz" in their name was the So Different Jazz Band led by pianist Sid LeProtti in San Francisco around 1914, seven years after Johnson had first performed there with his pre-Keppard band. A white bandleader of San Francisco, Art Hickman, was billed as playing "jazz" already in 1913.


The first instrumental record by a black orchestra (i.e., the first black jazz record) was in fact cut in Los Angeles: Ory's Creole Trombone (july 1922) by Edward "Kid" Ory's Creole Orchestra, formed in 1919 by that veteran New Orleans band-leader with former New Orleans musicians who had relocated to the West Coast. Ory stayed in Los Angeles until 1925, before moving on to Chicago, where he contributed to Louis Armstrong's success (e.g., his Muskrat Ramble, recorded by Armstrong in february 1926).

Black songwriter William Handy (the same man who had inaugurated the age of notated blues) recorded one of the first songs with "jazz" in the title: Benton Overstreet's Jazz Dance (september 1917), and performed a "jass concert" in april 1918 at New York's Selwyn Theatre. The word "jazz" began to circulate throughout the dancehalls for white people of the USA. Although initially considered only a new kind of ragtime, jazz became rapidly a sensation both in the USA and abroad.

Harlem musicians were evolving ragtime into a faster and louder syncopated style, that relied a lot more on individual improvisation. Its roots were still in blues music: the soloists were often trying to emulate the singing of the blues, and the counterpoint was trying to emulate the call-and-response of the blues. After all, many jazz musicians cut their teeth accompanying blues singers, and learned to respond to the nuances of those passionate singers. Jazz bands took the piano from ragtime, the saxophone and the trumpet from dancehall bands. But the popularity of blues singers in the 1920s was such that New York's recording industry did not show much interest for jazz orchestras.

If the origins of jazz music were confusing, the difference between New Orleans and the other epicenters was more clear: improvisation. The ragtime pianists, the syncopated orchestras (both black and white), the blues singers and even the various outfits (black and white) that used the proto-term "jass", were playing composed music with minimal (if any) degree of improvisation. The real improvisation was done only in the south, first by blues musicians (who mainly used vocals and guitar) and then by the musicians of New Orleans (who used also the horns). Improvisation introduced a different concept of musician. The musician of written music is, mainly, the composer, whereas the musician of improvised music is, mainly, the player. Because of improvisation, blues and jazz music were emphasizing the persona of the player to a degree unheard of among opera singers or classical violinists. The emphasis shifted from playing (or singing) the exact notes in a sublime manner to playing (or singing) as far as possible from the exact notes while still playing the same tune. Needless to say, the latter allowed the player a greater degree of personal emotion.

Among the early protagonists of New Orleans were: trumpeter Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, equally famous for his "scat" singing (wordless vocal improvisation); soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, another black Creole, the first master of an instrument that had not previously been identified with African-Americans; trumpeters Bunk Johnson and Freddie Keppard, another black Creole (whose "fat" sound was influential in Chicago); clarinetists Johnny Dodds (one of the wildest soloists of his time), Jimmie Noone (the epitome of elegance) and George Lewis; drummer Warren "Baby" Dodds.

Jazz music was very much a continuation of blues music, except that it took advantage of the instruments of the marching band. The jazz musician was basically "singing" just like the blues singers even though he was playing an instrument instead of using his vocals. The kind of dynamics and of improvisation was identical. The call-and-response structure was replicated in the dialogue between solo instrument and ensemble. Compared with European music, that for centuries had "trained" the voice to sound as perfect as the instruments, jazz music moved in the opposite direction when it trained the instruments to sound as emotional as the human voice of the blues. After all, many jazz instrumentalists made their living accompanying blues singers in the vaudeville circuit. The main difference between jazz and blues, i.e. the heavy syncopation, was the original contribution of ragtime.

Thus the marching bands contributed the instruments, blues singers contributed the improvisation, and ragtime contributed the syncopation (that ragtime had, in turn, taken from the "minstrel shows"). Jazz as a separate genre of music was born at the intersection of collective improvisation and heavy syncopation. Another defining feature was that it was mainly instrumental (blues music was mainly vocal). For some observers of the time jazz music may have sounded simply like the instrumental side of blues music, or the group version of ragtime, or a non-marching club-oriented evolution of the marching bands.

