A Concise History of Jazz

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A Concise History of Jazz

Unlike classical music, jazz has always been a forward-looking music. We can rightly speak of a classical tradition but the term “jazz tradition” is a contradiction. The very idea of jazz seemingly from its earliest days has been one of no tradition. While classical music worked slavishly from the written page, jazz relied ever-so slightly on this convention and, in many cases, discarded it altogether in order to “speak from the heart.” This is not to say that classical music doesn’t speak from the heart but a piece speaks from only the heart of its composer, the conductor becomes the interpreter of that feeling and his musicians merely participants assisting the conductor in bringing this feeling to the audience. The reason he is called a conductor instead of, say, time-keeper or metronome is that he conducts the composer’s feelings and intentions to the listeners through the musicians. He is actually a medium.

With jazz, each musician is in himself a composer telling a story straight from his heart in so personal a way that the story can never be told the same way twice. A classical musician strives to make each performance identical while a jazz musician is frowned on by his fellows for playing identically at each performance. In classical, the composer’s feeling is mapped on the written page beforehand, in jazz the feeling is spontaneous and must be expressed and captured in that instant for afterwards that instant, having past, will never be again. For this reason, we say that jazz is very existentialist.

The sheet music score of a classical piece is the complete set of instructions for recreating the feeling that the composer wishes to arouse in the listener—page after page of drama, tragedy, comedy, romance, bellows of war, crashes of thunder leaping off the page in rich, startling, impressively ornate notation. By contrast, a jazz musician’s sheet music usually occupies no more than a single page with only the bare melody written on the staff, the chords written above each bar of music. From this minimalist skeleton on a musical idea will arise some of the richest interpretations ever heard—what would have taken dozens of written pages to capture none-for-note—but nearly all of it supplied from the musician’s heart as he was feeling it at that moment. He might play the song again an hour later and play it entirely differently using the same piece of sheet music.

One page of a Johann Pachelbel piece. The emotion is contained in the notation as well as certain instructions such as “andante” or “poco moto” etc. (although no such instructions are given here). While different musicians would play it somewhat differently, the overall effect on the listener would be the same because each musician wants to stay true to the original feeling Pachelbel was trying to invoke, they would differ only in how they thought the piece should be played to invoke that feeling. Jazz musicians would strip it down so that they could play it with any feeling they want to.

Because jazz has been so progressive, so forward-looking, it has evolved with astonishing quickness. The progression of jazz from Buddy Bolden and Kid Ory to Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus was so godawful quick that it would be like classical music going from Bach to Stravinsky in the space of 50 years!

When and where did jazz begin? The usual jazz holyland is considered to be New Orleans where it sprang up among the black and Creole communities. This is hard to argue with when one considers the earliest jazz talents seem to have all come out of the Big Easy—Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Kid Ory, Jelly Roll Morton, Freddy Keppard, Bunk Johnson, Armand Piron, Tony Parenti, Jimmy Palao, Johnny Bayersdorffer, The New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Johnny De Droit, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (the first jazz band to record), not to mention Buddy Bolden (who never recorded). But jazz was everywhere in America because its disciples traveled around spreading the jazz gospel. Kid Ory went to San Francisco. Morton, Armstrong, Oliver, Keppard and others went to Chicago. Earl Fuller, James Reese Europe and Fletcher Henderson kicked off a vibrant jazz scene in New York City. W. C. Handy was playing around Memphis having spent a good deal of time in New Orleans recruiting musicians for his band. Don Redman in Detroit organized McKinney’s Cotton Pickers into one of the first true jazz big bands that was so impressive that some of the greatest black jazz talent of the 20th century played in the band at some point. Some pioneers as the great Wilbur Sweatman spent time playing jazz in places as Kansas City, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York long before these places became jazz meccas helping to plant the seeds of a future abundant crop.

When did the earliest jazz bands form and what did they sound like? Depending on the historian doing the documenting, jazz started as early as 1885 although all agree that it was definitely in existence by 1902. Buddy Bolden has traditionally been credited with starting jazz but others credit Jelly Roll Morton who began converting ragtime, generally written in 2/4, to 4/4 time which laid the foundation for swing. Handy was also definitely laying the groundwork for jazz by 1909 and perhaps as early as ‘03. I would think the 1885 date is a bit premature. One of the prime ingredients of early jazz was ragtime—a music formed first from barnyard banjo dance tunes played by slaves and sharecroppers and then jig piano and riverboat songs.

Ragtime probably came about around 1890 or so. I have a ragtime recording from 1890 called “Bunch of Rags” by Sylvester “Vess” L. Ossman, a prolific ragtime musician at that period. The point is, we can hear a clear influence of ragtime on early jazz but we do not hear any jazz in ragtime simply the does not appear have been any jazz before the emergence of ragtime. If jass preceded ragtime, it must have undergone a radical transformation and this is untenable. Moreover, ragtime would need time to establish itself as a major musical movement for jazz to have incorporated so much of it. So the first jazz bands probably came into existence by 1895 give or take a couple of years.

The John Robichaux Orchestra of New Orleans from a photo taken circa 1896. Since several of the band members were known to have played in true jazz bands early in the 20th century, we can surmise that the Robichaux band must have played something that was at least akin to jazz and we can be certain that they at least qualified as a ragtime band on the verge of jass (by the way, “jass” is the correct spelling and I use it to mean early jazz of this period), a proto-jass band. They would have been on the reserved side of things with the Bolden band playing a lot hotter.

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