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JAZZ: America’s Unique Contribution to World Music, Made in U.S.A.

Updated on August 25, 2017

Early Development:

After the Continental Congress in Philadelphia managed to organize the 13 colonies into a very cantankerous union and made the proclamation to the world that we were now an official country, it remained to be seen what kinds of artistic output might develop in this New World. Since the white European settlers had quite aggressively pushed the native inhabitants off of their land and set about to break their resistance and ultimately destroy their culture, there was no cohesive indigenous population from which to build an artistic community.

Everything that developed in any of the Fine Arts in the early days of the new republic was an imitation of things European, and nothing seemed to stand out as uniquely American. The folk music that was evolving in Appalachia was a direct outgrowth of English, Scottish and Irish popular music and storytelling. By the period of 1815-1830, the blues and spirituals had evolved as a result of the African tradition of call and response singing (“field hollers” which had become a means of surreptitious communication among the repressed unwilling immigrants imported by the white slave traders) mixing with of some of the simple song forms they heard coming from the other destitute European laborers working with them in the fields.

Other music that developed among the slave population was the instrumental music they created with novel instruments they created based on African traditional instruments such as the banjo and “bones” (jawbones used as a percussion instrument) adding fiddle and tambourine. Black ensembles were often coerced to perform for the plantation owners for their entertainment, and eventually whites started to imitate these performances in “Minstrel Shows”, where the whites would appear in blackface and mimic the black performers. The minstrel shows enjoyed a wide popularity from about 1830 until its decline in the 1860’s.

By this time, freed blacks had been migrating throughout the United States, traveling up and down the Mississippi and its tributaries, which provided them with cheap transportation to and from cities such as Minneapolis, Chicago, Des Moines, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. They also traveled northward along the East coast, populating cities like Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. Everywhere they went, they brought their own particular style of music with them and by the late 1800’s it was beginning to attract the attention of whites that found the simple melodies and invigorating rhythms entertaining.

Ragtime music has its debut in print for the first time in 1893 after years of developing in Missouri. In 1899, a classically trained pianist from Missouri, Scott Joplin, published the now world famous “Maple Leaf Rag” along with a number of other rags he had written.

Maple Leaf Rag Played by Scott Joplin

New Orleans origins:

New Orleans still had the largest concentration of black musicians who were developing the new styles of music, where blues and ragtime were beginning to shape what was to be later described as Dixieland music and “jass”. Louis Moreau Gottschalk, white piano virtuoso and one of Americas foremost composers in 1850 stated that he had been influenced by the music in New Orleans where he was neighbor to Congo Square, where black musicians met and performed in marching bands and other small ensembles.

In 1897, “Storyville” (the red-light district named after the city alderman Sidney Story who created it) became the next center of music in New Orleans. Storyville was the hub for the pioneers of jazz, including such luminaries as Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Joe “King” Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. In 1900, a surplus of military instruments was delivered to the docks of New Orleans, left over from the end of the Spanish-American war. More musicians than ever now started to perform throughout New Orleans, developing and imitating each other’s music.

The pace increased, and migrations of musicians to the north continued, accelerating in 1917 when the U.S. Navy closed the Storyville district in New Orleans. During the next 10 years, innovations in recording and broadcasting technology spread this music all over America. In 1919, the Original Dixieland Jass Band (an all-white imitation band) was performing in London, and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra with Will Marion Smith was touring Europe.

Derivation of Term:

In 1912, the first use of the word “jazz” was in print in California, but it was not a description of music. It was used in the Los Angeles Times to describe a new special pitch that had been invented by Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson. In March, 1913, E.T. "Scoop" Gleeson in the San Francisco Bulletin wrote a series of articles about baseball where he defined the word’s meaning as having energy, high spirits, vigor, enthusiasm. The first few direct associations with music occurred in 1915 in the Chicago Tribune where the author states “Blues is Jazz and Jazz is Blues . . . they aren't new.

They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the south half a century ago and are the interpolations of darkies originally. The trade name for them is ‘jazz’...” Usage of the word jazz showed up several times in Chicago later the same year, and started to spread to other U. S. cities. There is a standing argument that the word developed as slang in reference to the already existing slang word “jism”, and early performers of this music have stated that the use of the word “jass” or “jazz” was not to be used in polite company, but in the end, the term was identified so strongly with the musical style that had originated in New Orleans that it “went viral”, to coin a current slang term.

Jazz Music
Jazz Music | Source

Who is your favorite jazz musician of all time?

See results

Jazz Influences in Symphonic Music:

When the Czechoslavakian composer Anton Dvořák moved to the United States in 1892, he tried to convince American composers at the time to pursue developing a uniquely American style of music based on African-American and Native American music. Until then, music written by American composers sounded very much like their European counterparts, and nothing about American symphonic and chamber music had a distinctively American identity.

Inspired by Dvořák, and in particular his “New World Symphony” (which premiered with the New York Philharmonic on December 16, 1893), there were numerous attempts by American composers to follow his advice, but the music that resulted sounded forced and uninspired. In contrast, European composers who had heard the new American music had much more success with the public response to pieces they wrote which incorporated the syncopations and harmonies found across the Atlantic. In particular, composers Ravel, Debussy, Milhaud and Stravinsky had all written pieces in the early 1900’s incorporating jazz into their works.

Jazz History
Jazz History | Source

Scott Joplin had made an attempt in 1903 to tour with his new opera, “A Guest of Honor”, but it was a financial failure and was abandoned. Later, in 1915, his second opera “Treemonisha” also failed to gain enough interest or support to become a success in his time. In the Aaron Copeland piano piece “Three Moods” (1921), he experiments with jazz melodies in the third movement, but it was his contemporary George Gershwin in 1924 that firmly established the use of jazz in American symphonic music with his “Rhapsody In Blue”, originally commissioned for and performed by the Paul Whiteman band. Gershwin continued to incorporate jazz into his concert pieces over the years, and numerous other American composers and songwriters followed suit.

Made in U.S.A.:

Jazz is truly an original American music form that evolved over many years from the music created by the poor and disenfranchised members of American society. Where America had no interest in the Native American culture that would normally be the source of indigenous music, this vacuum of “native” American music was filled by the wide variety of international immigrants who found themselves in a strange new land with few links to their past.

Passed on by oral tradition, it took years for this music to be deciphered and notated, as its earliest creators were illiterate and unschooled in formal music training. They would sing and improvise and invent and reinvent, blending the musical ideas from their disparate native lands with the new sounds and words they heard in their travels. Their emotional spiritual journeys and passions flow freely in their unrestrained and spontaneous music making, which may be why this music called Jazz continues to be so compelling to those who hear it.

Jazz Instruments
Jazz Instruments | Source

Jazz History Time Line :

PBS - Jazz Kids: Timeline:


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    • profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Glad that we are seeing eye to eye about that cmoneyspinner1tf :) Not to mention all those "smaller" jazz guys that have their own unique ways of reaching the hearts of listeners. Thanks for the comment, glad you liked the hub!

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 

      5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Right on top of right! :)

    • profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago

      Couldn't agree more cmoneyspinner1tf. :) Such question is literally impossible for me to answer; honestly, I don't think I could even narrow it down to top 2. Granted, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington are definitely among the creme de la creme of the jazz world, but we can't leave out John Coltrane or Miles Davis either, right?

    • cmoneyspinner1tf profile image

      Treathyl FOX 

      5 years ago from Austin, Texas

      Who is your favorite jazz musician of all time?

      Can't participate in your poll. That question is impossible for me to answer! But if you twisted my arm, I'd at least narrow it down to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. :)


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