Soon new instruments were incorporated (such as the saxophone) and some habits developed (the "riff", a rhythmic phrase repeated several times, or the "break", a brief solo during a pause by the ensemble). The material that was played came from the most diverse sources: William Handy's songs, Scott Joplin's rags, pop songs, blues songs, and traditional slave songs. Initially, jazz musicians showed little interest in being also composers.

When Storyville was shut down in 1917, jazz simply moved with the black entertainers who had to relocate to Memphis and Chicago (e.g., King Oliver in 1918, Louis Armstrong in 1922). But the exodus of black musicians was also part of the "Great Migration" that saw thousands of blacks leave the South for the northern cities, mostly because of better job opportunities created by World War I in the North (the defense industry was mostly based in the North) and because of a boll weevil infestation that caused great damage to cotton plantations in the South. But also because of more tolerant attitudes: the industrialists of the North were literally luring blacks to their factories while plantation owners were still treating them like slaves. The result of the migration was the establishment of large black communities in Chicago, Detroit and New York, where they displaced white middle-class communities (as in New York's Harlem, that used to be a rich white neighborhood).

Jazz eventually spread to every corner of the USA. In fact, jazz was one of the first musical genres to owe its diffusion to a whole new world of communication of information. The birth of jazz music parallels a revolution in music "media". The first revolution was caused by the networks of vaudeville theaters that were formed by entrepreneurs such as Pericles "Alexander" Pantages in 1902, Martin Beck in 1905 and especially Fred Barrasso in 1907 (whose brainchild, the Theater Owners's Booking Association, or T.O.B.A., became the most important for black performers). These circuits created a low-inertia way to distribute musical novelties to the entire country: the musicians would simply follow the circuit. The dance craze of the 1910s was spread around the USA mainly by "territory bands" (both white and black) that traveled the circuit of vaudeville theaters and other improvised dancehalls. Many of them converted to jazz music after 1917. Another revolution came (in the following decade) with the popularity of the phonographic record, that turned a local phenomenon into a city-wide, state-wide and eventually country-wide phenomenon. And later (in the 1920s) the boom of jazz would come thanks to the radio, that dramatically accelerated that communication from region to region. Jazz was as much the product of New Orleans' melting pot as the product of an organizational and technological revolution. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The founding fathers


