Antebellum “cakewalking” contests, slaves exaggerated their master’s ballroom marches, arching their backs and stepping high. They performed the dance to the accompaniment of a banjo and bones (cows ribs); one instrument played straight rhythm, while the other played in syncopation, thus creating an early form of ragtime.
Thomas Rice heard the phrase, “Jim Crow” in a plantation song, and his subsequent stage act, a self-conscious imitation of what was thought to be “slave culture,” required performers to appear in blackface.
In 1842, Dan Emmett formed the Virginia Minstrels and turned the black-face minstrel into a million dollar business. By conviction and abolitionist, Emmett is commonly credited with having authored “Dixie.”
Christy’s Minstrels with over 200 participants were soon touring Europe and America. Their act used two primary characters, Jim Crow, the good natured farm boy, and Zip Coon, the wiseguy city slicker.
In 1893, Scott Joplin attended the Chicago World’s Fair, and heard minstrels as well as symphonic music and was inspired to compose some ragtime pieces. He went on to write some of the most famous ragtime tunes of all time including, “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “The Entertainer.”
Born in 1868 in Texarkana, Texas, Joplin composed about thirty rags before his death in 1917. This, ironically was the year of the first jazz recording. Although he was classically trained on the piano and first disdained ragtime, he moved from writing marches and waltzes and his music became very popular.
Ragtime evolved into what we now call Dixieland jazz, a syncopated music that grew up in the context of the New Orleans funeral and moved east about the time of the First World War. Called “spasm” music in the 1890s, Dixieland relied on marching instruments like the banjo and tuba that were commonly employed in New Orleans funerals. “Warm Gravy,” and “Stale Bread” were the names of two of the more famous groups.
There was a tradition of playing very slowly and somberly on the way to the buriel, and then playing very brightly and with great spirit as the group left the graveyard. Sometime the band traveled to the gravesite on a cart or “Black Maria,” and would play what would be called “Tailgate music.”
There is some information about the military bands being decommissioned in the port of New Orleans, and cheap instruments being more available there.
Improvisation is an important element in jazz and started to appear as player went from the sheet music based ragtime to the more free Dixieland and improvisational jazz.
One critic, James Lincoln Collier, called Dixieland jazz “advanced ragtime.” Sophie Tucker who was first associated with ragtime became known as “the queen of jazz.”
Jelly Roll Morton had his own version of “Maple Leaf Rag,” but went on to become one of the most famous exponents of improvised jazz.
Bert Williams was the most famous minstrel performer. He was a well educated black man who had to be coached to speak crudely to join the Zigfield Follies in 1910. By 1912, he was earning over $10,000 a week, an enormous sum for any performer of the time.
The entomology of the word, “Ragtime” suggests that it is a shortening of the words, “Ragged Time.” Irving Berlin drew on ragtime for many of his songs, and was said to popularize the vocal aspect of the genre.
Most ragtime sheet music was purchased by young white women. Publishers would be sure to have a picture of a black man on the cover to insure that it had ‘authenticity.’
George Cobb was a famous ragtime publisher and noted for his ability to create ‘rag’ versions of many of the classics. At a posh resturaunt, a friend challenged him to create a ragtime version of Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C sharp minor.” What Cobb didn’t know was that his friend had recognized Rachmaninoff at a table in the restaurant. It turned out that he was very gracious about hearing his work turned into a ragtime piece, to the relief of Cobb.
In 1917, Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, concerned with sailors who loitered too long in New Orleans, ordered that the city’s Storyville red light district be closed down. Hundreds of musicians were soon out of a job, and many traveled taking their jazz repertoire with them.
The decade after World War One became known as ‘the jazz age.’
One thought on the origin of the word, “Jazz” has to do with the fact that the winner of the cakewalk contest was declared to be the “chaise beau” literally, ‘the man who sat on the throne.’ The Creole French phrase became ‘jazzbo,’ later shortened to jazz.
In 1924, the course of jazz was changed forever when the electronic microphone was invented. This meant that quieter instruments like the guitar and string bass could be heard. Also it brought singers to the forefront. Electronic recording followed changing the sound of records which had previously been recorded by the mechanical process invented by Thomas Edison.
W.C. Handy took many primitive ‘folk’ blues melodies and refined them into arranged pieces. “St. Louis Blues” is the most famous of these. His early pieces were more like ragtime, an example is “Memphis Blues.” He was the first ‘serious’ musician to make liberal use of ‘blues’ notes, commonly the flatted notes that fall between the cracks in a musical scale.
Handy was also at the Chicago Worlds Fair like Scott Joplin. It was there that he heard the music that he made into the “St. Louis Blues.”
The depression brought a more somber musical taste. The ‘flapper’ era was over, and lower hemlines reappeared. The song, “Stardust,” written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1929, only became a hit record in 1932.
“Swing” music was much more arranged than it’s improvisational predecessor. The term “swing” only came years later, in the twenties the music was referred to as “big band jazz.’