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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource

Opinion/Editorial

Bridges vs. Walls

By Published: April 17, 2012
There is also an idea that the word came from "gism" or "jasm," which are slang words associated with sex—like its offspring, "rock and roll..." or the earlier "spasm" bands that played found objects on the streets of New Orleans in the late nineteenth century. There is some definite truth to the fact that most terms applied to popular music in the 20th century originated from sexual innuendo and profane slang.

Many of the original New Orleans "jazz" musicians born between 1885 and early 1900's have claimed that the word was never actually used in New Orleans at all—they called the music they played "ragtime" or "blues," and the j-word was only applied after they took their music up north to Chicago.

The first known instance of the word "jass" being used to describe music was indeed in Chicago. It was applied to the very first recording of "Traditional New Orleans music" in 1917 by a band called the Original Dixieland Jass Band. If you were to ask the white Italian band leader Nick LaRocca
Nick LaRocca
1889 - 1961
cornet
where the word came from, he would undoubtedly tell you that he invented it... or, at the very least, was the one who established "jass" as a musical idiom or genre. He denied any association with African-American roots or the musical influence of "Negros," claiming that any such historical revisionism was a communist plot.

And this was just the beginning of a century long battle for the very heart, soul and definition of "jazz."

Another brilliant ragtime pianist known as Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
Jelly Roll Morton
1890 - 1941
piano
also claimed to have invented the genre, and probably the word, denying any assistance or influence... and also denying that he himself had "negro" blood due to the fact that he was Creole. However, the hubris of Jelly Roll and LaRocca did little to advance the music—and only lead to their eventual decline and disgrace.

One of the lessons of jazz is that if you hold too tightly to an art form, and claim ownership to specific styles of creative expression, you end up destroying the thing you love. Ego suffocates art, and hubris kills it.

So, where did jazz come from?

Legend has it that Buddy Bolden
Buddy Bolden
Buddy Bolden
1877 - 1931
cornet
blew something unique on his horn in New Orleans circa 1895—and music was changed forever. Others were involved of course, but since Buddy Bolden spent the latter part of his life in a mental institution he was an exotic figure to pin with the development of something so extraordinary.

We also know that the music was born of slavery—created by those that yearned for freedom; expressing sorrow via the 12 bar blues; coping with sweat and labor via the collective improvisation of call and response; and expressing ecstatic sounds of worship, celebration and hope via gospel. These sounds and styles were blended with European classical and marching band music, and further mingled with the folk songs of 69 cultures living and working in New Orleans at the end of the 19th century.

So, whether it was Buddy Bolden, Nick LaRocca, Jelly Roll Morton, or the countless others that claim ownership and developmental rights to Americas only original art form—it is much bigger than any one man, one sound, one style, or one culture.

Jazz is indeed (as Nicholas Payton contends) "Black American Music..." but it is also so much more. Not to take anything away from its roots, but to elevate it to its proper place as one of the most influential art forms the world has ever known. Jazz extends beyond race, color, creed or culture—unifying us all, building improvised bridges of communication, and allowing the entire planet to swing together in syncopated counterpoint.

If you take any one of the cultural elements away from the DNA of jazz, you end up with a singular style favoring one culture or sound over the other... rather than the rich collective sound that continues to grow and change every time someone syncopates a rhythm or improvises a melody.

If jazz was just one thing, the structure would have stayed the same—but it has radically changed through each of the past nine decades, and defined each generation of the 20th century.

The 1920s ushered in the "jazz" age, where middle class white Americans embraced African American traditions, ideals and music... sanitizing it and claiming it as their own. However, the original "jazz" artists from New Orleans did not gain the same respect as the all white orchestra lead by the so-called "King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman.

Black musicians, dancers and artists were often mocked and reduced to minstrelsy while their art, music, culture and creativity was stolen and embraced by whites who performed it under different labels. Almost a hundred years later, little has changed in this respect.

The 1930's ushered in the "swing era" with a preponderance of big bands and orchestras that still played jazz—but whites tended to call it "swing" to differentiate it from the music played by big bands of color... regardless of the fact that it was the same music.


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