Jazz 101: New Orleans


Today, we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look into the era of early jazz. Specifically, our discussion will center around the scene in New Orleans.

Last time, we talked about the wide variety of jazz styles there are, and have been over the years. We talked about the problems with overlap, and how different styles frequently bled into others. And past styles, we looked at three types of players who take part in changing the stylistic landscape. The restructuralists, stylists, and traditionalists.

Now, we’ll look more closely at the eras of jazz music, and get a better picture of how jazz evolved over the years. Today we’ll be starting with the first quarter of the twentieth century in New Orleans. In our jazz style chronology, this is the era of early jazz. We’ll start with a brief overview, and then move into looking at specific jazz artists and their impact.

New Orleans

Much of the musical activity of jazz bands in New Orleans was shaped by social clubs and other functions where they would be hired to play. As we’ve seen, New Orleans bands drew their melodies from everywhere. “But it was the dance melodies that provided musicians with a model for adding on music as new dances developed…and enabled them to knit together different melodies in different keys into single pieces” (p. 98).

Despite providing us with the chronology, Szwed does a good job covering his back. “It would be nice if we were able to give a firm date to the origins of jazz, but dependent as we are on recordings, we are often driven back to 1917, the year the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from New Orleans first recorded what we have come to call jazz” (p. 103). Using this as our segue, we can now turn our attention to bands and artists.

The Original Dixieland Band

There’s understandably a decent amount of controversy surrounding the Original Dixieland Band as the first example of jazz. Just because they were the first to record, doesn’t necessarily mean that they were the originators of an entire style. Apparently, jazz historians have similar feelings. “Having declared them as white imitators performing an inferior version of the real thing, the writers of jazz history were unhappy to see them be the first to record” (p. 105).

The ODJB played compositions inspired by hymns, rags, and marches. “Though they proudly proclaimed they were untrained musicians and that everything they did was improvised, their records suggest that they counted far more on prepared routines” (p. 106).

King Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band 

King Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band are perhaps one of the most widely discussed groups in jazz. This comes down to two factors: “because he recorded more than most”, and “Louis Armstrong was second trumpet in his band” (p. 107).

While they weren’t necessarily the most innovative and exciting band, they laid down the foundation for jazz. “Their variety of melodic and rhythmic devices became basic to jazz, most notably breaks or stop-time passages with the two trumpets playing written or improvised lines in harmony” (p. 108).

Louis Armstrong

There won’t be enough to fit in here that will do Louis Armstrong justice.”His influence was so profound, so far-reaching, that it tests the credulity of anyone who has not seriously considered his work” (p. 109). We may revisit him in the future for a standalone article, but for now we’ll just give the broad strokes.

While today, most may associate Armstrong with his low growl, it was actually his virtuosity on the trumpet that captured most listeners in his day. “He was simply louder, wider-ranging, and more articulate on his horn than anyone else” (p. 110).

And there’s good reason why we all can recognize Armstrong by his voice. He used it, and used it often. “He, more than anyone, made vernacular speech a part of popular song. Before long, you could see his influence on the pop song itself” (p. 110).

Again, there’s so much being left out here, but we’re reaching the end of our discussion.

Final Thoughts

So, we’ve seen how jazz was shaped by social settings and groups. And there’s still some controversy around whether the first band to record jazz music was indeed the first to play it (though I’m still doubtful).

We’ve looked at three major players during the era of early jazz who all influenced the eras to come. But of course, if we’re going to play favorites, there’s no one else to look at but Louis Armstrong. We’ll try and get to a full article on him at some point in this series.

Next time, we’ll look beyond New Orleans, and see where jazz goes next.




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