Encyclopedia of African American Music

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Encyclopedia of African American History to the Present - Oxford Reference

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Read More. All Contents Entries. Items per page: 10 20 50 Aaron, Hank b. Abernathy, Ralph David b. Abu-Jamal, Mumia b. Abyssinian Baptist Church. Actors and Actresses. Affirmative Action. New Orleans—and Morton—figured prominently in this narrative, and the piano player posited the city as the essential element in the jazz story. With African, Caribbean, French, and Spanish connectors, New Orleans also had a complex demographic structure, with a racialized society fractured along white, black, and Creole lines.

The musical culture discussed by Morton had its roots in the late 19th century, and two entertainment forms in particular—ragtime and the blues—would have a major impact on the development of jazz. In addition, the vaudeville stage, with its connections to minstrelsy and instrumental proficiency, would help foster a diverse network of theaters and musicians located across the nation. The broader context of these musical developments was the shift to modernism, as more and more Americans began to seek out new ways of connecting with one another.

This cultural shift signaled a revolution in terms of crafting an integrated nation as technological innovations and mass production helped create a more singular American culture. As modernism—with its roots in urbanism, secularism, and industrialism—began to creep into American culture, it formed the framework for new modes of expression. Ragtime and the blues, then, developed within this fertile period as technological innovation, business expansion, and growing urbanization radically redefined the cultural landscape of America.

In the s, a series of events would underscore the dramatic changes beginning to emerge in American society. These two moments underscored the vast array of experiences that came to define America in the late 19th century: the volatility of a modern economy and the convergent sense of newness and oldness that shaped the discussion of Columbus. There, historian Frederick Jackson Turner proposed the frontier as the fundamental element of the American character—the definitive aspect of American identity.

Ragtime came of age within this context of upheaval and questioning, hopefulness and concern. This new music was a syncopated synthesis of a variety of earlier genres such as marches, popular dance songs, music from the black south, and music from the Caribbean. Despite this disparate collection of components, ragtime developed a coherent sound through the explicit use of a strongly syncopated beat.

This pronounced, ragged beat gave ragtime its name as well as its attendant controversy. A number of commentators argued that the music eroded the Victorian values of the nation, while others attacked it for being too raw, too untamed, too black. Ragtime peaked in the two decades before America entered World War I, and much of its popularity was made possible through new business practices that allowed for the mass production of pianos and the mass distribution of sheet music.

These innovations helped link the localized, if widespread, world of vaudeville theaters to a national, mass-produced and distributed, culture. But vaudeville also brought with it certain elements from blackface minstrelsy. African Americans negotiated this challenging landscape through a combination of playing to and fighting against expectations from audiences as well as businessmen.

Unlike ragtime, which had a fairly linear progression from a syncopated piano-based music to its popular lyrical incarnation, the story of the blues defies easy characterization. Ultimately, a raw form of what would come to be called the blues began to emerge in a variety of locations across the rural south. Connected to the work songs and spirituals of the slave community, the blues was a music intricately connected to the lives of black southerners.

By the 20th century as ragtime became popular , various forms of the blues helped define, musically, the experience of many black southerners. The blues was rooted rhythmically and lyrically to the work songs that served a multiplicity of roles within the enslaved plantation culture of the South.

The purpose of the blues is to give structure to black existence in a context where color means rejection and humiliation. Far removed from the origins of the music, the most important person in the popularizing of the blues was W. Handy, a trained cornet player who had played in various dance and marching bands, saw firsthand the power of the blues and its possible commercial appeal when he saw a black guitar player in Tutwiler, Mississippi. The guitarist was improvising lyrics as he played, and something in that volatile mix of untrained musicianship and wordplay affected Handy.

Nothing had prepared Handy for this type of folk music, so detached from the rules of the conservatory. There before the boys lay more money than my nine musicians were being paid for the entire engagement.

Tracy McMullen

These Mississippi trips inspired Handy to begin experimenting with this new form. Not the music of rural Mississippi, but a form that was still quite flexible in terms of form and format. What Handy helped craft was a stylized and more formal type of blues. Popular in several northern cities, especially New York City, this style of the blues would eventually add vaudeville and minstrel material into the mix to create a very distinctive, and popular, song-based genre. The blues, however, had many permutations during these years and reflected a wide array of influences. Musical and lyrical improvisation was central to this subgenre, as was the guitar.

