Modern Art and All That Jazz

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, October 2012 | Go to article overview
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Modern Art and All That Jazz

Stern, Fred, The World and I

The world over, and since centuries past, music has been portrayed in works of art. So it is not surprising that the quintessential American music form, emerging little over a century ago--jazz--is often a subject of American art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Indeed American jazz has inspired not only American art, but that of Europe as well. But before exploring these influences, let's consider jazz itself and its history.

However, that history is not quite certain and the origin of jazz is still being disputed. We know that in more or less current form, it was first heard during the 1890's in New Orleans. But basically jazz is a much expanded form of music that originated with West African tribes generations before and actually has a tradition of many centuries behind it. In the American South in the days following the Civil War, former slaves, now frequently share croppers, used rhythmic tunes to break the monotony of their labor in the fields. They also employed "field hollers" to communicate with their fellow workers and to encourage each others labor.

These informal musicians enriched the musical vocabulary by adding spirituals to their repertory. When the Civil War ended and regimental bands disbanded they took the next step: adding instrumental music. Freed slaves played their instruments in taverns, at county fairs, weddings and sadly at funerals. Most were three piece bands that consisted of fiddle (or violin), banjo and drum. By 1900 the fiddles were often replaced by the trombone and clarinet.

Ragtime and Blues

We speak of jazz in a variety of forms, but mostly blues and ragtime. Ragtime was the form that came into prominence in the 1890's. It bore a resemblance to the cakewalk, a dance familiar to plantation workers. Ragtime developed in the South and Midwest, and its effect was crucial to the popular piano music of its time. The most well-known composer of the genre was Scott Joplin who more than any other musician was responsible for bringing the form into prominence.

The Blues were a still more formalized form of jazz. The Blues were usually sung, with lyrics that lamented life's tragedies: typically the lost love, the unfaithful love, poverty, death, or some combination of these. When performed solely with musical instruments, usually a single instrument introduced the typically mournful theme and was then joined by the other instruments often banjo or guitar and drum.

New Orleans and Chicago--The Jazz Capitals

The first recorded jazz was by Black musicians and originated in New Orleans's Congo Square. Embracing both sacred and profane elements, it was in fact dance music with a jazz beat, mixed with a flavoring of Creole--a blend of French, Spanish, African, and Native American influences. For those dancing to that music, both women and men, it was a way to express themselves with exuberance and instinctive rhythms. For those just listening, it was an unforgettable experience. And for those who had only heard about this new syncopation, they couldn't wait to hear for themselves.

Who were the legendary figures in New Orleans Jazz? Among the many composers and performers was Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869). He was the offspring of a Jewish businessman born in London and a Creole mother who came from Haiti. Recognized as a virtuoso from the moment he sat down at the piano, Gottschalk was nevertheless rejected for admission by the Paris Conservatoire. However he did not let this impede his ambition nor his competitive verve. In his music he brings back all the memories of his New Orleans youth. We still thrill to his memorable melodies.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was not a native of New Orleans. He spent most of his time in St. Louis and New York but his music has all the elements of New Orleans jazz. His ragtime compositions are legendary, none more so than "The Maple Leaf Rag" which was the first phonograph record to sell more than 75,000 copies during the first six months of publication.

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