Our modern perception of Jazz is considered to have taken form in the streets of New Orleans around the late 19th century, yet its origins can be traced back almost one hundred years earlier to West Africa. With the arrival of the slave trade, a new style of music emerged from Africa which allowed displaced Africans to use their voices as a survival tool in traditional folk song. One of the predecessors of jazz includes The Work Song, whose key feature, “the call and response”, was echoed in many of the early vocal performances of jazz. In contemporary times this feature can still be heard in such songs as So What by Miles Davis.

The abundance of rhythmic content is another element drawn from Africa which can be seen as the backbone of jazz music. Traditionally, rhythm was something that could be extracted from the everyday, with anything from tools, shells or the human body being utilised to pull the music together. Although this formed the basic foundation of jazz, rhythm went through many transformations to become the recognisable genre which dominated the early part of the 20th century.

However, it is perhaps no surprise that New Orleans is the city where jazz really took hold. As a port it was privy to many different cultures and had a thriving nightlife where musicians would come together to learn and blend a mixture of styles. In 1817, the city council established “Congo Square” where public slave dances, later renamed “the ring shout”, would take place using instruments which were characteristic of indigenous African music. Soon this combined with European musical traditions such as harmony, the use of chords to accompany the main tune of a piece, and classical instruments such as the piano and saxophone. The combination of these elements developed the syncopated rhythms of Ragtime, which started to appear in print around 1897 and was recorded for the first time by Charles Booth in 1901. Its popularity and influence began to spread across America to the extent that an association for Black musicians was founded by James Reese Europe in New York, 1910.

Yet, the word “Jazz” didn’t actually appear in print until 1913 and is believed to have been taken from the slang word “jism” which means “spirit or energy”. This was used as a uniting term for the migration of musicians who left New Orleans for other large US cities. With this movement emerged some of the most notable jazz musicians. Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington gave their first performances in the 1920s, eventually culminating in the Harlem district of New York, which became a hub for jazz culture. Armstrong gained worldwide fame for his recording of Body and Soul in 1930 which championed the techniques of scat and improvisation.

Despite the growing popularity, jazz did face its fair share of opposition. It was prohibited in dancehalls across America during the 1920s and it was banned in Nazi Germany for its racial roots and its spirit of individualism. Moreover, the introduction of television in the 1950s and the dominance of Rock and Roll from the 1960s lessened its popularity. However, the creation of new genres of music established the development of Fusion Jazz. Sub-genres such as Free Jazz and Afro-Cuban became popular and with the arrival of synchronizers in the 1980s, jazz seemingly had a new face. Indeed, many music genres popular today can be traced back to jazz, with R&B (Rhythm and Blues) still containing many of the same rhythms.

Nowadays jazz is still a well-respected genre and artists such as Gregory Porter and Norah Jones are making waves on the charts. Films such as La La Land are also seeking to glorify the genre. However, the film did raise some problematic questions of ownership. La La Land was highly criticised for promoting “the white saviour complex” and taking away this expression of cultural heritage and its contribution to American culture. Moreover, there is debate over whether white people partaking in the genre is appropriation or just an attempt to create a discourse where music can genuinely be seen as a universal language.

What we can be certain about is the political and regenerative nature of jazz and the spirit of its heritage; jazz will always create a voice for the individual.

Louis Armstrong 29th October 1955, Wikimedia Commons.
Louis Armstrong 29th October 1955, Wikimedia Commons.