In addition, this form of blues was primarily a masculine form, as most of the performers were men. More extemporaneous in sound than the classic blues and more fluid in its harmonic structure, the country blues would remain a vital link to its rural roots and would lead to a series of reinventions throughout the 20th century. Still, both of these iterations shared a distinctive verse and musical structure that gave the blues a specific identity.

More importantly—within an entertainment world centered on sheet music—the defining characteristic of the blues defied transcription. The blues arrived on a larger scene, however, just as recording technology began to coalesce. Thus, a music connected to musical techniques both ancient and not so ancient, as well as to the centuries-old history of American slavery, emerged as the key signifier to modern black life. Together, ragtime and the blues anticipated the Jazz Age musically as well as culturally.

The technological elements that helped spread ragtime and the blues helped provide a market for early jazz recordings.

In addition, the various controversies connected to ragtime and the blues—especially in terms of race and morality—found fresh footing in jazz as a new expression of modernity materialized. This context helps explain the jazz era, too, as many of the same fears and arguments became attached to jazz. More than just musical antecedents, then, ragtime and the blues helped construct a national audience as well as a national conversation for jazz music.

These genres underscored the interconnected society that began to shape American culture, but jazz, more than any previous music, came of age just as a national media network made possible the widespread transmission of live and recorded sound. The history of jazz music is deeply linked to and embedded with the history of New Orleans. As ragtime and the blues began to circulate, New Orleans incubated music that would come to be called jazz, and the unique social construction of the city provided a cadre of musicians as well as an audience to support and sustain a particular form of musical expression.

The key element to understanding the early development of jazz relates to its multi-dimensional role within New Orleans. The music existed within a fluid spectrum between folk and commerce, with neighbors performing for neighbors in and out of a formal entertainment world. Bars and honkytonks were settings, but so were private gatherings, funerals, dances, and a large array of other events.

If the blues reflected a true folk heritage and ragtime connected to the commercial world of selling music, then jazz represented a middle way: a form that helped craft and preserve the identity of the local groups that created this new sound. Ultimately, within this unique multi-racial setting, jazz emerged from an unplanned collision of ragtime, the blues, minstrel shows, vaudeville routines, brass band repertoires, string band songs, dance music, marching music, and funeral music.

The result was an improvised sound that, within a few years, would captivate the nation. Simultaneously the quintessential southern city, as well as a place unlike in other place in the South, New Orleans offered a racial and cultural dynamism few other urban areas in the United States shared.

At the same time, the racial fluidity that had shaped much of the early history of the city had collapsed through a series of legislative, judicial, and violent acts. By the late s—as Plessy v.


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Although born in New Orleans, early jazz developed an identity elsewhere. The Great Migration of black southerners helped redefine the landscape of the urban Midwest and northeast, and jazz music played into this transition. One of the central mythic images of the jazz story relates to a young Louis Armstrong Figure 1 clutching a fish sandwich and waiting for a Chicago-bound train. And yet, the transposition of many of the leading jazz players out of New Orleans had an immeasurable impact on American musical culture. Railroad networks were crucial here, and the train emerged as a potent symbol of change, opportunities, movement, and freedom.

Steamboats, too, played an important role, especially in terms of bringing new music to the waterways of the Midwest and upper south. Jazz and jazz-related music found fertile soil in places like Kansas City and St. Louis, which developed unique music scenes concurrent to what was happening in the urban north. Chicago, though, stood at the center of so much of the musical evolution of jazz.

Figure 1. Louis Armstrong, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, playing trumpet, Throughout the s and s the black population of Chicago grew exponentially, providing both an audience and a culture supportive of jazz music in its diverse forms. Jazz had been recorded before, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded several sides for Columbia and Victor Records in New York City in , but in the subsequent decade, recording technology eclipsed sheet music as the ideal way to transmit jazz music. Records, unlike sheet music, disseminated the significant aspects of jazz: the rhythmic pulse, the improvisational structure, and modern impulse to a growing national audience.

Radio towers, not phonograph records, supplied the majority of jazz to Americans in the late s, however, and the rapid increase in households with radios, coupled with the Great Depression, made radio the dominant mode of jazz transmission. As the center of the radio industry, as well as its thriving entertainment culture, New York City would eclipse Chicago as the center of the jazz world.