Ferdinand "Jelly Roll Morton" LaMothe, a flamboyant black (but very light-skinned) Creole pianist who stands out as the first major jazz composer, blended blues and ragtime styles, a fusion that perhaps represented the origins of jazz music better than anything else. His Jerry Roll Blues (september 1915) was the first published piece of jazz music. Morton left New Orleans in 1908, played in California from 1917 until 1922, then in Chicago and moved to New York City in 1928.
Discovered by publisher Walter Melrose, Morton was launched in a sextet fronted by cornet, clarinet, trombone and alto saxophone, that recorded Big Foot Ham (june 1923) and Muddy Water Blues (june 1923), and coupled with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in performances of three of his pieces (the first inter-racial records of jazz music): Mr Jelly Lord, London Blues and and Milenberg Joys (july 1923). Both recordings displayed Morton's skills in devising a variety of tonal and dynamic solutions.
He laid the foundations of his ensemble music with a handful of early gems, mostly for solo piano, such as Wolverine Blues (published in february 1923, solo version recorded in july) and several ragtime-like pieces: The Pearls (july 1923), Kansas City Stomp (july 1923), King Porter Stomp (july 1923), Shreveport Stomp (june 1924), Froggie More (may 1924), later renamed Shoe Shiner's Drag (1928) in the band version. Emblematic is also King Porter Stomp (december 1924) with King Oliver, one of the earliest piano-trumpet duets.
Morton perfected his style on the anarchic Chicago recordings with his Red Hot Peppers, a band created solely for studio recordings out of musicians (of different races) who were familiar with the "hot" New Orleans style (some borrowed from Louis Armstrong's Dreamland Syncopators), such as trombonist Edward "Kid" Ory and clarinetist Johnny Dodds: Black Bottom Stomp (september 1926), his masterpiece, that packed a lot of action around three themes, two tempos and seven instruments, the touching Dead Man Blues (september 1926), that was another showcase of jazz polyphony (with a clarinet trio), Sidewalk Blues (september 1926), that was a rewrite of his Fish Tail Blues (1924), Steamboat Stomp (september 1926), Grandpa's Spells (december 1926), Jungle Blues (july 1927), Mournful Serenade (july 1928) for a quartet of piano, clarinet, trombone and drums, etc. The band's style was basically orchestrated ragtime, although rich in "decoration" (tonal variety, creative dynamics). No less creative was Shreveport Stomp (june 1928), one of the earliest piano-clarinet duets.
While in New York, he still delivered some influential numbers, such as Freakish (july 1929), that was one of his most daring solo piano pieces, as well as, with the Red Hot Peppers, Mint Julep (november 1929), Ponchartrain (march 1930) and Fickle Fay Creep (october 1930).
Basically, Morton liberated ragtime music from its own limitation: the clockwork geometry of melody and rhythm. The syncopation of ragtime could be applied only to some themes, while Morton's kind of syncopation could be applied to virtually anything. The secret was in a rhythmic invention that knew no boundaries, at times reminiscent of the blues, of the march, of the square dance, even of Latin-American dances. Nonetheless, Morton's art was still a clockwork art, in the sense that the performance was carefully planned and very little room was left to improvisation. His orchestra was basically an extension of the piano. No other orchestra of the time reached the same level of sonic and rhythmic sophistication. Morton's band arrangements created the stereotype of the three-pronged jazz attack (cornet, clarinet and trombone), although, ironically, the achievement of that line-up was largely due to a calculated studio strategy.
Morton was also the musician who changed the very purpose of jazz music. His recordings were just that: jazz music meant to be recorded. It was conceived and advertised as a recording of jazz music. Thus the careful architecture of group and solo parts. Thus the limit on improvisation: Morton wanted to record the sound that he wanted to record, not the unpredictable sound that improvisers could produce. Thus the studio-driven nature of his band, that basically did not exist outside the studio. There were at least two reasons for Morton's preference for the recording rather than the live performance. The first one was Walter Melrose, one of the first white businessmen to understand that there was a market for such recordings. The second one was Morton's troubles with the mobsters who ran the nightlife of Chicago: Morton's band was only a studio band because he was not welcome in the city's clubs. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


The first black band to be well documented on record was actually Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (1923), although Oliver too had already left New Orleans for Chicago (in 1918, to replace Freddie Keppard in Bill Johnson's Original Creole Band). King Oliver, who had developed his style at the cornet in Kid Ory's Brownskin Babies since 1914, cemented a group of talents that included cornet player Louis Armstrong, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, drummer Warren "Baby" Dodds, trombonist Honore Dutery, pianist Lil Hardin, Bill Johnson on banjo and bass. This classic line-up recorded Dippermouth Blues (april 1923), which contains Armstrong's first recorded solo, Armstrong's Weather Bird Rag (april 1923), Oliver's Sugar Foot Stomp (april 1923), and Canal Street Blues (april 1923), which are models of harmonious, disciplined group playing despite the group improvisation: the piano, the drums and the bass provided the rhythmic foundation over which the cornets lead the melody against the petulant counterpoint of the clarinet and the bass ("tailgate") counterpoint of the trombone. Oliver basically perfected the collective improvisation of New Orleans' marching bands. Oliver also strove to produce sounds with his cornet that reflected his vision, thus becoming the first "sound artist" of jazz. His experiments continued with the Dixie Syncopators (1925-27), a larger band with three saxophones and a tuba (Barney Bigard on reeds, Luis Russell on piano, Albert Nicholas on clarinet): WaWaWa (may 1926), for example, popularized the "wah-wah" technique (that he had already tested in Dippermouth Blues).

