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The progression of jazz in america over the years

Using his fingers and the edge of his hand, he jabs repeatedly at the drum head--which is around a foot in diameter and probably made from an animal skin--evoking a throbbing pulsation with rapid, sharp strokes. A second drummer, holding his instrument between his knees, joins in, playing with the same staccato attack. A third black man, seated on the ground, plucks at a string instrument, the body of which is roughly fashioned from a calabash.

Another calabash has been made into a drum, and a woman heats at it with two short sticks. One voice, then other voices join in. A dance of seeming contradictions accompanies this musical give-and-take, a moving hieroglyph that appears, on the one hand, informal and spontaneous yet, on closer inspection, ritualized the progression of jazz in america over the years precise. It is a dance of massive proportions. A dense crowd of dark bodies forms into circular groups--perhaps five or six hundred individuals moving in time to the pulsations of the music, some swaying gently, others aggressively stomping their feet.

A number of women in the group begin chanting. The scene could be Africa. In fact, it is nineteenth-century New Orleans. Scattered firsthand accounts provide us with tantalizing details of these slave dances that took place in the open area then known as Congo Square--today Louis Armstrong Park stands on roughly the same ground--and there are perhaps no more intriguing documents in the history of African-American music.

Benjamin Latrobe, the noted architect, witnessed one of these collective dances on February 21, 1819, and not only left a vivid written account of the event, but made several sketches of the instruments used.

These drawings confirm that the musicians of Congo Square, circa 1819, were playing percussion and string instruments virtually identical to those characteristic of indigenous African music. Later documents add to our knowledge of the public slave dances in New Orleans but still leave many questions unanswered--some of which, in time, historical research may be able to cast light on while others may never be answered.

One thing, however, is clear.

Although we are inclined these days to view the intersection of European-American and African currents in music as a theoretical, almost metaphysical issue, these storied accounts of the Congo Square dances provide us with a real time and place, an actual transfer of totally African ritual to the native soil of the New World. The dance itself, with its clusters of individuals moving in a circular pattern--the largest less than ten feet in diameter--harkens back to one of the most pervasive ritual ceremonies of Africa.

This rotating, counterclockwise movement has been noted by ethnographers under many guises in various parts of the continent. In the Americas, the dance became known as the ring shout, and its appearance in New Orleans is only one of many documented instances. This tradition persisted well into the twentieth century: As late as the 1950s, jazz scholar Marshall Stearns witnessed unmistakable examples of the ring shout in South Carolina.

The Congo Square dances were hardly so long-lived. Traditional accounts indicate that they continued, except for an interruption during the Civil War, until around 1885. Such a chronology implies that their disappearance almost coincided with the emergence of the first jazz bands in New Orleans. More recent research argues for an earlier cutoff date for the practice, probably before 1870, although the dances may have continued for some time in private gatherings.

In any event, this transplanted African ritual lived on as part of the collective memory and oral history of the city's black community, even among those too young to have participated in it. These memories the progression of jazz in america over the years, in turn, the jazz performers' self-image, their sense of what it meant to be an African-American musician.

He was a musician. No one had to explain notes or feeling or rhythm to him. It was all there inside him, something he was always sure of. The geographical proximity is misleading. The cultural gap between these two types of music is dauntingly wide.

By the time Bolden and Bechet began playing jazz, the Americanization of African music had already begun, and with it came the Africanization of American music--a synergistic process that we will study repeatedly and at close quarters in the pages that follow.

Anthropologists call this process "syncretism"--the blending together of cultural elements that previously existed separately. This dynamic, so essential to the history of jazz, remains powerful even in the present day, when African-American styles of performance blend seamlessly with other musics of other cultures, European, Asian, Latin, and, coming full circle, African. The mixture of African and European culture began, of course, long before the slave dances in Congo Square--in fact, at least one thousand years prior to the founding of New Orleans in 1718.

But once again, careful students of history need not rely on abstract analysis to discover early cultural mergings of African and European currents. The North African conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century left a tangible impact on Europe--evident even today in the distinctive qualities of Spanish architecture, painting, and music.

If not for "the genius and fortune" of this one man, historian Gibbon would declare in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Moorish fleet "might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames" and "the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford. Yet the traces of the early Moorish incursion may have laid the groundwork for the blossoming of African-American jazz more than a millennium later.

