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Jazz:  The National Music Scene at the Start of the 20th Century

from Wikipedia - the free encyclopedia


By the turn of the century, American society had begun to shed the heavy-handed, strait-laced formality that had characterized the Victorian era.

Strong influence of African American music traditions had already been a part of mainstream popular music in the United States for generations, going back to the 19th century minstrel show tunes and the melodies of Stephen Foster.

Public dance halls, clubs, and tea rooms opened in the cities. Curiously named black dances inspired by African dance moves, eventually were adopted by a white public. 

The popular dance music of the time was not jazz, but there were precursor forms along the blues-ragtime continuum of musical experimentation and innovation that soon would blossom into jazz. Popular Tin Pan Alley composers like Irving Berlin incorporated ragtime influence into their compositions, though they seldom used the specific musical devices that were second nature to jazz players—the rhythms, the blue notes. Few things did more to popularize the idea of hot music than Berlin's hit song of 1911, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which became a craze as far from home as Vienna. Although the song wasn't written in rag time, the lyrics describe a jazz band, right up to jazzing up popular songs, as in the line, "If you want to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime...."

The early New Orleans "jass" style

A number of regional styles contributed to the early development of jazz. Arguably the single most important was that of the New Orleans area, which was the first to be commonly given the name "jazz" (early on often spelled "jass").

The city of New Orleans and the surrounding area had long been a regional music center. People from many different nations of Africa, Europe, and Latin America contributed to New Orleans' rich musical heritage. In the French and Spanish colonial era, slaves had more freedom of cultural expression than in the English colonies of what would become the United States. In the Protestant colonies African music was looked on as inherently "pagan" and was commonly suppressed, while in Louisiana it was allowed. African musical celebrations held at least as late as the 1830s in New Orleans' "Congo Square" were attended by interested whites as well, and some of their melodies and rhythms found their way into the compositions of white Creole composer Louis Gottschalk. In addition to the slave population, New Orleans also had North America's largest community of free people of color, some of whom prided themselves on their education and used European instruments to play both European music and their own folk tunes.

By the end of the 19th century, the city was a regional center of Tin Pan Alley popular music and the young style of ragtime, and a distinctive, new musical style began to develop.


According to many New Orleans musicians who remembered the era, the key figures in the development of the new style were flamboyant trumpeter Buddy Bolden and the members of his band. Bolden is remembered as the first to take the blues — hitherto a folk music sung and self-accompanied on string instruments or blues harp (harmonica) — and arrange it for brass instruments. Bolden's band played blues and other tunes, constantly "variating the melody" (improvising) for both dance and brass band settings, creating a sensation in the city and quickly being imitated by many other musicians.

By the early years of the 20th century, travellers visiting New Orleans remarked on the local bands' ability to play ragtime with a "pep" not heard elsewhere.

Characteristics which set the early New Orleans style apart from the ragtime music played elsewhere included freer rhythmic improvisation. Ragtime musicians elsewhere would "rag" a tune by giving a syncopated rhythm and playing a note twice (at half the time value), while the New Orleans style used more intricate rhythmic improvisation often placing notes far from the implied beat. The New Orleans style players also adopted much of the vocabulary of the blues, including bent and blue notes and instrumental "growls" and smears otherwise not used on European instruments.

Jazz music

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Copyright 2006 Jennifer Stewart All Rights Reserved.