If Morton was basically still playing ragtime, Oliver's band was basically still a brass band (with the traditional interplay of cornet, clarinet and trombone). The real innovation was to be found in Oliver's solos: that "was" indeed a new form of music. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Cornet/trumpet player Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong revolutionized both the instrumental and the vocal style of jazz. King Oliver's substitute in Kid Ory's band, Armstrong left New Orleans in 1922 to join King Oliver in Chicago, where he recorded his Weather Bird Rag (april 1923), and then (1924) Fletcher Henderson in New York. While in New York, he also accompanied blues singers (notably Bessie Smith's legendary january 1925 recording of St Louis Blues) and cut some songs (Clarence Williams' Texas Moaner Blues in october 1924) with smaller groups that included clarinetist Sidney Bechet. In fact the classic recording of the age, and perhaps the most faithful to the original sound of New Orleans' jazz, was an interpretation of Benton Overstreet's Early Every Morn (december 1924) by a quintet named Red Onion Jazz Babies, organized by Clarence Williams, that featured Armstrong, Bechet, pianist Lil Hardin and blues vocalist Alberta Hunter.
In 1925 he returned to Chicago, formed the drum-less Hot Five a spin-off of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny St Cyr on banjo, Lil Hardin on piano, but the line-up changed quickly), and cut songs that were celebrated for the smooth and elegant phrasing of his trumpet solos: Gut Bucket Blues (november 1925), Cornet Chop Suey (february 1926), typical of how the rest of the band was becoming mere background, Heebie Jeebies (february 1926), the first black recording of scat singing (already used by white vaudeville singers such as Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards), Potato Head Blues (may 1927), with a celebrated chorus, Wild Man Blues (may 1927), perhaps their masterpiece recording, the peak of his "vocal" imitation, Kid Ory's Savoy Blues (december 1927), featuring blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson, Muggles (december 1928) and A Weather Bird (december 1928), both featuring Earl Hines on piano (especially the latter, a cornet-piano duet), Spencer Williams' Basin Street Blues (december 1928), featuring Earl Hines on celeste, King Oliver's West End Blues (july 1928), featuring both Hines on piano and Zutty Singleton on drums, opened by a lengthy and complex solo, and further enhanced by an elegant duet between his scat singing and Jimmy Strong's clarinet. Armstrong's trumpet solos were majestic, phantasmagoric and full of drama. His experience with blues singers had prompted him to develop a trumpet style that was a mirror image of human singing. His trumpet was literally the instrumental counterpart of blues singing. Lil Hardin contributed a lot of material to their repertory: My Heart (november 1925), Skid-Dat-De-Dat (november 1926), Struttin' with Some Barbecue (december 1927), Hotter Than That (december 1927), highlighted by a virtuoso vocal duet with guitarist Lonnie Johnson, reminiscent of Adelaide Hall's role in Duke Ellington's Creole Love Call (1927), Two Deuces (june 1928), etc. These performances contrasted with King Oliver's style because Armstrong's instrument dominated the proceedings: Armstrong had introduced a dose on individualism in jazz that was the antithesis of its original socialist principles. Jelly Roll Morton had used the solos to increase the sophistication of his orchestral music, but his focus was still on the sound of the ensemble. It was Armstrong who shifted the emphasis towards the vocabulary of the extended virtuoso solo. Solos became longer and longer, while displaying an even stronger sense of control.
Armstrong applied a similar technique to his vocals, which did more than just popularize "scat" singing: they invented a way to sing without singing. His singing often sounded like a conversation. Sometimes his vocals were so estranged from the music that it sounded like he didn't know what song he was singing. The voice had always been an instrument, but Armstrong started the trend that would turn it into the most malleable of instruments, away from the passion of blues, the conventions of the opera and the frigidity of pop. Armstrong turned the human voice into not only an instrument but an instrument that was as legitimate for improvising as any other instrument of the orchestra.
Under the direction of his manager Tommy Rockwell, Armstrong left Chicago in 1929 to become a globe-trotter, a veritable evangelist of jazz music around the world, while his repertory became even more commercial: Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin' (july 1929), the song that made him star, Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust (november 1931), the spiritual When the Saints Go Marching In (may 1938), Hello Dolly (december 1963), his best-selling record, cut with the All Stars, Bob Thiele's What a Wonderful World (august 1967), Wilbur Schwandt's Dream a Little Dream of Me (july 1968), and even a theme song for a James Bond movie, We Have All The Time In The World (october 1969). His fame increased exponentially among the white audience.
Armstrong became famous for his improvisations on covers of blues and pop standards. In many ways, he taught the whole jazz world how to improvise on a theme. At the same time, the charming and flamboyant player knew how to entertain an audience with the humblest of musical tools. But his contributions as a composer are rather dismal. He was more of a popular icon and entertainer than an auteur. This too influenced generations of jazz musicians who cared more for the marginal contribution of their delivery (for the "look and feel" of their music) than for the core contribution of their compositions. With Armstrong jazz became more style than substance. His influence was enormous, but it is debatable what kind of influence it was. He was certainly instrumental in making jazz music acceptable by the white middle class, and in making it a worldwide phenomenon. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


