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How Did Jazz Originate?

Tony is a writer, photographer, and lover of jazz who lives in Pretoria, South Africa.

This article will take a look at the origins of jazz in the United States.

This article will take a look at the origins of jazz in the United States.

The Roots of Jazz

The story of jazz is rooted in the story of slavery in the Americas, 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.

African Cultures Coming Into Contact With White U.S. Cultures

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 cultures of the African slaves being brought into contact with the dominant white culture of the U.S.:

“...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” that 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.

"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."

Slavery in the U.S.

In the 70 years from 1790 to 1860, the slave population of the US rose from 694,207 to 3,950,546. Indeed slaves made up considerable proportions of the states in which they lived.

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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.

The Treacherous Middle Passage

These slaves came from a variety of cultural groups in West Africa and south central Africa.

Some 10–12 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 10–12 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 anywhere 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.

The Horrifying Brutality of American Slave Owners

Once in the U.S., 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. 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.”

Field Hollers and Work Songs

Because of this situation, the slaves resorted to using whatever was on 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.

Call and Response and Polyrhythms

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.

A Unique American Sound

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.

Greg Hadjiyorki Geogeades, a South African of Egyptian origin who is a master of many stringed instruments, performs at a concert in Pretoria.

Greg Hadjiyorki Geogeades, a South African of Egyptian origin who is a master of many stringed instruments, performs at a concert in Pretoria.

Jazz Today

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 the 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. Similarly, many jazz players from the U.S. 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.

More Information on the Origins of Jazz

© 2010 Tony McGregor


Christopher Nowak on December 16, 2019:

I think that if you had to pick one song that explains the epitome of jazz music, you would have to choose Billie Holiday's version of STRANGE FRUIT.

Asdfgk on August 17, 2017:

Great. It really help me to have a report about Jazz Music

Michael W. on July 21, 2015:

It was pure cruelty what the white people have done to the Africans back in the day. Out of this cruelty they have created an original music that depicts the horrors of this era. It is important to keep that in mind when listening and experiencing Jazz music. Only then can we truly understand this great art form and appreciate its music and how it originated from. Jazz music is an extremely powerful art of music that shows us the soul of the human spirit and for that it is truly magnificent.

abdo on May 27, 2015:

can you inform me how can i cite for this ?

Sandria Green-Stewart from Toronto, Canada on April 24, 2015:

Interesting history of jazz, an art form that I really enjoy. What about the influence of the Blues on jazz?

Looking for the next post...

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on March 04, 2015:

Great hub on the music history of jazz and where it came from. Very informative and rich with knowledge. Voted up!

zakia on June 26, 2012:

I thik that jazz star the worry

Zoe on October 11, 2011:

What does heady mix mean where you have put "Jazz then gradually evolved, growing more and more complex and further away from the heady mix of cultures that it grew from" Thanks.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 24, 2011:

Swedal - glad you found it useful. Thanks for stopping by.

Love and peace


swedal from Colorado on March 24, 2011:

Love this exploration of the history of Jazz. I enjoy the music and now I better understand where it comes from.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on January 17, 2011:

Christopher - thanks for stopping by with such a great comment. I really appreciate it. I guess that is the miracle of jazz - out of the pain comes this bright and joyous thing!

Love and peace


Christopher Price from Vermont, USA on January 17, 2011:

Tony, this was a fine beginning to your series.

It is life-affirming and wonderful that something so soul-stirring can be born of such sad circumstances.


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on July 22, 2010:

MM - thank you very much for your kind words and support. I appreciate it very much indeed.

Love and peace


music messenger on July 20, 2010:

Tonymac, good information and research. Always a fan of your work. Good job. i voted.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on June 07, 2010:

Coolmon - thank you indeed for the compliments.

Love and peace


Coolmon2009 from Texas, USA on June 04, 2010:

Enjoyed reading your article, and I like how you connected Jazz to its origins. I like your selection of videos too, nice article.

Micky Dee on March 13, 2010:

Great hub. Great history. Slavery was long, long before America involvement, but American slavery has been some of the cruelest. Reconstruction was sometimes worse! Thanks Tony.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 12, 2010:

Ginn - thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them very much. "Blues" coming up soon!

