JAZZ AND BLUES MUSIC

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JAZZ AND BLUES MUSIC

The development of an African American musical identity, out of disparate sources from Africa and Europe, has been a constant theme in the musical history of the United States. Little documentation exists of colonial era African American music, when styles, songs and instruments from across West Africa commingled in the melting pot of slavery. By the mid-19th century, a distinctly African American folk tradition was well-known and widespread, and African American musical techniques, instruments and images became a part of mainstream American music through spirituals, minstrel shows and slave songs. African American musical styles became an integral part of American popular music through blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and then rock and roll, soul and hip hop; all of these styles were consumed by Americans of all races, but were created in African American styles and idioms before eventually becoming common in performance and consumption across racial lines. In contrast, country music derives from both African and European, as well as Native American and Hawaiian, traditions and yet has long been perceived as a form of white music.

The ancestors of today’s African American population were brought to the United States as slaves, working primarily in the plantations of the South. They were from hundreds of tribes across West Africa, and they brought with them certain traits of West African music including call and response vocals and complexly rhythmic music, as well as syncopated beats and shifting accents. The African musical focus on rhythmic singing and dancing was brought to the New World, and where it became part of a distinct folk culture that helped Africans “retain continuity with their past through music”. The first slaves in the United States sang work songs, field hollers, and, following Christianization, hymns. In the 19th century, a Great Awakening of religious fervor gripped people across the country, especially in the South. Protestant hymns written mostly by New England preachers became a feature of camp meetings held among devout Christians across the South. When blacks began singing adapted versions of these hymns, they were called Negro spirituals. It was from these roots, of spiritual songs, work songs and field hollers, that blues, jazz and gospel developed.

Spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith, sung by slaves on southern plantations. In the mid to late 19th century, spirituals spread out of the U.S. South. In 1871 Fisk University became home to the Jubilee Singers, a pioneering group that popularized spirituals across the country. In imitation of this group, gospel quartets arose, followed by increasing diversification with the early 20th-century rise of jackleg and singing preachers, from whence came the popular style of gospel music.

Blues is a combination of African work songs, field hollers and shouts. It developed in the rural South in the first decade of the 20th century. The most important characteristics of the blues is its use of the blue scale, with a flatted or indeterminate third, as well as the typically lamenting lyrics; though both of these elements had existed in African American folk music prior to the 20th century, the codified form of modern blues (such as with the AAB structure) did not exist until the early 20th century

The process of transplanting music between cultures is not without criticism. The folk revival of the mid-20th century, for example, appropriated the music’s of various rural peoples, in part to promote certain political causes, which has caused some to question whether the process caused the “commercial commodification of other peoples’ songs and the inevitable dilution of mean” in the appropriated music’s. The issue of cultural appropriation has also been a major part of racial relations in the United States. The use of African American musical techniques, images and conceits in popular music largely by and for white Americans has been widespread since at least the mid-19th century songs of Stephen Foster and the rise of minstrel shows. The American music industry has actively attempted to popularize white performers of African American music because they are more palatable to mainstream and middle-class Americans. This process has been related to the rise of stars as varied as Benny Goodman, Eminem and Elvis Presley, as well as popular styles like blue-eyed soul and rockabilly.

Folk music in the US is varied across the country’s numerous ethnic groups. The Native American tribes each play their own varieties of folk music, most of it spiritual in nature. African American music includes blues and gospel descendants of West African Music brought to the Americas by slaves and mixed with Western European music. During the colonial era, English, French and Spanish styles and instruments were brought to the Americas.

Blues are the basis for much of modern American popular music. Blues can be seen as part of a continuum of musical styles like country, jazz, ragtime, and gospel; though each genre evolved into distinct forms, their origins were often indistinct. Early forms of the blues evolved in and around the Mississippi Delta in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The earliest blues-like music was primarily call-and-response vocal music, without harmony or accompaniment and without any formal musical structure. Slaves and their descendants created the blues by adapting the field shouts and hollers, turning them into passionate solo songs. When mixed with the Christian spiritual songs of African American churches and revival meetings, blues became the basis of gospel music. Modern gospel began in African American churches in the 1920s, in the form of worshipers proclaiming their faith in an improvised, often musical manner. Composers like Tommy Dorsey composed gospel works that used elements of blues and jazz in traditional hymns and spiritual songs.

Blues became a part of American popular music in the 1920s, when classic female blues singers like Bessie Smith grew popular. At the same time, record companies launched the field of race music, which was mostly blues targeted at African American audiences. The most famous of these acts went on to inspire much of the later popular development of the blues and blues-derived genres, including the legendary delta blues artist Robert Johnson and piedmont blues artists Blind Willie McTell. By the end of the 1940s, however, pure blues was only a minor part of popular music, having been subsumed by offshoots like rhythm & blues and the nascent rock and roll style. Some styles of electric, piano-driven blues, like the boogie-woogie, retained a large audience. A bluesy style of gospel also became popular in mainstream America in the 1950s, led by singer Mahalia Jackson. The blues genre experienced major revivals in the 1950s with Chicago blues artists such as Muddy Waters and Little Walter as well as in the 1960s in the British Invasion and American folk music revival when country bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis were rediscovered. The seminal blues artists of these periods had tremendous influence on rock musicians such as Chuck Berry in the 1950s, as well as on the British blues and blues rock scenes of the 1960s and ’70s, including Eric Clapton in Britain and Johnny Winter in Texas.

Jazz is a kind of music characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisations. Though originally a kind of dance music, jazz has been a major part of popular music, and has also become a major element of Western classical music. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Early jazz was closely related to ragtime, with which it could be distinguished by the use of more intricate rhythmic improvisation. The earliest jazz bands 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’s roots come from the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, populated by Cajuns and black Creoles, who combined the French-Canadian culture of the Cajuns with their own styles of music in the 19th century. Large Creole bands that played for funerals and parades became a major basis for early jazz, which spread from New Orleans to Chicago and other northern urban centers.

Though jazz had long since achieved some limited popularity, it was Louis Armstrong who became one of the first popular stars and a major force in the development of jazz, along with his friend pianist Earl Hines. Armstrong, Hines and their colleagues were improvisers, capable of creating numerous variations on a single melody. Armstrong also popularized scat singing, an improvisational vocal technique in which nonsensical syllables are sung. Armstrong and Hines were influential in the rise of a kind of pop big band jazz called swing. Swing is characterized by a strong rhythm section, usually consisting of double bass and drums, medium to fast tempo, and rhythmic devices like the swung note, which is common to most jazz. Swing is primarily a fusion of 1930s jazz fused with elements of the blues and Tin Pan Alley. Swing used bigger bands than other kinds of jazz, leading to bandleaders tightly arranging the material which discouraged improvisation, previously an integral part of jazz. Swing became a major part of African American dance, and came to be accompanied by a popular dance called the swing dance.

Jazz influenced many performers of all the major styles of later popular music, though jazz itself never again became such a major part of American popular music as during the swing era. The later 20th-century American jazz scene did, however, produce some popular crossover stars, such as Miles Davis. In the middle of the 20th century, jazz evolved into a variety of subgenres, beginning with bebop. Bebop is a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, improvisation based on harmonic structure rather than melody, and use of the flatted fifth. Bebop was developed in the early and mid-1940s, later evolving into styles like hard bop and free jazz. Innovators of the style included Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who arose from small jazz clubs in New York City.

 Kathy Kiefer

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