After Louis Armstrong, the trumpet revolution was completed by Henry "Red" Allen, a New Orleans trumpeter who moved to New York in 1929 and became the second master of creative phrasing, both with Luis Russell's orchestra and with his own orchestra, that cut Biff'ly Blues (july 1929), Feeling Drowsy (july 1929) and It Should Be You (july 1929). Allen's and Russell's orchestras represented the natural bridge between the New Orleans era and the swing era. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Clarinetist Sidney Bechet was the musician who tamed the soprano saxophone for jazz music. His style at both instruments indulged in a heavy vibrato sound. His saxophone style was exuberant, eloquent and even torrential. After performing in Will-Marion Cook's orchestra during its legendary European tour of 1919, cutting a handful of tracks in 1923-24, including his first tour de force in Clarence Williams' Kansas City Man Blues (august 1923), recording with Louis Armstrong and Alberta Hunter in the Red Onion Jazz Babies (1924), and accompanying Josephine Baker in Paris (1925-29), Bechet recorded sparely, although his style was reaching maturity, as proven by his Lay Your Racket (september 1932) and I Want You Tonight (same session), and especially by Joe Jordan's Shag (same session), that features his most momentous playing (all of them with the seven-piece New Orleans Feetwarmers). In november 1938 his career was reborn thanks to his Chant In The Night and What A Dream (recorded by an "orchestra" of soprano sax, baritone sax, piano, guitar, drums, bass). He pioneered overdubbing when he played six instruments (clarinet, soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone, piano, bass, drums) on Sheik of Araby (april 1941). TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


A black songwriter, but born in New Orleans, Clarence Williams, claimed to have been the first to use the word "jazz" in a sheet of music. He wrote Royal Garden Blues (1919) for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (recorded in may 1921), before moving to Chicago (1920) and to New York (1923) where he helped bootstrap Bessie Smith's career with Gulf Coast Blues (february 1923) and several more hits. Williams, also a pianist himself, was instrumental in organizing the Blue Five series of recording sessions with rising stars of jazz and blues music such as Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. He recorded several of his own compositions in intriguing arrangements: Bozo (november 1928), for a big band featuring both cornetists King Oliver and Ed Allen, Red River Blues (march 1928), for a quintet with piano, clarinet, cornet, tuba and washboard, Organ Grinder Blues (july 1928), etc. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


Armstrong's counterpart at the piano was Earl Hines, one of the few early heroes of jazz who was not born in Louisiana (he was born in Pennsylvania and in 1924 moved to Chicago). His technique augmented right-hand delicate virtuoso Armstrong-style phrases with a left-hand rhythmic exuberance that set him apart from the tradition of Jelly Roll Morton. His right hand was basically trying to play the piano like a trumpet or even a trombone, while his left hand was still playing ragtime.
After recording with Louis Armstrong in 1928, and penning with clarinetist Jimmy Noone's Apex Club Orchestra his A Monday Date (december 1928) and Noone's Apex Blues (july 1929), he delivered a handful of 1928 solo piano interpretations of his own compositions, including A Monday Date, Caution Blues (december), Blues In Thirds (december), Stowaway (december), Chimes In Blues (december) and especially the fully improvised Fifty-Seven Varieties (february), that already displayed his mastery at intricate rhythmic patterns and lyrical phrasing. His own band, formed at the end of the year, became one of the best known "big bands" of swing music thanks to live radio broadcasts from their headquarter, Chicago's "Grand Terrace", and thanks to hits such as his own Deep Forest (june 1932), Madhouse (march 1933), Rosetta (february 1933) and Cavernism (february 1933), plus Boogie Woogie on the St Louis Blues (december 1940), a boogie-woogie adaptation of William Handy's classic, Billy Eckstine's Jelly Jelly (1940), also a blues, and T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday Blues (november 1942). Hines later hired vocalist Billy Eckstine (1939), vocalist Sarah Vaughan (1941), trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1942) and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (1943), thus involuntarily laying the foundations for the birth of bebop.
His solo piano albums of the 1960s, such as Blues In Thirds (april 1965) and At Home (1969), demonstrated his improvising skills, once freed from the tyranny of rhythm. They also contain some of his most intense compositions. TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