Can it be mere coincidence that this same commingling of Spanish, French, and African influences was present in New Orleans at the birth of jazz? Perhaps because of this marked Moorish legacy, Latin cultures have always seemed receptive to fresh influences from Africa.

Indeed, in the area of music alone, the number of successful African and Latin hybrids including salsa, calypso, samba, and cumbia, to name only a few is so great that one can only speculate that these two cultures retain the progression of jazz in america over the years residual magnetic attraction, a lingering affinity due to this original cross-fertilization.

The Roots of Jazz

Perhaps this convoluted chapter of Western history also provides us with the key for unlocking that enigmatic claim by Jelly Roll Morton, the pioneering New Orleans jazz musician, who asserted that "if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never he able to act the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz. Hart's music store on Canal Street published over eighty Mexican compositions during this period, influencing local instrumentalists and providing one more link in the complex history of interlocking Latin and African-American musical styles.

  • As the jazz movement spread, the style and content of it also changed as white practitioners modified the genre to make it more palatable to white middle class Americans;
  • Berlioz in his supremest effort with his army of drummers produced nothing to compare in artistic interest with the harmonious drumming of these savages;
  • Early attempts to define jazz as a music whose chief characteristic was improvisation , for example, turned out to be too restrictive and largely untrue, since composition , arrangement , and ensemble have also been essential components of jazz for most of its history;
  • Benjamin Latrobe, the noted architect, witnessed one of these collective dances on February 21, 1819, and not only left a vivid written account of the event, but made several sketches of the instruments used.

Beyond its purely musicological impact, the Latin-Catholic culture, whose influence permeated nineteenth-century New Orleans, benignly fostered the development of jazz music. This culture, which bore its own scars of discrimination, was far more tolerant in accepting unorthodox social hybrids than the English-Protestant ethos that prevailed in other parts of the New World.

Put simply, the music and dances of Congo Square would not have been allowed in the more Anglicized colonies of the Americas. Less than a half century after the city's founding, in 1764, New Orleans was ceded by France to Spain. In 1800, Napoleon succeeded in forcing its return from Spain, but this renewed French control lasted only three years before possession passed to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

As a result, French and Spanish settlers played a decisive role in shaping the distinctive ambiance of New Orleans during the early nineteenth century, but settlers from Germany, Italy, England, Ireland, and Scotland also made substantial contributions to the local culture.

The city's black inhabitants were equally diverse: Civil unrest in Hispaniola was an especially powerful force in bringing new immigrants, both black and white, to New Orleans: The resulting amalgam--an exotic mixture of European, Caribbean, African, and American elements--made Louisiana into perhaps the most seething ethnic melting pot that the nineteenth-century world could produce.

This cultural gumbo would serve as breeding ground for many of the great hybrid musics of modern times; not just jazz, but also cajun, zydeco, blues, and other new styles flourished as a result of this laissez-faire environment. In this warm, moist atmosphere, sharp delineations between cultures the progression of jazz in america over the years softened and ultimately disappeared. Today, New Orleans residents of Irish descent celebrate St. Patrick's Day by parading in a traditional African-American "second line"--and none of the locals are at all surprised.

The masquerades of Mardi Gras are a fitting symbol for this city, where the most familiar cultural artifacts appear in the strangest garb. Yet the most forceful creative currents in this society came from the African-American underclass. Should this surprise us? The musician's "special" role as slave or lunatic, outsider or pariah, hats a long tradition dating back to ancient times.

As recently as the twentieth century, some cultures retained religious prohibitions asserting the "uncleanliness" of believers eating at the same table as musicians. Yet the role of slave labor in the production of African-American song makes for an especially sad chapter in this melancholy history.

The presence of Africans in the New World, the first documented instance of which took place in Jamestown in 1619, predated the arrival of the Pilgrims by one year.

By 1807, some 400,000 native-born Africans had been brought to America, most of them transported from West Africa. Forcibly taken away from their homeland, deprived of their freedom, and torn from the social fabric that had given structure to their lives, these transplanted Americans clung with even greater fervor to those elements of their culture that they could carry with them from Africa. Music and folk tales were among the most resilient of these. Even after family, home, and possessions were taken away, they remained.

