As what we have come to know as “Traditional Jazz” grew in popularity and spread from New Orleans across the whole of America, new inventions and political changes also began to shape the music.
The Prohibition in the United States of America (a constitutional ban on all alcohol in America between 1920 and 1933) kick-started the “Jazz Age” and made way for a new secret night life culture, where people would find any way they could to smuggle, brew or distil their own alcoholic drinks.
Hoagy Carmichael, one of the great 20th century composers, said that the prohibition..
“came with a bang of bad booze, flappers with bare legs, jangled morals and wild weekends.”
According to novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, during prohibition…
“The parties were bigger…the pace was faster…and the morals were looser.”
Jazz music became the popular music of the day among the young and ‘hip’ crowds, many of whom were at the forefront of the rebellion.
They would meet in secret clubs, “speakeasies”, to eat, drink and dance all night long to the ever-growing variety of live jazz music that had become an important part of the youth culture of the day.
Because jazz music became associated with seedy illicit bars, alcohol culture and crime, and because racism was still so rife, the white middle class saw jazz as a dark, rebellious and uncouth genre.
This didn’t stop the musicians of the 1920’s!
They continued to compose and play music that has since become timeless, shaping all popular music to follow it.
Check out this 1927 recording of “Potato Head Blues” by the great Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Fives and Sevens”
If you have been following this blog series, you have read about ragtime music – a genre of piano-based music played from sheet music for high society. You will have also heard some blues – heavily improvised music, used primarily as a form of expression among black slaves and musicians and frowned upon by the upper class white folk.
Now picture this – a story of the origins of jazz that I was told a couple of weeks ago in the birthplace of jazz by a pianist at the New Orleans Jazz Museum;
“You’re a black musician. It’s 1900, or thereabouts. There’s a gig this evening at one of the hottest clubs in the quarter, but the trumpet player is ill, or has taken another gig, or, for some other reason can’t make it, and has asked you to step in and do the gig instead…
At the time, “rags” were popular and had become more complex, with various written parts for various instruments that the musicians were expected to play. However, if you were offered a gig but your part was missing, you couldn’t afford to turn down the gig – you’d just have to make up the part!
And thus began improvisation in a band setting, using preconceived chord patterns and melodies.”
As time went on, new compositions were written in a way that supported this new improvisational style. To begin with, songs still felt very “arranged” and could have all manner of forms that sounded “rag”-esque. There were written melodies, chord patterns and some harmony parts, but the nature of being a busy musician in this era had changed; You had to understand the role of your instrument and be able to improvise in a band setting.
Roles of Instruments in a Traditional Jazz Band
If you wanted to play in a band in early 1900’s America, you had to understand how your instrument worked in a collective sense. You also had to develop technique and a good understanding of musical harmony.
Voice: Most instrumentalists would double as singers. The vocal chorus would appear in the middle of a performance instead of being the main feature of a song.
Trumpet/Cornet: `Frontline (plays the melody and solos)
Clarinet: Frontline (plays an agile countermelody/obbligato that weaves in and out of the melody. Also plays improvised solos)
Trombone: Frontline (harmonises with higher brass and fills in with scoops and slides)
Piano: Frontline & Rhythm section (plays “stride” but can also solo and play countermelodies)
Banjo/Guitar: Rhythm section (plays on the beat every beat – “chg-chg-chg-chg”)
Bass/Sousaphone/Tuba: Rhythm section (plays generally roots and fifths on the 1st and 3rd beats of each bar
The first jazz recording dates back to 1917, and was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band:
“Dixieland” is, however, a controversial term. It was used by white musicians to describe their generally sped-up, “cleaned-up” version of the slower, more blues influenced traditional jazz music that was being played by black musicians. This term is not well received to this day amidst New Orleans’ traditional musicians.
The “Invention of Jazz”
Jelly Roll Morton was said to be the self-proclaimed “inventor of jazz”, although his actual words were quite different. He wrote;
“All my fellow musicians were much faster in manipulations, I thought than I, and I did not feel as though I was in their class.”
So he would write songs to be played at a slower tempo, leaving more room for flexibility when it came to improvising.
When Jelly Roll Morton started recording his own compositions with his band, he could play to the strengths of his fine comrades. The music became faster (this was popular at the time as it was more fun to dance to) and more virtuosic.
This new style that he had suggested paved the way for a new generation of jazz musicians.
Check out this 1923 recording of “High Society” by King Oliver and his band – just listen to that clarinet go!
The reality is that the invention of jazz music cannot be accredited to any one musician. It is a genre that celebrates collective playing and improvisation and welcomes influences from a wide variety of backgrounds and influences.
A blog about this era is not complete without a glimpse of one of the world’s greatest musical heroes in the formative years of his musical journey. Here’s a treat for you – Louis Armstrong playing “Potato Head Blues” in 1927 with his Hot Seven!
Next time, we’ll be looking at how traditional jazz swung its way into popularity with the swing era – big bands, crooners, endless dancing and pioneers of the 21st century!
Alongside the evolution of the music from Congo Square in the 19th Century, before the abolition of the slave trade in America, another type of slave music grew in the Southern plantations; Blues.
Blues found its origins in the Mississippi Delta, when slaves would sing about their sorrows while picking cotton and working in the fields. It was initially considered a type of folk music and was popular only among African slaves and their descendants, frowned upon by the middle and upper class Americans of European decent.
Early types of blues music included spirituals (religious songs using vocal harmony) and work songs. Work songs were structured in a call and response fashion and lyrics were largely improvised before any transcribed or recorded compositions arose.
Here is a short documentary on “Slave Songs”, possibly the first published book of work songs and spirituals sung by African Americans in the 1800’s. These songs evolved into what we know as blues, and the book most probably contains the first ever compilation of transcriptions of the genre.
As blues and jazz have similar origins, the two genres married perfectly when the aural traditions of both were passed from state to state among musicians and travellers. Jazz musicians all over the world still play what we have come to know as “jazz blues” .
The “Blues Scale”
Today, the blues is easily recognisable by its form (usually 12 bars, explained later on in this blog) and “blues notes”, otherwise known as “worried notes” – these are flattened 3rds, 7thand sometimes 5ths that give the music its melancholic, implied minor feel. These can be found in what is known as the blues scale, a scale that can be used as a good starting place to practise improvisation on the blues;
12 Bar Blues
The basic blues structure is made up of 12 bars (3 groups of 4 bars), like so: A great example of this is W.C. Handy’s 1915 composition, “Joe Turner Blues” – have a listen!
Other Blues Forms
Although most blues that we know today is constructed as above, there is also eight bar blues, sixteen bar blues, minor blues and other variations.
Check out Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s rendition of “Trouble In Mind”, an eight bar blues:
Give it a go!
Why not have a go at writing your own? Here are some blues lyrics by one of the 20thcentury’s best loved jazz singers, Billie Holiday. See how the first two lines are the same, and the last line rhymes with them?
My man don’t love me, treats me awful mean My man don’t love me, treats me awful mean He’s the lowest man that I’ve ever seen
Let us know what you come up with! If you need more inspiration, check out this blues composition by one of our amazing pupils, Tilda!