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Study of the Styles, Techniques, and Key Artists in Early Jazz Music

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 3 3

In his notes for the art portfolio "Jazz," Henri Matisse quotes his fellow painter Auguste Renoir as having said, "when I have arranged a bouquet in order to paint it, I go around to the side that I have not looked at." In a sense, that is what jazz musicians do when they interpret a piece of musical material, whether it is a standard ballad, a composed blues, or an original composition. The artists in this article are proficient at going around to the side they have not looked at. Their intention is always to say something musically interesting about a piece by revealing a fact that is not readily obvious, and to do so spontaneously, by improvisation. This article will attempt to give the reader an understanding of the amazing diversity of styles and approaches that went into early jazz, primarily from the 1900s to the 1920s.

To set the scene and to give a bit of contextual background, between the years of 1865-1905 the main forms of popular music were hymns (mainly protestant, German, and English), folk music, and symphonic music.

Jazz evolved out of a vocal tradition. Horn players (the trumpeter, trombonist, and saxophonist) relied heavily on vocal effects such as slurs, "growls," and "bent" notes, to express musical feeling. These vocal expressions were soon adopted for the piano as well.

Due to obvious difficulty moving the instrument, the piano was not used at all in the marching bands from which the very early New Orleans jazz ensembles evolved. Piano players were forced to create venues of their own: they thrived in bars, at private parties, in rural gin mills, in bordellos – any place that could not accommodate a band but where people wanted entertainment or dance music.

Solo piano originated in the turn-of-the-century from the African-American piano music called ragtime. For the most part, ragtime was a fairly formal music. It was a composed music that could be played as written, but its very best players brought spontaneous, personal interpretations to their performances. As pianist Eubie Blake once said, ragtime performers "where expected to add their individual touches."

The formal compositional structure of ragtime music was rooted in European music. For instance, the march-like sectional forms, with multiple successive melodies or "strains" in each piece had orchestral counterparts in the early jazz compositions of New Orleans that began to be recorded in 1917. What mainly made the New Orleans style different was that its distinct style consisted of more flexible rhythms; there was an application of syncopation. Furthermore, in the New Orleans bands, there was a development with the brand new polyphonic ensemble style, one that included many voices; including several interweaving melodies made by the trumpet or cornet, the clarinet, and the trombone all improvising at once.

Perhaps another key tributary to early jazz is that of country brass bands.

One point has been made that the often-cited culture-clash between African-Americans and lighter skinned Creoles in New Orleans could be viewed not as a class conflict but as the tension between country folk and city people. The post-Emancipation influx of rural blacks and their crude musical folkways into the Creole capital with its more genteel customs provided friction that helped spark jazz. In fact, many early jazz players started out in brass bands in outlying towns. According to Kevin Whitehead, "there seem to be enough points of similarity to suggest that the earliest, 'roughest' band music played by African-Americans in New Orleans may not have been wholly different from music of the country brass bands."

It has been said that that African-American rural bands dated from the end of the civil war. But slaves had been exposed to white brass band music before; there had been African-American bands up north before the war, and maybe even African-American brass players before the revolution. According to Kevin Whitehead, in 1973, Virginia's colonial legislature required all "free Mulattoes, Negroes, or Indians" to serve in the militia; they could not bear arms, so many became musicians.

The post-Emancipation country brass bands learned to play by ear, and their repertory reflected whatever came within an earshot: church music, "Dixie," tunes and blues picked up from traveling songstars. Such bands usually played outdoors, for dancing, at picnics, and daylong holiday feasts, and they worked at being loud. When one band's wagon on the way to a gig encountered another, the rival outfits would try to out blow each other on different tunes.

Another important element of the development of jazz music is the music called the blues. Blues music evidently developed in rural and backwoods areas of the south and southwest (no one is exactly sure about the when and where of early blues history). Blues reached widespread popularity in the mid teens of the century, very soon after ragtime became a popular music. At first, the blues mainly consisted of solo singing, or singing accompanied by banjo or guitar; perhaps shortly thereafter, it included banjo or guitar playing without a singer. The blues eventually found it's way to the piano, and many of the devices of the blues singers, banjo, and guitar players were adapted to the piano (note: the term "blues" refers to a regular twelve-measure musical form and not to a particular mood or slow tempo).

Blues pianists, who had to make the music conform to the tuning of a piano keyboard, instinctively altered the diatonic scale to imitate vocal effects. By the time the blues was written down, a so-called blues scale had evolved in which the third step, the seventh step, and (a bit later) the fifth step were lowered a half tone, or flatted, these lowered notes are called blue notes. However, according to Katz, "In practice musicians play melodies that sound as if they were built on such a scale, but there is really no formal scale as such, it is simply an after-the-fact method of explaining what musicians do."

