Styles & Forms | Early Years | Jazz & Blues

Jazz and blues are rooted in the enormous technological and social transformations affecting the USA and Western Europe at the turn of the twentieth century. The most striking changes were the advent of easier and cheaper travel; better communications; electric lighting; improvements in audio recording and moving pictures; increased urbanization; and the rise of the US, concurrent with the fall of the UK, as the world’s leading military, economic and cultural power.

The budding empowerment of African-Americans, who no longer faced slavery, had more impact on the development of new forms of music than any other engine of change. The abolishment of slavery was the beginning of the end of white performers in blackface impersonating Negroes in minstrel shows. African-Americans in the US still may not have been treated equally, but they could gather more freely, and engage in group amusements without censure. Loose threads of African retentions, Scotch-Irish ballads, Christian hymns, vaudeville themes, Spanish dance rhythms, marching-band fanfares and idiosyncratic expression began to be woven together by musicians who were either seeking their fortunes adrift from their childhood homes, or were immigrants exiled from age-old traditions.

After the First World War, the US tried to regain its isolationist past. But newly efficient production methods and the rapid growth of cities lent the economy unbridled power. Money, speed, relocation and youth were ascendant – blues and jazz sang their anthems. Blues and jazz were themselves flexible enough to adapt to changes that continued at seemingly ever-faster rates, swallowing all prior conventions, throughout the twentieth century.

Sources & Sounds

Throughout their long histories, jazz and blues have been fundamentally linked – at some points more closely than others, certainly, but their intertwining roots in the post-Civil War African-American communities, among people liberated from slavery but still living under jim crow repression, mean that there will always be common ground between the two genres.

The blues was shaped by African culture, the experience of slavery and many other influences, but it emerged as a distinct form only around the turn of the twentieth century – some four decades after the abolition of slavery and several generations removed from the mother continent.

Echoes Of Distant Cultures

African retentions in timbres, tones and rhythms, and in the functional nature of music in daily life by people who were not necessarily professional musicians, interacted in America with European musical traditions, including Scotch-Irish fiddle tunes, English ballads, Christian songs and marching bands. Slaves with musical talent learned to entertain whites at plantation dances, performing the popular dances and songs of the day. The work songs and hollers of those labouring in the fields often harked back to the chants of their African ancestors, while in the churches Protestant hymns took on an African-American character to emerge as ‘Negro spirituals’. Africanisms survived in the work and game songs, call-and-response patterns, vocal and instrumental phrasings, syncopations, oral traditions, folk customs and beliefs, pentatonic scales and flattened ‘blue notes’, as well as in instrumentation.

Minstrels And Spirituals

After America’s Civil...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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