Jazz 101: Sources


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, we’ll be looking at the sources of jazz.

Last time, we took an in-depth look at the arts of improvisation, composition, and arranging. We discussed their differences, as well as just how difficult it can be to clearly define any distinctions between the three.

Now, we’ll take a look at the history of jazz, and where its roots really lie, past the limit of New Orleans that many jazz historians stop at. Our discussion takes us across the sea, to the influences from Africa and Europe.


As way of introduction to this chapter, Szwed begins by taking a few shots at the amateur historians who cataloged the bulk of early jazz findings. To be fair, he also gives them due credit. Mostly, he points out the contributions that they gave. These include detailed maps of New Orleans’ music scene, biographies of legendary players, rare recordings, and the most complete discographies to be found anywhere. However, Szwed does make an important distinction here.

“But jazz historians have not been musicologists, and when they turn to the question of the music’s sources, they begin to falter, either exposing their prejudices, or turning to generalizations based on the slimmest of evidence. And nowhere is this more apparent than on the question of the African and European contributions to the music” (p. 54).

Szwed continues this line of discussion by commenting that no serious student of jazz history would dispute where the roots of jazz come from. Even in the earliest years of jazz, commentators understood this. Which is one of the reasons jazz was attacked as dangerous or degrading. Although it was also one of the reasons it was praised for its freshness and originality.

Africa (and Europe)

While quite a lot of research has been given to Europe in relation to jazz history, Africa has failed to get quite as much attention. “Suffice it to say here that the contributions of African music to jazz are extensive and critical to its history” (p. 55).

Szwed then lists a total of seven different African elements that are found in jazz.

  1. Rhythm patterns played on the ride cymbal, used to organize and direct musicians. The African equivalent was the Yoruba agogo, a double bell rhythm instrument.
  2. Drum rhythms constructed on an additive principle (ex: 3+3+2), rather than a divisive principle (2+2+2). These rhythms are found in older rhythm and blues, as well as in the Charleston beat.
  3. Overlapping call-and-response, with one line continuing as the response begins. “…such a pattern can be seen in Louis Armstrong’s early playing, where he begins his solos before the ensemble has finished playing” (p. 55).
  4. Vocalized timbre and articulation. This is when the instrument imitates speech, like horns “talking”.
  5. Voice/instrument interchange. We hear this in scat-singing, when vocals imitate instruments.
  6. Staggered entry, when a piece begins with a solo, adding more instruments one at a time until they are layered.
  7. Percussion tonality, tactility, and enrichment. This brings a higher level of creativity to the drum set, including the use of rim shots, sandpaper, brushes, to achieve a different tonal flavor.

“Some, maybe all of these can be found elsewhere in the world, but as a group of features clustered together, they can be found nowhere other than in Africa” (p. 56).


Rhythm gets a lot of coverage in talk of jazz music. One of the reasons for this is that jazz rhythms are so fundamentally different from European rhythms. While not all of these come from African music, the implied use of polymeter, does. This, ” as much as any other feature of jazz, points toward the contributions of West and Central Africa” (p. 57).

In polymeter, different voices or instruments play different meters (like 7/8 mixed with 4/4). When played together, the meters desynchronize, and a new rhythm emerges. While jazz doesn’t use polymeter to the same degree as some African music, it is still prevalent.

Final Thoughts

Despite the clear evidence of African influence in jazz, there are still those who refute such claims. The same voices also speak about blues originating in England, which is laughable. This Eurocentric view is not only dangerous, but misguided thinking, almost deliberately ignoring the facts. But in the ridiculous world we live in, even today, this probably doesn’t come as a huge surprise.

I hope you enjoyed this look into the history of jazz and its sources. Next time, we’ll discuss the act of listening, and the different ways we can encounter and interact with jazz.



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