However, these masters of jazz were largely unknown to the masses. Jazz "dance" was popularized by the same white syncopated orchestras (such as Paul Whiteman's) that had popularized previous styles of dancing. Only black communities were familiar with the authentic jazz bands.

The USA, not Africa

Jazz music had been, ultimately, the product of New Orleans' melting pot, and, in general, of the black culture of the southern states. The big difference between jazz and blues (or the spiritual or the work song) was that jazz was indeed an "American" phenomenon, not an "African" one. The roots of jazz music were in the South of the USA, not in West Africa. There was little relationship between the instruments of jazz and the original instruments of the West African slaves. The instruments of jazz came from the European brass bands. Quite simply, jazz was the product of blacks who had not been slaves, and, in most cases, couldn't even remember the ancestors who originally came from Africa: they were, quite simply, USA citizens (albeit second-class ones). Most blacks were in fact even more "American" than many of the European immigrants who were crossing the Atlantic by the millions in the years before and after World War I. Of course, the condition of blacks in the USA was one of great inferiority. However, jazz was the product of urban blacks from New Orleans, and then Chicago and then New York: the blacks who lived the least segregated life in the USA.

In fact, most jazz musicians were striving to get accepted and integrated in the USA society. They wanted to be like white people. They de facto repudiated the culture of their ancestors and were eager to adopt the culture of the whites.

Jazz music was a USA phenomenon and not an African phenomenon the same way that country music was a USA phenomenon and not a British phenomenon. The fact that country music was a descendant of British folk music does not make it any more British than, say, baseball (derived from cricket). On the other hand the fact that both jazz and country music were born in the South was very relevant: the South was more prone to create the musical identity of the new country than the industrialized North, with its close ties to Europe. In other words, the brass bands of New Orleans' funerals were more important for the development of jazz music than the rituals of West Africa.

The lyrics told the same story. The lyrics of blues songs were emotional and documentary representations of harsh conditions of life. Jazz music had no lyrics or lyrics that were as artificial as the lyrics of pop songs. Jazz lyrics were, ultimately, disposable. In fact, jazz would become a mostly instrumental genre. Blues music, on the other hand, was very much about the lyrics: instrumental-only blues music was almost an oxymoron. Thus, in spirit, jazz was closer to pop than to blues music.

Jazz was born as music to dance to. Blues music was born as music to mourn to. Again, jazz was closer to dance music than to blues music.

Last but not least, there were white jazz musicians from the very beginning, whereas there were no white blues musicians until the 1950s.

All in all, the view that jazz was "African" was a racist view. White intellectuals claimed that jazz was "African" simply because the ancestors of black musicians had come from Africa. But no white intellectual claimed that country music was British. The difference was that white society still identified blacks with a separate race. On the contrary, jazz probably represents better than anything else the historical moment when blacks stopped being an isolated, frozen culture, and became just one of the many ingredients of the melting pot, just one of the many groups of (very poor) immigrants; the moment when blacks started contributing to molding the shape and the soul of the society. Even when they rebelled against that society, they were part of it and wanted to be part of it. After all, few blacks desired to move back to Africa. They wanted to improve the society to reflect their values, just like any other member of that society.

