Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Early Jazz: The Origins and The Beginnings

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Although there is no dearth of books on jazz, very few of them have attempted to deal with the music itself in anything more than general descriptive or impressionistic terms. The majority of books have concentrated on the legendry of jazz, and over the years a body of writing has accumulated which is little more than an amalgam of well-meaning amateur criticism and fascinated opinion.
That this was allowed to pass for scholarship and serious analysis is attributable not only to the humble, socially "unacceptable" origin of jazz, but also to the widely held notion that a music improvised by self-taught, often musically illiterate musicians did not warrant genuine musicological research.
Despite the fact that many "serious" composers and performers had indicated their high regard for jazz as early as the 1920s, the academic credentials of jazz were hardly sufficient to produce a serious interest in the analysis of its techniques and actual musical content.” - Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development

Sometimes it is hard to understand where you are, let alone where you are going, if you don’t know where you came from.

And while the serious dearth of writings on the origins and development of Jazz that Professor Schuller references in the opening quotation becomes less the case as the music achieves the status some have referred to as “America’s Classical Music” [and is therefore the object of greater research and publication in colleges and universities], looking back on the sources of the Jazz tradition is still too often the exception rather than the rule.

This state of affairs sometimes reminds me of the old quip: “We’re lost, but we are making good time!”

To somewhat rectify this situation, every so often the editorial staff at JazzProfiles enjoys creating postings about the early years of the Jazz’s development as its way of helping to remind Jazz fans of the circumstances surroundingf the birth of the music as we approach the centennial of recorded Jazz [1917-2017].

One book on the origins and development of Jazz that I find to be a constant source of insight and information is Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development which, thankfully, continues to be available in a paperback edition and from which the following excerpts are drawn.


"During the second decade of our century, while the world was engaged in its first "global" war, and European music was being thoroughly revitalized by the innovations of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky and the radical experiments of the musical "futurists" and "dadaists," America was quietly, almost surreptitiously, developing a distinctly separate musical language it had just christened with a decidedly unmusical name: jazz. The developments in Europe, following a centuries-old pattern in "art music," were generated by the visions of single individuals—what the romantic century liked to call the inspirations of "creative genius." Jazz, on the other hand, was at this point not the product of a handful of stylistic innovators, but a relatively unsophisticated quasi-folk music—more sociological manifestation than music—which had just recently coalesced from half a dozen tributary sources into a still largely anonymous, but nevertheless distinct, idiom.

This new music developed from a multi-colored variety of musical traditions brought to the new world in part from Africa, in part from Europe. It seems in retrospect almost inevitable that America, the great ethnic melting pot, would procreate a music compounded of African rhythmic, formal, sonoric, and expressive elements and European rhythmic and harmonic practices. Up to the present time these jazz antecedents have been discussed and documented On so far as documentation has been possible) only in sociological and historical terms. The main events, leading from the importation of Negro slaves into the United States through the rituals of the Place Congo [aka Congo Square] in New Orleans to the spread of "jazz" as a new American music, have been well substantiated, but the details of this historical development must await much more research and documentation. Our knowledge of the links between certain important events — such as the dances at the Place Congo in the mid-nineteenth century and the emergence of the generation of jazz musicians after Buddy Bolden following the turn of the century—is largely dependent upon educated guessing rather than the sifting of factual data.

While further historical information may or may not be forthcoming, we can now define quite accurately the relationship of jazz to its antecedents on the basis of musical analysis. Through such studies it is possible to establish the musical links between earliest jazz and the various tributary African and European musical sources.

It is tempting to categorize this or that aspect of jazz as deriving exclusively from either the African or the European tradition, and many a jazz historian has found such temptation irresistible. Jazz writing abounds with such oversimplifications as that jazz rhythm came by way of Africa, while jazz harmonies are exclusively based on European practices; and each new book perpetuates the old myths and inaccuracies. From writing based on well-meant enthusiasm and amateur research, as much jazz criticism has been, more accurate analysis cannot be expected. But it now is possible to look at the music seriously and to put jazz's antecedents into much sharper focus. In the process the African and European lineages will become somewhat entangled, as is inevitable in the study of a hybrid that evolved through many stages of cross-fertilization over a period of more than a century.

African native music and early American jazz both originate in a total vision of life, in which music, unlike the "art music" of Europe, is not a separate, autonomous social domain. African music, like its sister arts—sculpture, mural drawing, and so forth—is conditioned by the same stimuli that animate not only African philosophy and religion, but the entire social structure. In so far as it has not been influenced by European or American customs, African music even today has no separate abstracted function. It is not surprising that the word "art" does not even exist in African languages. Nor does the African divide art into separate categories. Folklore, music, dance, sculpture, and painting operate as a total generic unit, serving not only religion but all phases of daily life, encompassing birth, death, work, and play.

The analogy to early jazz, even in the most general terms, goes still deeper. In the African Negro's way of life, words and their meanings are related to musical sound. Instrumental music independent of verbal functions in the sense of European "absolute" music is almost totally unknown to the African native; it exists only in the form of brief subsidiary preludes and postludes. (Even in such cases, there is considerable evidence of relatively recent European or American influences.)

