How Did Jazz Originate?
The Roots of Jazz
The story of jazz is rooted in the story of slavery in America, in particular in the United States and, further back, in Africa. It is the story of the music of Africa and how it was transformed by the experience of slavery.
All of those musicians who contributed to the early days of jazz, to its formation, were the children or grandchildren of slaves.
But that does not fully explain the phenomenon of a music that has spread across the world. These quotes give a taste of the ingredients that went into the gumbo we know as jazz.
“What did I do / to be so black and blue?” - Fats Waller
“...the blues is a melting-pot, and jazz, ruled over by a black prime minister with a solo trumpet, is a universal democracy.” - James Campbell in the introduction to The Picador Book of Blues and Jazz (1995).
“...the transportation of slaves to the New World was a link in the chain between two Continents: a musical chain we shall test link by link in order to trace the many stresses and strains which have affected it; a full grasp of the implications of slavery is not only necessary, but vital, to a clear understanding of jazz.” - Rex Harris, Jazz (Penguin, 1952)
“Jazz was not an accident. It appeared when it did because of what had gone before, and it spread through the culture with amazing spread because the American people were prepared for it – in fact, were actively searching for it, or something like it.” - James Lincoln Collier, Jazz, the American Theme Song (OUP, 1993)
How did jazz start?
The music we know today as jazz arose out of the black experience in the United States, an experience of violent dislocation and cultural deprivation, an experience of survival in the most cruel of human situations, an experience of spiritual and psychological oppression.
To get an idea of the magnitude and shape of this black experience in the United States it is necessary to look at slavery and the slave trade, to understand its implications for the people involved and how they responded to it. It is this response that is so important for an understanding of jazz.
James Lincoln Collier in his excellent article on jazz in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (Macmillan, 1996) wrote on the acculturation process that arose from the contact between the cultures of the African slaves brought into contact with the dominant white culture of the US: “...such a process of acculturation is seldom total: characteristically, a form from the new culture is imbued with emotional or functional significance from the old. Thus the black slaves adopted European instruments, musical devices such as the diatonic scale, standard meters, and popular song forms, but they used them to reproduce African effects.”
It was this use of, for example, the European diatonic scale to produce an African effect which led to the slave musicians flatting the third note in the scale (and sometimes the seventh and fifth notes as well) to produce the famous “blue note” which features so prominently in the blues and later jazz.
The slaves also used music functionally as work songs and the like. This too was a reflection of the functionality of music in African society.
Slavery in the US
In the 70 years from 1790 to 1860 the slave population of the US rose from 694,207 to 3,950,546 and indeed slaves made up considerable proportions of the states in which they lived.
It is difficult for me to imagine that people were bought and sold like cattle, and it must have been an incredible wrench for people used to wide open spaces and a fair degree of personal freedom to suddenly find themselves at the mercy of masters and overseers who didn't even regard them as people.
These slaves came from a variety of cultural groups in West Africa and south central Africa.
Some 10 to 12 million Africans survived the rigours of the infamous “middle passage”, just under 1 million of them to take up their lives as chattels in the plantations and farms of the US south. Not all of those who left Africa made it to the Americas. The 10 to 12 million people were those left of the 15 or so million who left the shores of West Africa, many from the island of Gorée in Sénégal. The others died en route in small sailing ships whose holds were packed with hundreds of people in incredibly unsanitary conditions. The trip took anything from a month to six months. Many jumped ship, only to be eaten by the sharks following the ships. Many died on board and were thrown overboard. Many were killed as punishment for some alleged misdemeanour or other.
Before boarding the ships the slaves, most of whom were captured by African war-lords or private kidnappers, had been brought to the west coast of Africa in shackles after nightmarish forced marches from their homes. So by the time they boarded the slave ships they were already demoralised, frequently sick and very weak. They therefore had little strength with which to withstand the effects of the voyage in cramped quarters with one meal a day and little opportunity for exercise.