In this context, the decision of the New Orleans City Council, in 1817, to establish an official site for slave dances stands out as an exemplary degree of tolerance. In other locales, African elements in the slaves' music were discouraged or explicitly suppressed. During the Stono Rebellion of 1739, drums had been used to signal an attack on the white population. Anxious to prevent further uprisings, South Carolina banned any use of drums by slaves.

The Georgia slave code went even further in prohibiting not only drums, but also horns or loud instruments. Religious organizations also participated in the attempt to control the African elements of the slaves' music. The Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Dr. Isaac Watts, published in various colonial editions beginning in the early 1700s, was frequently used as a way of "converting" African Americans to more edifying examples of Western music.

We are fortunate that these attempts bore little success. Indeed, in many cases, the reverse of the intended effect took place: European idioms were transformed and enriched by the African tradition on which they were grafted. Alan Lomax, the pioneering scholar and preserver of African-American music, writes: Blacks had Africanized the psalms to such an extent that many observers described black lining hymns as a mysterious African music.

In the first place, they so prolonged and quavered the texts of the hymns that only a recording angel could make out what was being sung. Instead of performing in an individualized sort of unison or heterophony, however, they blended their voices in great unified streams of tone. There emerged a remarkable kind of harmony, in which every singer was performing variations on the melody at his or her pitch, yet all these ornaments contributed to a polyphony of many ever changing strands--surging altogether like seaweed swinging with the waves or a leafy tree responding to the progression of jazz in america over the years strong wind.

Experts have tried and failed to transcribe this river-like style of polyphony.

  1. A tight ensemble sound was not central to their music. During this time Louis Armstrong was at the forefront of jazz.
  2. That migration, combined with recording technology and Prohibition, brought jazz to an unprecedented number of black and non-black audiences.
  3. In 1926 alone, more than three hundred blues and gospel recordings were released in the United States, most of them featuring black female vocalists. Treemonisha proved to be a far more expansive and consuming musical project.
  4. Much speculation has been offered as to the historical origin of this powerful and unique melodic device--some commentators, for example, have suggested that this technique originated when the newly arrived slaves tried to reconcile an African pentatonic scale with the Western diatonic scale, with the result being two areas of tonal ambiguity, around the third and seventh intervals, that evolved into the modern "blue" notes.
  5. The various books on African-American music written during the next several decades devoted little or no space to Joplin, and it was not until Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis published their seminal work They All Played Ragtime in 1950 that Joplin's extraordinary career began to be understood in any degree of perspective. Thus, the cornet was responsible for stating and occasionally embellishing the thematic material—the tune—in the middle range, the clarinet performed obbligato or descant functions in a high register, the trombone offered contrapuntal asides in the tenor or baritone range, and the four rhythm instruments provided a unified harmonic foundation.

It rises from a group in which all singers can improvise together, each one contributing something personal to an ongoing collective effect--a practice common in African and African-American tradition. The outcome is music as powerful and original as jazz, but profoundly melancholy, for it was sung into being by hard-pressed people. This ability of African performance arts to transform the European tradition of composition while assimilating some of its elements is perhaps the most striking and powerful evolutionary force in the history of modern music.

Online Master of Music in Music Education

The genres of music that bear the marks of this influence are legion. Let's name a few: The history of jazz is closely intertwined with many of these other hybrid genres, and tracing the various genealogies can prove dauntingly complex.

For example, minstrel shows, which developed in the decades before the Civil War, found white performers in blackface mimicking, and most often ridiculing, the music, dance, and culture of the slave population. Often the writer of minstrel songs worked with little actual knowledge of southern black music. A surprising number of these composers hailed from the Northeast, and the most celebrated writer of minstrel-inflected songs, Stephen Foster, created a powerful, romanticized image of southern folk life, yet his experience with the South was restricted to a brief interlude spent in Kentucky and a single trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Thus, in its impact on early jazz, minstrel music presents a rather convoluted situation: The work song, another frequently cited predecessor to jazz, is more purely African in nature--so much so, that some examples recorded in the southern United States earlier this century seem to show almost no European or American influence.

This ritualized vocalizing of black American workers, with its proud disregard for Western systems of notation and scales, comes in many variants: