How Did Jazz Originate?

Updated on April 21, 2016

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)

Pat Matshikiza, South African pianist (Photo Tony McGregor)
Pat Matshikiza, South African pianist (Photo Tony McGregor)
Barney Rachabane, South African alto player (Photo Tony McGregor)
Barney Rachabane, South African alto player (Photo Tony McGregor)
South African pianist Andile Yenana. (Photo Tony McGregor)
South African pianist Andile Yenana. (Photo Tony McGregor)
The Old Plantation. A watercolour painting from the late 18th Century. It is "the only known painting of its era that depicts African Americans by themselves, concerned only with each other." From Wikipedia
The Old Plantation. A watercolour painting from the late 18th Century. It is "the only known painting of its era that depicts African Americans by themselves, concerned only with each other." From Wikipedia

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.

The Island of Goree. Image from Wikipeida
The Island of Goree. Image from Wikipeida
Diagramme of a slave ship. Image from Wikipedia
Diagramme of a slave ship. Image from Wikipedia
Slave ship "Le Saphir", 1741. A ship from La Rochelle, France. Image from Wikipedia
Slave ship "Le Saphir", 1741. A ship from La Rochelle, France. Image from Wikipedia
Slave being whipped. Image from Wikipedia
Slave being whipped. Image from Wikipedia
William Blake's frightful image of the effect of slavery on an individual. Image from Wikipedia
William Blake's frightful image of the effect of slavery on an individual. Image from Wikipedia

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.”

Slave auction poster. Image from Wikipedia
Slave auction poster. Image from Wikipedia
Slave ship poster. Image from Wikipedia
Slave ship poster. Image from Wikipedia

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.

Greg Hadjiyorki Geogeades a South African of Egyptian origin who is a master of many stringed instruments. At a recent performance in Pretoria. Photo by Tony McGregor
Greg Hadjiyorki Geogeades a South African of Egyptian origin who is a master of many stringed instruments. At a recent performance in Pretoria. Photo by Tony McGregor

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 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.

Copyright Notice

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

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Asdfgk 

        14 months ago

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

      • profile image

        Michael W. 

        3 years ago

        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.

      • profile image

        abdo 

        3 years ago

        can you inform me how can i cite for this ?

      • DynamicS profile image

        Sandria Green-Stewart 

        3 years ago from Toronto, Canada

        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 profile image

        Kristen Howe 

        3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

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

      • profile image

        zakia 

        6 years ago

        I thik that jazz star the worry

      • profile image

        Zoe 

        7 years ago

        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.

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        7 years ago from South Africa

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

        Love and peace

        Tony

      • swedal profile image

        swedal 

        7 years ago from Colorado

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

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        7 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • Christopher Price profile image

        Christopher Price 

        7 years ago from Vermont, USA

        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.

        CP

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

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

        Love and peace

        Tony

      • music messenger profile image

        music messenger 

        8 years ago

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

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        Coolmon - thank you indeed for the compliments.

        Love and peace

        Tony

      • Coolmon2009 profile image

        Coolmon2009 

        8 years ago from Texas, USA

        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 profile image

        Micky Dee 

        8 years ago

        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.

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

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

        Love and peace

        Tony

      • Ginn Navarre profile image

        Ginn Navarre 

        8 years ago

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

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • James A Watkins profile image

        James A Watkins 

        8 years ago from Chicago

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

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • wilbury steve profile image

        Steve Webb 

        8 years ago from Great Wakering, England

        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 profile image

        Winsome 

        8 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

        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 profile image

        Mystique1957 

        8 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela

        Tony...

        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,

        Al

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • De Greek profile image

        De Greek 

        8 years ago from UK

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

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • amillar profile image

        amillar 

        8 years ago from Scotland, UK

        Keep it coming Tony.

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • profile image

        loriamoore 

        8 years ago

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

      • Dim Flaxenwick profile image

        Dim Flaxenwick 

        8 years ago from Great Britain

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

        Love and peace as always

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • maven101 profile image

        maven101 

        8 years ago from Northern Arizona

        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 States...my 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

      • profile image

        ajbarnett 

        8 years ago

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

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • profile image

        Chris A 

        8 years ago

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

      • nextstopjupiter profile image

        nextstopjupiter 

        8 years ago from here, there and everywhere

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

      • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

        Tony McGregor 

        8 years ago from South Africa

        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

        Tony

      • Ann Nonymous profile image

        Ann Nonymous 

        8 years ago from Virginia

        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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