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The Roots of New Orleans Jazz

The earliest roots of jazz music developed in the very late 19th century.  Starting in New Orleans, African and Caribbean rhythms were integrated with brass bands and dance music.  The city of New Orleans played an integral role in the development of jazz.  It was the only city before the Civil War to allow for slaves of African and Caribbean descent to gather together freely.  


The characteristics of New Orleans Jazz

Jazz music came out of the ragtime era.  It also had elements of march, spiritual music, and blues.  It was influenced by brass wood instruments.  Some of the key characteristics that really defined jazz were the rhythm, the use of improvisation, and the emphasis on the main band/performer of the band.  The main band member would often perform solos and trade these solos with other members of the band.  This is how improvisation blossomed in this style.

Additionally, polyphony was the heart of the New Orleans sound.  The prefix “poly” is a Greek word that is rendered “many”.  “Phony” is a Greek root word where we get the English word voice.  Polyphony in music means that a number of parts were combined together, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other.  

Finally, the swing rhythm is the key phrase to early jazz music.  While drummers would keep the time on the snare drum and play different rudiments, they were played in a less militaristic way and more in a swing feel.  This phrase became the heart of jazz music.  As jazz music continued to evolve, the swing was applied to the hi-hat during the big band era of the 30s, and on the ride cymbal during the bebop era of the 40s.  However, the swing was played on the snare drum during the New Orleans Jazz era.


From the Streets to the Stage

1917 was a significant year in jazz history.  During this time, we started to see jazz music become an artform.  In 1917, a band from New Orleans called The Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band went to New York City and did recordings that were significant hits all around the United States.  Although the roots of jazz emerged in New Orleans, this band’s recordings appeared all around the United States and began to give borth to the style of jazz as well as other bands producing music!


Social Changes 

Jazz music continued to emerge throughout the early 1920s.  At this time, many social changes were made.  Dances like the Cake Walk and Charleston Dance became very popular.  Prohibition laws such as alcohol bans, which was from 1999-1933, propelled the style of jazz music.  Underground bands were formed past working hours where people drank, listened to music, and danced.  These are some of the factors that propelled the style of jazz music.

Since New Orleans was a pluralistic city, white people began to listen to black music. Women played a larger role in music as they had the right to vote by 1913. New dances were formed that would bring people of different cultures together. Jazz music was truly the perfect accompaniment to these new found freedoms!


Controversy to New Orleans Jazz

During the early jazz era, prohibition laws were established that made drinking illegal. Dances like the fox trut, bunny hub, and quick step we’re considered inappropriate and raunchy. To make matters worse, the underground industry solicited alcohol, which became known as the beginning of organized crimes. While all this was going on, the main music that was played in these underground’s was jazz!


The Influences of New Orleans Jazz

We often think of names like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey when we think of jazz. However, these names emerged much later in the swing era. The most important influences of early jazz included names like Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Boldon, Joe “King” Oliver, and Louis Armstrong. 


Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll Morton was a piano player born in 1885. He grew up playing the style of ragtime. Early on his career, he would travel between Canada and the United States and helped introduce jazz music. One of his most well known songs is, “Doctor Jazz Stomp”. Morton was known for his ability to improvise within jazz music. This later became a primary characteristic of this new style.


Buddy Bolden 

Born in 1877, Buddy Bolden was a cornet player. He was considered to be the first jazz trumpeter. He founded his band in 1897. One of his main signatures was his big sound. He brought a prominent and aggressive sound to jazz music that inspired other greats who followed his steps.


Joe “King” Oliver 

Born on December 19th of 1885, Joe “king” Oliver was a cornet player and bandleader. He started his own band called the Creole Jazz Band. One of his most well known titles was “Doctor Jazz”. Oliver was a mentor to Louis Armstrong and was the first employer of him.


Many of us know Louis Armstrong by his dynamic personality and unique voice. However, more than this, Louis was a key figure in popularizing jazz music among people of different backgrounds. He was responsible for bringing jazz to Chicago in the mid-20s, which became known as Chicago jazz. He started to play the cornet in 1913 and a few years later, he already became a professional musician! His first big hit was “Heebie Jeebies” in 1926. Around this time, Louis also introduced scat singing, which later developed with Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway.


The Industrial Revolution 

In 1895, we saw the development of cinema movies. However, no sound was present. Drummers were responsible to create sounds in theaters, vaudeville, and silent films. Between 1880-1920, approximately 20 million people immigrated to the United States. This was known as the industrial revolution. 


The Evolution of the Drum Set 

The Industrial Revolution led to a distribution of new products that impacted music. Chinese immigrants brought woodblocks, temple blocks, cymbals, and small tom-toms. Turkish immigrants brought cymbals, which became known as Zildjian company. Today, Zildjian is one of the leading cymbal companies. Greek immigrants brought Greco cymbals, and German immigrants brought Ludwig drums and drum making. These were some of the great innovations brought to the formation of the drum set! In the very early stages of jazz, there were ad-hoc instruments added to a band from unschooled musicians. Similar to ragtime, these early stages of jazz involved taking anything that created a sound like spoons, washboards, bottles, and saws where these “street musicians” would create their own rhythms on!


The Formation of the Band 

As noted earlier, many unschooled musicians played on anything that created rhythmic sounds, including washboards, saws, and bottles. These were known as “street musicians”. Around this time, these musicians joined brass bands. This is what eventually gave birth to the horn section in a jazz band. This involved a cornet, trumpet, trombone, and clarinet player. As the music gradually became more sophisticated, the drummer developed a drum set, and a rhythm section of the pianist and bassist was introduced. Here we see how New Orleans went from street music to stage music! 


The Trap Kit 

The drum set in the New Orleans jazz era offered offered a variety of different instruments. The drummer had a bass drum, snare drum, and traps that included a woodblock that came from China. Additionally, a cowbell was mounted on the trap kit that came from Africa. They were initially used by a singular percussionist, but were added to the drum set during this era. The trash cymbal was added to the drum set that came from the Zildjian company. They came from Turkey and opened their first factory in the United States in 1929. During the era of the trap drum set, it’s important to know that there was no hi-hat, hi-tom, mid-tom, floor tom, and ride cymbal as we know the drum set today. 

The Transformation of Traps 

The instruments used on a trap drum set came from different parts of the world, including China, Africa, Turkey, and Greece. These included instruments such as cowbells, tom-toms, mini cymbals, and woodblocks. These trap drum sets gave drummers more options to create intricacy within the music, and brought evolution to how the drummer played.  

First, the traps allowed drummers to be more syncopated and create a swing style for the music. 

Second, the style evolved from a 2 beat feel, which was common in ragtime and marches to a 4 beat feel, which gave birth to jazz. 

Third, sticking rudiments used in a march context were now played in a swinging feel that was significant to jazz. 

Finally, these traps allowed drummers to be more improvisational, as they had a variety of instruments to work with.


Trivial fact! When and why were brushes created?

It was the year 1912! The need for brushes arose because drummers had problems playing loudly. At that time, there were no PA systems, large mics, or amplifiers. Drummers used a large bass drum and other instruments that produced loud sounds with musicians who played acoustic instruments. As a result, the sound had to be controlled. Originally, before the invention of plastic, drummers took fly swatters made out of metal. These fly swatters were complimentary to playing on the drums, producing a great sound that didn’t get in the way of other musicians.

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