1.5 JAZZ

This period is imperfectly documented because nobody cared much about it at the time except those involved in it, and they were members of the lower social classes. It was not until later, when people realized the importance of the movement that efforts were made to go back and do the research about it. Originally the word “jazz” was a slang word for sexual intercourse. Its use reflects the origin of the music in the New Orleans sexual underworld of the bars, brothels and dance halls where it first made its appearance. Although the term jazz became current around 1917, it was probably heard about the turn of the century. It was not written down, but existed in performance only. Its earliest musicians were all black and were self taught. The first recorded jazz music was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded in 1917, but very little was recorded until 1923. Its impact has been enormous worldwide, affecting not only popular music, but the music of such composers as Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, and Aaron Copeland.

The roots of jazz can be found in the blended elements from several cultures including West African, American, and European. Most American slaves originally came from West Africa which today includes Ghana, Nigeria and other countries. That is why you will hear West African influences in the music. These include improvisation, drumming, percussive sounds, call and response, and complex rhythms. Call and response occurs when a voice is answered by a chorus or an instrument or when one instrument is answered by a group of instruments. This form was popular in black American church services in which the congregation responds to the preachers call. This basic element of jazz can also be found in work songs. Spirituals, gospel hymns, and dances such as cakewalks. Much of this music was never written down and it is lost to us.

Black music influenced and was influenced by white American music of the time and included hymns, popular songs, folk tunes, dances, marches, and piano solos. These works provided melodies, harmonies, and forms that became elements for the writers of jazz. One important source of jazz was the American band tradition. Both black and white bands were prevalent in American culture; every little town and village had its band which performed at picnics, political rallies, dances, parades, and carnivals. The instruments used in bands such as trumpets, cornets, trombone, tubas, clarinets, and drums, were also used in early jazz bands. Black musicians had access to these instruments after the civil war when military bands disbanded and hocked their instruments in the pawn shops of the big cities. Ragtime music and blues were also important sources for the jazz musician. Jazz is powerfully expressive and is uniquely American. Geographically the center for jazz has changed from New Orleans to Chicago, Kansas City, and New York. Today it is played worldwide. Though it used to be intended specifically for dancing, since the 1940s it has also been used for listening. The image of jazz has changed and it is now accessible to and enjoyed by millions.

The basic elements of jazz are very different from other types of music. It is generally played by a small group or combo of players containing from three to eight players, or a “big band” with ten to fifteen musicians. The backbone of the band is the rhythm section which can be compared to the basso continuo in baroque music. The rhythm section is comprised of the piano, a double bass which is plucked, percussion instruments and sometimes a banjo or a guitar. This section maintains the beat, adds rhythmic interest, and provides supporting harmonics. The main solo instruments include the cornet, trumpet, saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor, or baritone), a piano, clarinet, vibraphone, and trombone. Jazz emphasizes brass, woodwinds, and percussion rather than bowed string instruments. Jazz performers produce different tone colors by using different mutes and muting techniques. Compared to “classical” musicians who strive for an ideal sound, jazz musicians try to create individual sounds.

The reputation of jazz singers depends on their ability to improvise. This is music that is not written down, but is performed on the spur of the moment, and is created under pressure. Improvisation is based on the theme and variation form. The improviser varies the original theme by added embellishments and changing its pitches and rhythms. Some improvisations are close to the original theme, while others are so different as to be unrecognizable.

Syncopation and rhythmic swing are two of the most distinctive features of jazz. Swing is the combination of a steady beat with a feeling of precision and relaxed vitality. There are usually four beats to the bar, and accents often come on the weak beats. Other kinds of syncopated rhythms are created when the accents come between the beats. Swing can also be created by playing a series of notes slightly unevenly. The rhythms of jazz are so irregular that they are difficult to write down in notated music. They have become more complex through the years.

The melody can be as flexible as the rhythm. Jazz uses a major scale in which the third, fifth, and seventh notes are often lowered or flattened. These “bent” or “blue” notes came into jazz through vocalists performing the blues, and instrumental performers found ways to imitate them. Jazz may be distinguished by its use of pitch inflections such as smears, scoops (starting a note by sliding up to it) slides (moving in a smooth glissando between two pitches) falloffs (letting the pitch drop at the end), and shakes. These are what make jazz so different. Artists believe in an “envelope” around a note. This means it is not necessary to hit the note exactly, but to hit nearby or almost, or eventually.

The form used in jazz is often a 32 bar chorus outlined as follows:

Chorus 1 (32 bars)- theme

Chorus 2 (32 bars)-variation 1

Chorus 3 (32 bars)-variation 2

Chorus 4 (32 bars)-variation 3


Each of the variations may be played by a solo instrument or there may be sections of collective improvisation. The music is held together by the underlying chords.

As was mentioned earlier, African influences on jazz music were important. The call and response pattern was used where the leading voice calls, sings or emotes the music and the group responds. There is a relative independence of melodic voices. Each voice feels free to vary the melody and take its own approach. Improvisation occurs when the spirit moves. It is like putting your own two cents worth into the conversation. Polyrhythm allows many rhythms to occur at the same time. In western tradition we follow a set metric and rhythmic pattern. The Metronome sets the speed and we do not vary from it. We pride ourselves on keeping that time exactly. In African music those creating the music may use3/4, 6/8, 5/4, and 2/4 all at the same time. The same “envelope” which is allowed in melody is also allowed in rhythm, and the artist has more room to play.

Please listen to this video about Jazz from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, What is Jazz?


Some information in this text was taken from the OER Commons book written by Kathy Curnow, The Bright Continent: African Art History, Chapter 1, CC BY SA 4.0, https://www.oercommons.org/courses/the-bright-continent-african-art-history/view


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PPSC HUM 1023: Modern Civilizations by Kristine Betts and Kate Pagel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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