The Origins of Jazz

Jazz music, as we know it today, shares its roots in several musical traditions, including African, European, and American. This unique mesh of cultural influences has made it a truly American style of music. Jazz music’s influence has flowed through innumerable aspects of modern culture; it is the cornerstone for twentieth century music.

The first and arguably most prominent component of jazz music was the African musical heritage kept alive by slaves in the South. This music was likely used as comforting way to cope with harsh labor and removal from their homes. From this music came a few central elements that help to define jazz. The first of these was a strong sense of rhythm, especially syncopated rhythms that contrasted the strict time meters popular in European music at the time. In addition, musicians used vocals as a major conveyance of emotion. Finally, slave music relied heavily on the use of a five-note scale, as opposed to traditional major or minor scales.

After emancipation in 1865, a number of black pianists became prominent entertainers in saloons and dance halls. Through the contributions of these pianists, most notably Scott Joplin, came a new style of music with a mixed meter. The genre’s original name, “ragged time”, described the unique superposition of a jolly, syncopated melody over a regular pulsing bass line. Eventually, this title was shortened to simply “ragtime” and the name stuck. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, musicians began to notate their most popular pieces, and these publications would soon become the basis for improvisation, a crucial feature of jazz music.

Whereas ragtime was the music of better-off, and more educated African Americans, the blues is filled with hardship and despair. This style, which likely grew out of the Mississippi Delta region, is based on the call and response pattern used extensively in the slaves’ work songs. Due to their customary five-note scale, many slaves had difficulty singing the third and seventh intervals of the hymns they learned in America. This situation fostered the “blue note” which gave rise to the blues scale, a harmonic series which became widely used in jazz and other twentieth-century American music styles.

The final essential precursor to jazz music was the marching band, which rose to popularity in black communities after the end of the Civil War. Marching bands were clothed in uniform and were frequently associated with funeral processions. In the South, the largest center of marching band activity was the city of New Orleans. As a commercial and military port, instruments were widely available and inexpensive, giving rise to a number or performance groups. In time, New Orleans became the music capital of America, and before long, the marching band tradition began to mesh with ragtime and blues styles, which were also popular in the region. Once instrumental ensembles began mimicking these styles, the jazz band was born.

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