The Spread of Jazz

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Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. Armstrong’s wife, pianist Lil Hardin, is at far right, next to Armstrong.

The rise of recording and broadcasting technologies led to the spread of jazz from New Orleans to the urban centers of the North in the 1920s.

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Panel 1 of The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000), showing Southern blacks boarding trains for the North.

What’s more, the Great Migration — the movement of millions of African-Americans from the rural South (where 90% of black Americans lived prior to 1915) to the urban centers of the North, which lasted roughly from 1916-1970 — further spread the jazz aesthetic. Chicago became a center of black American life following World War I, and an important ┬álocation for jazz recording.

In November 1925, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five made their first recordings for Okeh Records in Chicago. Armstrong’s ensemble was made up of New Orleans jazz musicians like himself; Armstrong had come to Chicago to play with Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

The 1925 recording session resulted in “My Heart” and “Yes! I’m in the Barrel.” You can hear the transformation of Armstrong’s style as a player from his work with King Oliver’s band, where essentially all the musicians “soloed” their improvised melodic lines at the same time. In the Okeh recordings, Armstrong emerges as a soloist who bases his ornate improvisation figures on the harmonic progression of the music.

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Click on the link to view a transcription of Armstrong’s improvised solo on the 1927 recording of “Potato Head Blues.” You can hear his virtuosic improvisational style on the recording, set against the polyphonic sounds of his Hot Seven.

 

 

North and South: The Great Migration and the Lomaxes’ Southern Journey

Men Working, Lois Mailou Jones

The early twentieth-century white folklorist Dorothy Scarborough once interviewed composer and bandleader W.C. Handy (1873- 1958), known as the Father of the Blues, about the origin of the blues. Handy, of course, was not the inventor of the blues, but he was the first musician to notate the folk music that he heard while traveling around the South to play gigs, and to arrange and publish it as sheet music, helping the genre reach a wider audience. When Scarborough asked him about the relationship of the blues to folk music, Handy replied that that the blues were folk music, pure and simple. What did he mean by this?

Handy’s first hit, “Memphis Blues,” published in 1908:

“St. Louis Blues,” from 1914:

While Handy was the first composer to publish blues songs (and one of the first African-Americans to make a living from music publishing), he openly acknowledged that his own music was influenced by the rural African-American folk music he had heard and transcribed while touring Mississippi in 1902-1905. In his memoir, Father of the Blues, Handy described sharing the stage at a dance he played with  a trio of musicians who

struck up one of those over and over strains that seem to have no beginning and certainly no ending at all. The strumming attained a disturbing monotony, but on and on it went, a kind of stuff associated with [sugar] cane rows and levee camps. Thump-thump-thump went their feet on the floor. It was not really annoying or unpleasant. Perhaps “haunting” is the better word.

Some of the songs that influenced Handy:

There is no genre of American music in the decades since the 1880s that has not come out of the blues. As Alan Lomax, John Lomax’s son, wrote in 1948:

Child of [the] fertile [Mississippi] Delta land, voice of the voiceless black masses, the blues crept into the back windows of America maybe forty years ago and since then has colored the whole of American popular music. Hill-billy singers, hot jazz blowers, crooners like [Bing] Crosby, cowboy yodelers — all these have learned from the native folk blues. . . . the whole world can feel, uncoiling in its ear, this somber music of the Mississippi. And yet no one had ever thought to ask the makers of these songs — these ragged master-singers — why they sang. 

Why did they sing?

In their book Our Singing Country, published in 1941, John and Alan Lomax describe the blues as a folk genre

sung by . . . unspoiled [singers] in the South, sung without the binding restrictions of conventional piano accompaniment or orchestral arrangement, [that] grow up like a wild flowering vine in the woods.

The Lomaxes, father and son, were in political conflict for their entire partnership as folksong collectors. As historian Ronald Cohen explained, “The father’s politics were considerably to the right of the son’s, yet both believed in the uniting and rejuvenating powers of folk music” (you have already encountered John Lomax’s backward views on race in his 1917 article “Self-Pity in Negro Folk-Songs,” and his 1934 article “Sinful Songs of the Southern Negro”). Steven Garabedian concludes that, although father and son

were opposed politically . . . they found common ground in a shared romantic idealization of an unspoiled homespun American republic. Vernacular music, they held, carried the spirit of this redemptive grassroots national culture.

The Lomaxes, working for the Library of Congress, traveled all over the southern United States from the 1930s through the 1950s, recording and transcribing folk music. They discovered Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) on their first trip in 1933, while doing field recordings in Angola State Prison in Louisiana, where Ledbetter was serving a sentence.

A staged photo of John A. Lomax recording Lead Belly in prison.

In 1941, the Lomaxes first recorded Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield), who was working as a tractor driver on a plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Muddy Waters moved to Chicago in 1943 at the height of the Great Migration. He said that the day he arrived in Chicago was the greatest day of his life. In Chicago, with access to other musicians, his style changed, and he became the pioneer of what would become known as the Chicago Blues.

In 1946, Alan Lomax recorded three great Delta bluesmen, Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson, in a live conversation punctuated with music at Decca Studios in New York City. Listen to the complete interview here:

Read Lomax’s transcription here.

In his 1955 song “When Will I Get to Be Called A Man,” Broonzy, a WWI veteran, touches on one of the reasons for the Great Migration. Broonzy had moved to Chicago from Mississippi in the 1920s.

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes, the owner of the oldest surviving juke joint in Mississippi, covers Muddy Waters’s “Catfish Blues.” His 2019 album Cypress Grove was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album. Holmes carries on the tradition of the Bentonia [Mississippi] School of blues guitar, with distinctive guitar tunings.