Basically, language functions only in conjunction with rhythm. All verbal activity, whether quotidian social life or religion and magic, is rhythmicized. And it is no mere coincidence that the languages and dialects of the African Negro are in themselves a form of music, often to the extent that certain syllables possess specific intensities, durations, and even pitch levels.1 [ It is fascinating to ponder the parallels to present-day serial techniques and experiments abstracting syllables and phonemes as purely acoustical musical elements.] The close parallel relationships between words and pitch in African songs has been dealt with exhaustively by A. M. Jones 2 [Studies in African Music, 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1959] and will be discussed later in greater detail.

The extraordinary sonoric and timbral richness of these languages has an intrinsic musicality, which we are not surprised to find in a lesser form in the scat and bop lyrics of American jazz. The reciprocal relationship between African language and music is further emphasized by the fact that such purely functional forms as hunting calls, whistled marching songs, and instrumental love serenades (the latter European-influenced) are without exception translatable into words.3 [See Anthologie de la vie africaine, Ducretet-Thomson 320 C 126 (disc i), side i, seq. 16; side 2, seq. 7 and 10; C 127 (disc 2), side i, seq. 1-4.]

It is common knowledge that African drumming was originally a form of sign language. But beyond this, drum patterns, which in African music are thought of not as mere rhythms but as "tunes," are identified by so-called nonsense syllables. In jazz a similar reciprocal relationship between language and music survives in several manifestations, such as instruments imitating words in answering the vocal lines in blues or the "talking" technique of someone like Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton, the great Duke Ellington trombonist. Conversely, we hear the instrumentalization of vocal jazz in almost every note ever sung by Billie Holiday, who more or less consciously incorporated the instrumental concepts of Lester Young and others into her style; it also survives as a kind of commercialized distant cousin in Jon Hendricks's verbal versions of improvised instrumental solos.

Thus, in certain fundamental musico-sociological aspects, jazz represents a transplanted continuation of indigenous African musical traditions. But, more important, these African traditions survive in an astonishing array of musical detail, covering all elements and aspects of music, including to some extent even harmony, which has generally been associated with the European branch of jazz ancestry. ...

The Beginnings

“It is impossible to establish the exact beginnings of jazz as a distinct, self-contained music. Some historians use the year 1895 as a working date; others prefer 1917, the year that the word jazz seems to have become current and the year that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made what are generally considered the first jazz recordings; still others prefer dates in between. But whatever date is picked, it is safe to say that in purely musical terms the earliest jazz represents a primitive reduction of the complexity, richness, and perfection of its African and, for that matter, European antecedents.

Once we get past the fascinating stories and legends of early jazz, once we penetrate beyond jazz as a reflection of certain crucial changes in the social evolution of the American Negro, we are left with a music which in most instances can hold the musician's attention only as a museum relic. The purely musical qualities, heard without regard to their historical and social trappings, have lost their particular, almost topical meaning for us; and as musical structures, in performance and conception, much of the earliest jazz sounds naive or crude or dated.

This is not to say that we cannot or should not listen to early jazz in the context and aura of its historical past. Indeed, if we as individuals can be conscious of the historic interest, we surely can enjoy early jazz more than its purely musical qualities warrant. Objective discussion of early jazz is made more difficult because no large body of recordings exists. The problem of assessing the quality of early jazz is compounded further by the fact that the pre-i92j recordings that do exist (or even those that are presumed to exist) cannot all be considered jazz in the strictest sense. Most of these recordings were made by society orchestras, novelty bands, or jazz groups who were forced by the companies recording them to play novelty or polite dance music.

The beginnings of film coincide roughly with those of jazz. Yet by 1915 the cinema had already produced its first great artist, D. W. Griffith. In jazz—as far as recorded proof goes—we have to await the recordings of King Oliver and Louis Armstrong for comparable achievement. We may assume, of course, that King Oliver was playing nearly as well in 1916 as in 1923, and that players such as Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, and Buddy Petit were producing above-average jazz in the decade before jazz recording began in earnest. But we lack proof. The unfortunate circumstances that placed a social barrier between a colored performer and the white recording companies have robbed us of the evidence forever.

But even if we could find isolated examples of great enduring jazz in this formative period, we would still have to admit that early jazz represents, speaking strictly musically, a relatively low point in the Negro's musical history. Indeed, how could it have been otherwise"? Circumstances such as segregation and extreme race prejudice forced the music to be what it was. That it was as much as it was, and that it had enough strength to survive and eventually grow into a world music, is abundant proof of its potential strength and beauty.

From this nadir, jazz gradually developed not only in quality but also in basic conception and intent. The musicians who produced it were undergoing some very profound social changes, and their music obviously had to reflect this. Many jazz followers accept the necessity of these social changes but are unwilling to accept the corollary changes in the music itself. Such a contradiction in position, is, needless to say, untenable. In the succeeding chapters we will trace the musical developments that led from the humble beginnings of jazz in the first decades of our century to the 1930s.”

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