Love and peace


Ginn Navarre on March 12, 2010:

Oh! I really enjoyed this and can hardly wait for your hub on "Blues"--my favorite. Please keep it coming.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 08, 2010:

James - thank you so much for your kind words. Coming from a musician and writer as they do I am humbled and honoured! It means a lot to me that you took the time to read and comment.

Love and peace


James A Watkins from Chicago on March 08, 2010:

This is a great Hub. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your work. Beautifully done. Thank you.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 05, 2010:

Al - you are kind and I appreciate it.

Winsome - thanks for the suggestion. There is much great vocal music here. And of course I would love you to link my Hub to your's. Honoured, in fact!

Wilbury - thank you. Getting a comment like your certainly makes the time spent on the Hub feel justified.

Thanks all for dropping by and taking the time to read and comment. I appreciate your doing so beyond words.

Love and peace


Steve Webb from Great Wakering, England on March 05, 2010:

Excellent, well researched article Tony. You're right, it does take time to put together, but the end result justifies it, as can be seen here! All the best, steve

Winsome from Southern California by way of Texas on March 05, 2010:

Ahhh Tony, such a great start! I will link this to Dizzy, Yardbird etc with your permission. I am eagerly anticipating your series and if you are not too busy creating them, I would love to see you do a hub on the wonderful South African group vocal music--such as that in "The Power of One" movie.

Love and Blue Notes. =:)

Mystique1957 from Caracas-Venezuela on March 04, 2010:


This is an extraordinary hub! I am a Jazz lover. All kinds! This is really stirring memories, I am looking forward to the next part!

Thumbs up!

warm regards and blessings,


Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 03, 2010:

De Greek - yes, I love Garner and "Concert by the Sea" would be a lovely accompanyment to any read about jazz!

Thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace


De Greek from UK on March 03, 2010:

Fascinating. I switched on Errol Garner to accompany the reading of your work.. :-))

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 03, 2010:

Will do, Amillar. Just takes a bit of time, is all!

Thanks for the read and the comment. I am grateful, really.

Love and peace


amillar from Scotland, UK on March 03, 2010:

Keep it coming Tony.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 02, 2010:

Dim, Lori - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate that very much.

Lori - visited your brother's site. Sounds and looks great! Thanks for the heads up!

Love and peace


loriamoore on March 02, 2010:

My brother is a jazz musician. Check him out at wwwdotjeffrehmetdotcom

Dim Flaxenwick from Great Britain on March 02, 2010:

Excellent hub. Thnk you , Tony. I love the way you connected the slavery situation to the music.

Love and peace as always

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 02, 2010:

AJ - you are kind. Thank you.

Larry - thanks for the comment and feedback. Those are of course great jazzmen you list. Miles is a special case as he really developed through a number of jazz genres in his career, being a pioneer many times over, as it were.

Sala kahle, my friend.

Love and peace


Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on March 02, 2010:

Interesting take on the evolution of Jazz, although I thought the slavery lesson was a bit overdone...Jazz has always been a distinctively American idiom, with Europeans largely forming an appreciative audience and Europe's jazzmen following trends begun in the United interest in Jazz is in the classical edge of that genre: Progressive Jazz...To that extent my Jazz heroes are Tatum, Tristano, Jamal, Getz, and Miles Davis...I'm looking forward to your continuing series on Jazz...Hamba Kahle...Larry

ajbarnett on March 02, 2010:

Terrific hub. You've researched it well. Congrats.

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 02, 2010:

NSJ - thank you. I hope you don't have to wait too long! These Hubs are taking a long time to write, I have to admit.

Cris - yes, the time taken to research for this Hub and the ones to follow is quite long.

Thanks so much, good people, for dropping by and taking the time to read and comment. I really do appreciate it.

Love and peace


Chris A on March 02, 2010:

Thank you Tony - now I know why you have been so quiet of late :-) -

nextstopjupiter from here, there and everywhere on March 02, 2010:

A great introduction to the roots of jazz, looking forward to your next hubs about the history of jazz!

Tony McGregor (author) from South Africa on March 02, 2010:

Well Ann, you got here mighty fast! Thanks for the read and the comment. Appreciated. One CD in four hours could get a bit much, I reckon!

Love and peace


Ann Nonymous from Virginia on March 02, 2010:

This was really good Tony. Can't wait to read the next part! I have always known of Jazz but I'll never forget a four hour drive to a friend's graduation and all the car had in it was one lone jazz cd! Talk about jazzing it up! LOL

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