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The Roots of Jazz


Though jazz and classic blues are really early twentieth-century black music innovations, certain characteristics found in jazz do have their roots in much earlier musical traditions. Call and response, improvisation, the appropriation and reinvention of elements from Western art music: black music in the twentieth-century has never held a monopoly on these musical practices. For instance, the era American historians call "antebellum" (roughly 1815-1861) holds much of interest to researchers looking for the deep roots of jazz.

There was one condition that had to be met for a black tradition unique to North America to develop. There had to be a creole population in place, i.e. a population of blacks born not in Africa but in America. Historically, and for various complicated reasons, slaves in the United States began reproducing their numbers after the closing of the African slave trade in 1808. The creole birthrate actually climbed in the United States, as opposed to most Latin and Caribbean American colonies. Unlike in Brazil or Cuba direct African infusions into black American culture were much less pronounced in the early and middle nineteenth-century. After 1808, blacks in North America began remembering--as well as forgetting--African musical traditions, reinventing them to fit their needs in an entirely different American context. This is an important thing to remember, especially if you hold with Amiri Baraka that "Blues People" have always been curiously American "Negroes."

But the North American variation and reinvention of African tradition in the early nineteenth-century was not monolithic. That is to say, depending on the region and the demands of the musical audience--whether it be fellow slaves or plantation-owners--the music varied from place to place. Perhaps the difference between 'downtown' and 'uptown' black style even began during this era. On the one hand there were the plaintive call-and-response hollers and 'sperchils' to be found in the tobacco fields, cotton plantations, and sugar marshes that stretched from Virginia to Texas. These instances of black music-making were largely produced by and for a black slave community that understood the significance of the music in ways that whites never could. Scholars have often noted the hidden meaning of field hollers and the significance of the drums to communication between various slave groups. The drums were even banned in the British Caribbean. Meanwhile, 'uptown', there were the slaves that played for planter functions. Think here of Solomon Northup, abducted from New York and sold into slavery in the New Orleans area. He would play his violin with other slaves to entertain plantation misters and mistresses at quadrilles and fancy balls. Others slave musicians would play at the so-called quadroon balls, New Orleans galas where light-skinned slave women were auctioned off to the highest bidder. There were striking similarities between these balls and the Storyville milieu where Jelly Roll Morton learned to entertain prostitutes and their patrons.

Despite the fact that the vast majority of blacks lived in the South, there were some freemen and women in the North. Indeed, they even had their own autonomous cultural venues, like the African Grove theater in New York City. But perhaps an even more important agent in spreading black musical style to the North during the first half of the nineteenth century was minstrelsy. The minstrel show was born in the same year as William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator, 1831, when Dan Rice-for the first time in American history-"blacked up" for a variety show in New York's Bowery district. The show became increasingly formalized after the Christie Minstrels devised a much-imitated structure for it in the 1840s and 50s. Two ubiquitous components of this structure were the Stephen Foster songs and a generic instrumentation including banjoes, "bones" (jawbones scraped together for percussive effect), fiddle, and tambourine. Minstresly had of course a more spurious connection to black musical traditions than did, say, the spirituals. But it should be remembered that most Northern minstrels did go to great lengths to acknowledge the black stevedores or plantation slaves from whom they had stolen their material. This sort of Love and Theft, according to Eric Lott, set a precedent for a whole tradition of blackface in America where white performers would borrow lovingly, profitably, and heavily from black musical styles, from Dan Rice to Elvis.

Though the minstrel show declined in popularity during the 1860s, blackface has retained a unique place in American culture. When the Fisk Jubilee Singers--a black gospel group from the first all-black university--showed up in New York in the 1860s to try and raise money for their troubled institution some audience members were disappointed, expecting them to sing a bit more like the minstrels did. Indeed, blacks entering show business from the 1860s on often had no choice but to enter it as minstrels. As it turned out, white audiences after the Civil War preferred black minstrels--or blacks in blackface--considering them the "genuine" article. The irony is, of course, that blacks in blackface had to perform a stereotype of themselves contributing to the construction of pervasive stereotypes of black people based on apocryphal happy-go-lucky "Jim Crow" and "dandy" plantation types. Despite the more troubling aspects of minstrelsy, it was another place where European and African traditions met and mingled in a heady, racist, and decidedly American stew. It is also the place where many jazz performers including, for one, Bessie Smith got their start.

Some form of music shaped by the black experience in the United States had appeared in both the South and the North by the time of the Civil War. Likewise, New Orleans--being the center of the American slave trade--had already taken on special significance in the history of black music-making in America. The most interesting reference to antebellum black music is found in the abolitionist Benjamin Lundy's diary. Near the New Orleans slave market, the hub of the interstate slave exchange, blacks continued to meet on or around Congo square, under the supervision of their masters to sell their wares, exchange information, and dance to drums that Lundy sketched in his diary and claimed were straight from Africa. Another white observer, Louis Moreau Gottschalk--Americas foremost composer, inter-American cultural diplomat, and piano virtuoso of the 1850s-claimed that he grew up in the shadow of Congo Square. In what is probably his most famous composition, Gottschalk sketches for us an interpretation of another African instrument retained and reinvented by blacks in America. He called this composition "The Banjo."


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