Origins of Jazz

Content/Trigger warning: Racist imagery and lyrics.

Among the origins of jazz are several overlapping musical genres that were popular at the end of the nineteenth century.

  1. Black musical theater, which, around the turn of the twentieth century, crossed color lines to become popular with white as well as black audiences.

Marti Newland singing “Swing Along,” a song from the musical theater show of the same name, by Will Marion Cook:

The overture to In Dahomey, also by Cook, the first full-length musical written and performed by African-Americans to play in a major Broadway theater (in 1903):

What musical styles do you recognize in these pieces?

2. “Coon songs,” written by both black and white composers, which portrayed black Americans in stereotypical and denigrating ways.

Cooncooncoon

Even Scott Joplin cashed in on the coon song craze with a song about a free black man in the North thinking fondly about his happy days as a slave in the South:

3. Ragtime, from which jazz got its emphasis on syncopation:

“Down Home Rag” by James Reese Europe, whose ensemble, James Reese Europe’s Society Orchestra, were the first black band to receive a recording contract.

4. The rural blues: the semi-improvisatory way that the vocal line wanders freely over the steady rhythm of the guitar:

5. The cultural crossroads that was New Orleans, where the presence of both free and enslaved blacks and French, Spanish, Caribbean, and Creole (mixed French and African ancestry; Creoles were known as gens de couleur) populations created a unique mix of sounds. Jazz was a kind of mash-up of the orally/aurally-transmitted New Orleans black blues tradition with the classically-trained European traditions practiced by Creole musicians.

jellyrollmorton

Pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand LeMothe, 1890-1941), one of the most famous and influential of the early Creole jazz musicians.

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Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), a Creole cornet player and bandleader whose skill at improvisation was legendary, and who fused blues, ragtime, gospel, and and marching-band music in his playing. He is credited with leading the first jazz (sometimes spelled “jass”) band in New Orleans.

Jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (b. 1961) speaks about Bolden and plays an excerpt from one of his most famous compositions, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” (originally known as “Funky Butt”).

The trailer for a 2019 film about Buddy Bolden:

Nevertheless, the New Orleans band that made the first jazz recordings, The Original Dixieland Jass Band, was all white.

Bandleader and cornetist Nick LaRocca, the son of Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans, went so far as to claim that

Jazz was strictly “white man’s music” and owed nothing to “the Negro race” or anything “coming from the jungles of Africa.” [La Rocca] should have known better.

Slaves dancing the calinda, Congo Square, New Orleans, early 19th century.

Ragtime, part 1

TW/CW: Racist imagery/lyrics.

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One of the earliest published songs that uses a ragtime style, Rollin Howard’s “Good Enough” (1871). The chorus, marked “Dance” (at 1:15) used a syncopated figure before going back into the straightforward on-the-beat verse section. This rhythmic figure is a bridge from the cakewalk to ragtime.

The cakewalk was a dance from slave days, which was originally an exaggerated parody of upper-class white dance forms. Slave masters found it so amusing to watch that they began to hold dance competitions among their slaves, with the prize being cake — hence, “cakewalk.”

Here is an example from an early silent film dramatization of the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin:

After a wildly popular demonstration of the cakewalk at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the dance made its way into the vaudeville theaters and ballrooms of white America and Europe.

The great African-American poet Ishmael Reed wrote, in his 2016 poem “The Diabetic Dreams of Cake”:

He was on a plantation doing
What looked like a goose step
He was twirling a cane
He was wearing a monocle
A black top hat
And shiny black boots
The master said, That takes the cake
Some of the slaves applauded
Others grumbled and called him a dandy
You can sleep with my wife and daughter tonight,
The master said
He started running because they were as ugly
Or shall we say beauty challenged as well
As booty challenged
Under an old Southern pine tree
He ate the cake

The technique of rhythmic syncopation in the cakewalk was known as “ragging.” Ragtime developed the simple syncopation of the cakewalk into something more complex, the early stages of which can be seen in this 1895 piece by Ben Harney (a white Kentucky-born composer who Time magazineĀ called “Ragtime’s Father”). Harney’s piece also uses “stop time,” which would become a popular ragtime technique (see 1:51). Harney’s songĀ attempts to imitate African-American banjo-picking style.

A vocal version, sung by a white singer putting on a minstrel-esque “blackvoice” style:

Tom Turpin’s “Harlem Rag,” published in 1897, was the first piano rag written by a black composer.

White composers still attempted to capitalize on ragtime’s popularity by appropriating the form and fitting it with lyrics of shocking bigotry. The 1900 rag “Every Race Has a Flag but the Coon” inspired Marcus Garvey to create the Pan-African flag, shown below.

Ragtime marked one of the earliest transitions of the oral/aural traditions of black American musical performance to the printed page.

Maple_Leaf_Rag

Scott Joplin also wrote an opera, Treemonisha, in 1911, which included ragtime numbers. The opera didn’t receive its first full performance until 1972, and Joplin received the Pulitzer Prize for music composition posthumously for the opera in 1977.

Here is one of the opera’s most famous numbers, “A Real Slow Drag,” from the finale.

The trailer for a 1977 biopic of Joplin, featuring Billy Dee Williams as the composer.

Finally, Binghamton has a forgotten, but special, connection to the music of ragtime.

Charles Cohen, 1878-1931

Georgia-born pianist and organist Charles Cohen, the son of slaves, made his way to Binghamton, where he lived on Haendl street on the West Side until his death. He is buried in Floral Park Cemetery in Johnson City. For more, go here:

http://ragpiano.com/comps/ccohen.shtml

And here.

Two of his best-known rags are “Riverside Rag” and “Fashion Rag.” The sheet music cover for “Riverside Rag,” seen in the video below, features a picture of the Riverside Amusement Park, which was once on Riverside Drive in Binghamton. That’s right — a rag about Binghamton!