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Updated on November 18, 2012


Jazz is an improvisational music style that challenges the musician’s sense of expression. Essentially, it’s an art form, which has, not only been woven throughout the history of American music but it’s in the fabric of our lives as well.

The improvisational aspect of Jazz means that the musicians are not only playing the notes on the sheet music, but they are improvising, and interpreting the music in the way he or she feels it. It’s far more than just playing notes; it’s about feeling the music, letting it into your soul, and allowing your interpretation to put your personal stamp on a particular piece of music.

A musician can’t translate that feeling if he doesn’t feel it; it has to come from the soul.

Jazz has its roots deep in the history of Africa’s rhythms. The beats that carry the melody in a Jazz tune were born of the traditions of Africa, and carried here to America by the slaves.

Taken from their countries, and barred from speaking in their native languages any longer, slaves were then forced to communicate via the only other method they had, in the voice that no one could take - Enter the drum.

There was a time, long ago, when the drumbeat was used to speak, or “call out” to another person or group; from plantation to plantation.

Through the beat of the drums, the drummers spoke a language that white slave owners and overseers could not understand. They assumed the slaves were just being savages – beating their drums. “The Savages” often passed information through the combination of beats. With that in mind, the beat is a vital element in Jazz. As the O’Jay’s sang, there’s a Message in the Music.

In time, with a spoon of Cuban tempo, a dash of European flair, and a spoon of smoldering Caribbean, staccato sexiness, and jazz was blended into an amalgamation of music styles that was nothing short of hot and spicy rhythms.

Many an artist has been influenced by some facet, some style, or legend of the genre. Even today, musicians of every ilk will tell you how the talent of Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton affected their careers. These men laid the foundation for the Jazz that played in the bars, in “Houses of Ill-Repute”, and in the streets throughout the Storyville section of New Orleans. They were some of the most gifted and inspiring pioneers of the art form.

Years ago, musicians and singers of all races, would gather to enjoy the music in Congo Square. Congo Square lies just north of the famed French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana. With the feeling of Africa to inspire them, they would bring drums and brass instruments like trumpets, trombones and, cornets to accompany them. They would compete against each other for bragging rights, and entertain any gathering crowd.

This long enjoyed practice of drumming in Congo Square has stood the test of time. Even now, post Katrina, each Sunday afternoon the drummers gather in the “Square” under the beautiful shade trees.

Painters, with their canvas are set up to paint along the walkway. The aromas of Beignet’s and coffee fill the air from Café DuMonde, tourists swaying to and enjoying the music from beneath the shady trees.

The Blues, on the other hand, is a mixture of secular music and sacred music. The popular call and response style of singing set singing the Blues apart from any other style of singing. It was as if the singer was liberated by singing out or ridding himself of his or her demons, getting rid of “The Blues”.

The absolute agony heard in the strained emotions of a singer belting out a Blues song shows a connection to the enthusiasm, passion and zeal of the Pentecostal church when the choir is singing for an offering. You can almost see the sweat roll down the singers face as she shouts out how, yet again, her lover has abused her heart. With her fists clenched, her sweat blended with her tears, she explains that she must give him one more chance, for love. Now, that’s the Blues.

In the early days of the Blues, Blues singers were the “house” workers during the day and the entertainers in the evenings. They spent their days on their feet cleaning for white families, or working in white owned restaurants, for what amounted to little more than pennies a day.

Unfortunately, sacrificing precious time away from their own children and families to care for of white children was not rare. That kind of sacrifice runs deep in the history of the black woman. Servitude on every level was expected of us.

These people, not only sang the blues, they were on a first name basis with it. They woke up with the blues, and they went to bed with the blues. It was with them daily, in their empty cupboards, and in their empty wallets.

Nowadays, everyone sings the Blues, or so they think. It’s almost comical when a white guy from the ‘burbs who’s never missed a meal in his life, has a pocket full of cash, yet can stand on a stage in $300.00 loafers and scream out about the pangs of being hungry in his ghetto room? It’s laughable.

Plessy V. Ferguson was instrumental in dismantling the racially mixed bands during that time, changing the history of Jazz. Separate but Equal altered the rules of day-to-day life by making it illegal for blacks and whites to play music together, see a movie side by side, eat a meal together, or see a doctor in the same hospital.

Creole musicians could no longer play with the white bands they were accustomed to playing with. By law, they were judged to be black, and therefore had to play in black bands. Creole’s did not take kindly to this – they enjoyed drifting between both races.

All of the prosperous big bands of the day were disbanded. Where Creole's had been accustomed to playing more brassy, march-type music, this changed their musical style completely.

“Buddy” Bolden was the first man actually credited with playing the combined improvised style of music called Jazz. He invented the infamous New Orleans beat by blending the brassy marches the Creoles brought to the table with the melodic Mississippi Delta Blues. Since improvisation is the driving force behind Jazz, blending the two styles was an evolution of sorts. It gave music a shot in the arm, and Jazz bands sprung up like southern cotton.

Enter the "sporting life" of Storyville. The word Jazz itself came from the days of Storyville in New Orleans. Storyville is long gone - destroyed because of its history with vice, alcohol and crime. Storyville was the Red Light district of New Orleans. It was home to a mixture of all races, French, Italian, free blacks, whites, and Spanish, all living together just off the famed Bourbon Street area.

The syncopated rhythms of ragtime started a rage with parents. It was like the Rock and Roll of its day. Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton took ragtime and made it his own by giving it suggestive lyrics and rhythms. America was unaware of and unprepared for how popular this new music would be.

Jelly Roll became a piano player in the whorehouses of Storyville, along with Buddy Bolden. Jelly Roll and Bolden, became known for writing and playing the new “Jass” music, or what was deemed sexualized, “Gut-Bumping” music that the girls of Storyville would dance and entertain to.

Because of Vice, and the whorehouses of Storyville, people began to jokingly call the tunes Ass music. Ultimately, the "S's" were changed to "Z's to give it integrity” and the rest is history.


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    • teddi6 profile image

      teddi6 4 years ago from Northern California

      Thank you for your comments.

    • xstatic profile image

      Jim Higgins 4 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

      A really interesting thumbnail sketch of the origins of my favorite style of music. I agree with you about white "blues" singers who have never missed a meal too.