What follows is a discussion of the key jazz musicians and style innovators during these developmental periods, namely Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong. This is intended to be a look not simply at their musical side but also a look into their personal and biographical life as well. The reason being that it is vastly important to understand not only the music and its history but also the artists who contributed to this music and their stories.

One of the most popular composers of ragtime music is, of course, Scott

Joplin. Ragtime music, the first type of African-American music to gain widespread popularity, first appeared in about 1885. Its popularity reigned from the late 1890s until about 1917 (the year Joplin died). There where no recordings made of Joplin, however there are piano rolls in existence that he made. This is due largely to the fact that by the time he was given the opportunity to record he had contracted syphilis and was unable to play as well as he once could after the disease had deteriorated him so immensely.

Joplin was a remarkable composer who composed such classics as "The Ragtime Dance," "The Entertainer," and "The Easy Winners," to name a few. He was internationally famous for a few years following his 1899 publication of his celebrated master pattern for an American classicism, The Maple Leaf Rag, named after a saloon casino, The Maple Leaf Club in Sedalia, Missouri, where he worked during the time of its composition. After his big hit and sudden wealth, Joplin was able to focus entirely as a composer and teacher (he had studied harmony, counterpoint, and theory at Sedalia's George R. Smith College for Negroes). He then moved to St. Louis and set up a theatrical boarding house with teaching studios. In Sedalia Joplin Married Belle Hayden. They had a baby girl but she only lived a few short months. The Joplins separated and two years later Belle died. These events are known to have greatly disturbed Joplin, but fortunately for history, he came back to composition, finding healing in a downpour of musical creation.

After Joplin, the next great innovator on piano was the great Jelly Roll

Morton. Morton was born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in Louisiana in 1890. He spent his early adult life in New Orleans. Morton's life is shrouded in legend; due largely to his own fabricated stories. He had a huge ego and claimed to be the sole inventor of jazz. However, the New Orleans ragtime pianist Tony Jackson very heavily influenced him. Morton started his career in New Orleans bordellos around 1902. For approximately a dozen years beginning in 1904, he was an itinerant pianist with minstrel and vaudeville acts, traveling as far east as New York and as far west as Los Angeles, where he briefly settled in 1917. Some of his most famous recordings were made with his Red Hot Peppers in Chicago and New York from 1926-1928. Morton was the first important jazz composer, and a player of the earliest style of jazz music, ragtime. However, in the early 1930s his style of jazz fell out of public favor. But the invaluable performances and oral history accounts that Morton recorded for folklorist Alan Lomax and the Library of Congress in 1938 coincided with a New Orleans jazz revival, and there was sufficient interest in Morton to enable him to record again in 1939 and 1940.

Louis Armstrong has been called the most influential musician of the twentieth-century. His long, magnificent career as a trumpet player, singer, bandleader, and actor made him a legend in his own time. His influence on jazz and popular music is deep and wide. Miles Davis once said of Louis, " You know you can't play anything on the horn that Louis hasn't played, I mean even modern." Bing Crosby called Louis "the beginning and end of jazz music in America." He played trumpet against the rules, and, in doing so, new rules were written to acknowledge his standards.

Despite his claims otherwise, Louis Armstrong was born August 4, 1901 in a ramshackle house on a squalid block-long in New Orleans called Jane Alley, between Perdido and Poydras Streets. As Giddins put it, "He was born with dark skin in a country where dark-skinned people were considered less than human and, with ineffable radiance that transcends the power of art, forced millions of whites to reconsider their values."

Louis was not only an extremely talented and influential musician but he was also quite a writer as well, perhaps receiving little recognition as such. He was by far the most expansive musician-writer jazz has ever known: in addition to his famous memoir of his youth and an earlier book, he wrote more than two dozen magazine pieces, ranging from "Why I like Dark Women" for Ebony to a monthly column on jive talk for the Harlem Tattler to a piece for Holiday to a review of Alan Lomax's Mr. Jelly Roll for the New York Times Book Review. He also wrote hundreds of chatty letters, and hundreds of pages intended for an autobiography. Tallulah Bankhead wrote of Louis' writing style in 1952 saying, "He uses words like he strings notes together – artistically and vividly."

In conclusion, this is by no means an all-inclusive investigation of jazz music. There are countless factors, opinions, and beliefs that go into the formation of this music. Rather, this is simply a general overview of a few of the characteristics and contributions of several key styles and key musicians.


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Comments

Apr 19, 2010 8:50pm
deeljea
Great article on Jazz. I love jazz music!
Jun 29, 2010 9:36pm
snowfence
Thanks for the info!
Jul 1, 2010 10:33pm
JCriz
Great article. It's nice to see another jazz lover on Info Barrel!
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