The Very Beginning

The origins of jazz, an urban music, stemmed from the countryside of the South as well as the streets of America’s cities. It resulted from two distinct musical traditions, those of West Africa and Europe. West Africa gave jazz its incessant rhythmic drive, the need to move and the emotional urgency that has served the music so well. The European ingredients had more to do with classical qualities pertaining to harmony and melody.

The blending of these two traditions resulted in a music that played around with meter and reinterpreted the use of notes in new combinations, creating blue notes that expressed feelings both sad and joyous. The field hollers of Southern sharecropping slaves combined with the more urban, stylized sounds of musicians from New Orleans, creating a new music. Gospel music from the church melded with what became known in the 20th century as the blues offered a vocal ingredient that translated well to instruments.

Marching bands, played primarily by whites but also blacks, introduced instruments that otherwise would have remained an expression of classical musical traditions. Drums and stringed instruments would combine with trumpets, trombones, tubas and, later, saxophones. The music of West Africa and the music created by slaves was translated in yet another way by the infusion of Caribbean and Latin strains. And what would later become known as popular song was incorporated with gospel, blues and field hollers, adding a rich texture to a music the world had never heard before. The musical world in America, filled as it was with its own marching music and faux classical interpretations from Europe, was ripe for the transformation that would become jazz. Eventually, ragtime entered the scene toward the end of the 19th century, and the rest is, as they say, history.

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