Once in the US the slaves faced continued brutality from slave owners and the overseers of plantations. The brutality arose from the perceived need to force slaves to work. An Arkansas slave owner quoted by historian Kenneth Stampp in his book The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (1956) said: “Now, I speak what I know, when I say it is like ‘casting pearls before swine' to try to persuade a negro (sic) to work. He must be made to work, and should always be given to understand that if he fails to perform his duty he will be punished for it."
Slaves who showed any signs of resistance were brutally punished, most commonly by whipping, but also by other means. As one visitor was told by a plantation overseer: "Some Negroes are determined never to let a white man whip them and will resist you, when you attempt it; of course you must kill them in that case." Female slaves were whipped just like the males. When pregnant slave women were whipped a hole was frequently dug in the ground to accommodate their stomachs.
Slaves who were deemed irredeemable or who had no further commercial value were often hanged.
Slaves were also prevented from improving themselves by laws which forbade them being taught to read and write, especially after the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831.
The state of Virginia enacted a law which stated:
“If a white person assemble with negroes (sic) for the purpose of instructing them to read or write, or if he associate with them in an unlawful assembly, he shall be confined in jail not exceeding six months and fined not exceeding one hundred dollars; and any justice may require him to enter into a recognizance, with sufficient security, to appear before the circuit, county or corporation court, of the county or corporation where the offence was committed, at its next term, to answer therefor [sic ], and in the mean time to keep the peace and be of good behaviour.”
The pre-history of jazz
In this situation of cruelty and cultural dislocation the slaves had to find ways to cope, and one of the most effective coping mechanisms was music, along with the development of a spirituality suited to their background and experience.
Gérald Arnaud and Jacques Chesnel in their 1988 book Masters of Jazz (Chambers) wrote of the experience of the slaves taken to the US: “Ethnic groups were mercilessly dispersed, languages and religious cults were outlawed, and the few musical instruments that had been brought across the ocean were confiscated and destroyed.”
Because of this situation the slaves resorted to using whatever was to hand to make their music: their bodies, hands and feet, and, very importantly, their voices.
Out of this situation grew the field hollers and work songs which came to characterise the music of the slaves. Field hollers seem to have arisen as ways of communicating information from one plantation to another, communications that were usually frowned upon by the slave overseers. In the field hollers the information was coded by the slaves to camouflage the messages being transmitted. Field hollers were often rhyming and in a set form.
Work songs arose to make the repetitive work of digging and hoeing less arduous and monotonous. Work songs featured strong and steady beats to accompany the work.
Out of the improvised rhyming field hollers and the steady beat of the works songs developed spirituals and from them in turn, that enduring and fertile form, the blues.
The field hollers and work songs have been found by musicologists to have definite traces of the music of West Africa embedded in them. Prime among these and of great significance in the development of jazz is the “call and response” form. In this form a leader will sing a line, usually relevant to the situation in which the song is being sung, which will be answered by others participating in the music. Other aspects of the music which shows West African ancestry is the use of multiple rhythms which cross each other, building up a complex rhythmic structure, usually over a strong ground beat.
What is an open question, at least for me, is why did jazz only arise in the United States? After all, slaves from Africa also worked on the plantations and farms of Brazil and the Caribbean islands without giving rise to jazz. Was it because the prevailing Protestant ethos in the southern states of the United States was less accepting of the West African cultural expressions than were the Catholics of Latin America? Could another factor be the influence of Protestant hymnody?
Whatever it was that enabled jazz to grow has bequeathed a musical gift which has enriched cultures all over the world.
Jazz today comes in a sometimes bewildering array of colours and flavours, constantly renewing itself and finding new ways of expression. It has also spread across the world in most wonderful ways.
Fascinating examples of the music creating feedback loops for itself are found, like the hip-hop music that grew out of jazz and then started to influence jazz players. Like the way that many jazz players from the US have gone in search of their African musical roots and had their music challenged and changed by their experiences.
Wherever jazz finds itself as a genuine musical expression it changes itself and is changed by the new contexts and traditions that it comes into contact with. The acculturation process is continuous and enriching.
The next Hub in this series will look at the bedrock on which the edifice of jazz is built – the blues.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010