Thus it is not surprising that it would be blues music, not jazz music, to send seismic shock waves into white music, once it began to percolate into white society. Jazz would eventually be assimilated by white pop music (from Broadway show tunes to Tin Pan Alley ballads) without causing any major upheaval. But the assimilation of blues would cause a Copernican revolution.

Early jazz was more properly a descendant of ragtime than of blues. Jazz was about embellishing a melody, an old European paradigm. Blues was more about rhythm than melody, thus remaining closer to the original African paradigm. In its early phase, jazz was recognized by both white and black audiences as a close relative of ragtime. Jazz initially had no name. For a long time, many people called it "ragtime" but they never called it "blues". There were white ragtime musicians, just like there were white jazz musicians. De facto, jazz was an evolution of ragtime, which was an evolution of the "coon song" of the minstrel shows, which were written by white people to make fun of black people: hardly an "African" tradition. The main difference between ragtime and jazz was, of course, the means of transmission. Ragtime was written composition, distributed as sheets. Jazz was improvised music, distributed as records. Other than that, the line between the two was blurred. Only in the 1920s did jazz music begin to employ complex harmonies that went well beyond ragtime harmony.

Last but not least, jazz was another stage in the ongoing process of black assimilation of white technology. Most of the instruments were as "un-African" as possible. And this was going to be the theme of black music for the rest of the century (from the electric guitar of rhythm'n'blues to the organ of gospel to the drum-machines of hip-hop). Jazz was, indirectly, also another stage in the process of black assimilation of white musical styles, because jazz was founded on ragtime, and ragtime was fundamentally the grafting of European musical styles (such as marches and waltzes) onto West-African syncopated rhythms. All in all, jazz was a lot more "white" than it appeared to be on the surface.

The West-African element of jazz music was the emphasis on (syncopated) rhythm and the widespread use of polyrhythms, or, from the viewpoint of instrumentation, the drums. (In fact, the drums remained a distinguishing feature of black musical genres until Bill Haley turned rock'n'roll into a white genre). Also largely West African was the passion for timbral exploration: where European music had always favored crisp tonality and harmonic rules (i.e., only some sounds and some combination of sounds are lawful), black music tended to explore the whole range of timbral and harmonic possibilities (something that white academic music was beginning to do independently and for different reasons at the beginning of the 20th century). This also included the prominence of blue notes (notes that are not part of the European pitch system).

The primacy of improvisation

It is somewhat unfairly claimed that the essence of jazz music is its improvisation. Jazz music is supposed to be the way it is played, not the way it is composed. There is little in jazz music to support this viewpoint, though. Given a chance, many jazz musicians chose to compose, not only to improvise. Improvisation on other people's material was, in fact, more common when the musicians were using "inferior" material (pop or folk songs, or military marches, or religious hymns). The more sophisticated the music is, the less improvisation there seems to be. Thus one simple explanation for the large role of improvisation in early jazz is, quite simply, that the black musicians were forced by society and habit to perform lousy music. Their improvisation was a way to transform it into great music. Whenever jazz musicians started composing their own material, the role of improvisation changed: it became part of the compositional method. And that, perhaps, is the key contribution of jazz music to the overall history of music. It also happens to be a process that paralleled the process of emancipation from traditional compositional methods that was carried out in the 20th century by the classical avantgarde. Both jazz music and the classical avantgarde explored new ways to use melody, rhythm and harmony and to create "sound". If one views jazz improvisation as simply a new form of composition, then the jazz musician is less of an improviser and more of a composer... of sound. The dichotomy between jazz music and Euro-centric music is rather blurred. Jazz musicians began to compose their own material because improvising on other people's material was neither fun nor as rewarding as improvising on one's own material. Even in its most extreme "free" genre, one can find a kind of jazz "composition": the set of rules on how to create the sound desired by the "composer".

The focus on the performer in jazz was real, but perhaps it simply masqueraded the rise of a different kind of composer.

The real dichotomy was to be found in the "composer": it is always singular in classical music, whereas it is often plural in jazz (and rock) music. The sound of a band is rarely due only to the ideas of the leader/composer. More than one member is usually responsible for the "composition". That remained the real difference between jazz and classical composition (but it also applied to rock music). TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.


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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.