The Roots of Jazz: New Orleans and the Euro-Latin-Afro Connection, Part 1
The common perception among scholars, the jazz community, and the world at large is that Jazz originated in several US locations simultaneously in the early part of the twentieth century and was representative of the African American narrative in this country. Although mentioned in many accounts of the history of jazz, the Creole contribution has been treated synonymously with the African-American. This essay raises new questions regarding the origins of jazz and those who created it. Among these questions are the following:
- What musical and cultural influences coalesced into jazz?
- Why was the city of New Orleans the perfect geographic location for the emergence of jazz?
- Why has jazz historically been acclaimed as music of the African-American Diaspora?
As an illustration of the common theories regarding the origins of jazz,
quotes were taken directly from four college level music history textbooks written between 1976 and 2004. These quotes provide an example of a common thread of thought that attributes the origins of jazz to the folk traditions of West Africa. Although most of the books acknowledge some influence from Western European traditions, all exclusively maintain that the syncopated rhythms found in jazz are of African origin, and that the most significant jazz musicians have been African-American. Consider the following quotes: “In the beginning, jazz was uniquely a product of Black Americans.” [i] “Popular music in America has always been involved with Black folk music.”[ii] “Jazz is … (a) style that grew up among black musicians around 1910.”[iii] “The styles of Ragtime and Blues coalesced in jazz.”[iv] Even Mark C. Gridley, who’s jazz history text provides an in depth analysis of the genre, proclaims “Most of the earliest jazz musicians were Black, and almost all historically significant jazz musicians have been Black.”[v] According to Craig Wright, “Foremost among (the musical influences of jazz) are the traditional musical practices of Africa, as manifested in the spirituals and blues of American Blacks in the South.” [vi]
To further demonstrate popular jazz theories, several other points expressing the views of when and where jazz developed were examined:
“Jazz originated about 1910 almost simultaneously in many southern and Midwestern cities.”[vii] “Ragtime, a syncopated American piano music was the precurser to jazz and was made popular by Black composers in the 1890’s.”[viii] “With the entrance into the field of white and trained musicians, a refining, and in a sense, a corrupting process began. The crude virility of primitive jazz was mellowed by the intrusion of European elements.”[ix]
Each one of those statements, though containing some measure of validity, does not tell the complete story. According to Thomas Fiehrer, “The roots of jazz lay in the nineteenth- century evolution of this (Creole) society since most early jazzmen were Creoles from Louisiana or from somewhere in the Caribbean basin.”[x]Furthermore, ragtime, considered a parent of early jazz, composed and first published in Missouri, was actually first performed by Creoles in the city of New Orleans from1840-1865. The music was spread as far as the West Indies, and into interior farmland America via the traders and the steamers of the Mississippi. “As far as the racial make-up of ragtime composers, out of thirty-one of the most prolific, twenty-one were born in the Mississippi watershed. Only seven were black, including two of the most popular- Scott Joplin and James Scott.”[xi]
[i] Leon Dallin, Listener’s Guide to Musical Understanding, Fifth ed. (Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown Company, 1983), 3.
[ii] Joseph Kerman, Listen, second ed. (New York: Worth, 1976), 352.
[iii] Ibid., 354.
[iv] Dallin, Listener’s Guide to Musical Understanding, 380.
[v] Mark C. Gridley, Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, second ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985), 43.
[vi] Craig T. Wright, Listening to Music, Fourth ed. (Belmont, CA.: Clark Baxter, 2004), 406.
[vii] Ibid., 407.
[ix] Dallin, Listener’s Guide to Musical Understanding, 381.
[x] Thomas Fiehrer, “From Quadrille to Stomp: The Creole Origins of Jazz,” Popular Music 10, no. 1 (1991): 27.