History of the Early Jazz Age

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The powerful music that we call jazz originated around the end of the 19th century in New Orleans. It welded together the elements of Ragtime, marching band music, and the Blues. What made Jazz significantly different from the other earlier forms of music was the use of improvisation. Jazz displayed a break from traditional music where a composer wrote an entire piece of music on paper, leaving the musicians to break their backs playing exactly what was written on the score. In a Jazz piece, however, the song is simply a starting point or sort of a skeletal guide for the Jazz musicians to improvise around. The song being played may have been popular and well-known that the musicians themselves didn’t compose, but once they had finished, the Jazz Musicians had more or less written a new piece of music that showed little resemblance to the original piece. Actually, many of these early musicians were bad sight-readers and some couldn’t even read music at all. Regardless, their superb playing amazed audiences and other musicians alike and the upbeat music they played was a different but well-liked escape from the traditional music of that time.

Click here to see a Jazz graphic and chart about the development of Jazz.

The first Jazz is thought to have been played by African Americans and Creole musicians in New Orleans. Buddy Bolden, a cornet player, is generally considered to be the first real jazz musician, displaying an incredible sound. Other early players of the time included Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, and Clarence Williams. Most of these musicians may seem unknown to most people, but their ideas are still affecting the way Jazz is being played today. Generally speaking, these early musicians could not make very much money and were stuck working menial jobs to make a living. The second wave of New Orleans Jazz musicians included such memorable players as Joe Oliver, Kid Ory, and Jelly Roll Morton. These men formed small bands and took the music of earlier musicians, improved its complexity, and gained greater success. This music is known as “Hot Jazz” due to the enormously fast speeds.

A young cornet player by the name of Louis Armstrong was discovered by Joe Oliver in New Orleans. He soon grew to become one of the greatest and most successful musicians of all time, and later one of the biggest stars in the world. The impact of Armstrong and other talented early Jazz musicians changed the way we look at music, and their work will forever be studied and admired.

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Pre-Jazz (1850 - 1900)

This time before the conscious recognition of jazz as an individual music genre is perhaps its most important. It was then that the musical and cultural influences merged to create the uniqueness and diversity of jazz. However, because records were not kept and recordings were not available, much of the history of pre jazz goes unknown. We can look back and try to recreate it by looking at the writings of the day and by projecting backward from what we know now of jazz.

The influences seemed to come from all directions. The African musical practices that remained a part of the slave culture were superimposed on the dominant white musical culture of western Europe. The western tradition spanned music as diverse as the songs of Stephen Foster to the operas of Wagner. The popular music of the day had simple harmonies, simple rhythms, and the form often used was AABA. The black tradition depended more on oral transmission and was represented by spirituals, work songs, field hollers, and later the blues. At this same time, four million slaves became American citizens. The four million, mixing their African background with the popular and church music around them, were to be the nucleus of jazz.

Early Jazz (the 1910s-1920s)

Not all jazz performed at the beginning of the 20th century can be described as New Orleans or Dixieland Jazz. Beginning in the late teens, a rich jazz influence of dance bands and soloists helped in the development and growth of improvisational music. The stride pianist, the Early Jazz vocalists and the horn soloist of this period have been hard-pressed to be categorized. Often these performed have been placed in categories called “Classic Jazz” or “Traditional Jazz” but no matter the term, the sound became a foundation for the Kansas City, Chicago and Swing styles to follow. Among the artists that had a major impact on Early Jazz were Clarance Williams, Bessie Smith and Bix Beiderbecke.

Early Jazz is as much a definition of the time (early teens to the mid-1920s) as it is a definition of the sound and style of the music.


Piano ragtime began to be published in the late 1890s. It was immediately successful and subjected to various kinds of popularization, almost all of which have continued. It was (and is) sometimes played fast and shallow, with deliberately still rhythms, on a jangling prepared piano — so much so that it is difficult to convince some listeners that the early ragtime composers were highly gifted melodists and serious craftsmen who produced an admirable body of musical art.

Ragtime was basically a piano keyboard music that Gilbert Thomas said was an “Afro- American version of the Polka.” Somewhere in the background of the music is the Sousa style march, thus the first great ragtime composition, Maple Leaf Rag, by the first great ragtime composer, Scott Joplin, was built on four melodies, or themes. If we assign a letter to each theme, the structure of Maple Leaf Rag comes out to ABACD. In ragtime, these themes were sixteen measures like their European counterparts.

There is every reason to believe that a rich body of Afro-American inspired music preceded ragtime, although there are no recordings from those years. Certainly, the cakewalk, an Afro-American dance initially based on an elegant, stylized parody of Southern white courtly manners, preceded it, and there was published cakewalk music, although publishers in those days were not quite sure how to indicate its rhythms properly. But ragtime introduced, in the accents of its right-hand melodies, delightful syncopation onto the heavy 2/4 oompah rhythm of its cakewalk-derived bassline and almost immediately became a kind of national, even worldwide craze.

Click here to see a Jazz graphic and chart about the development of Jazz.

The first true ragtime composition was published by William Krell called “The Mississippi Rag” in 1897. Tom Turpin, the first published African American composer wrote “The Harlem Rag” the same year. Over the cores of Ragtime’s initial popularity, a number of composers merged as the voice of this musical form, namely James Scott, Louis Chauvin, Joseph Lamb, and Scott Joplin.

Little is known of the early development of Ragtime, however, it is clear that it surfaced after years of evolution in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Ragtime has been traced to minstrel shows and cakewalks as early as 1895. The cakewalk originated in the Caribbean, arrived in the United States as a syncopated music form based on a march, the polka, and a two-step. Once Ragtime emerged as an unquiet musical form, it became a strong base for the music that lay ahead of it, jazz.

By the early 1900s, Ragtime was no longer being performed by a solo pianist. Small orchestras, military bands, and piano-banjo combos were among the earliest recordings of Ragtime, which added elements that alluded to popular dance bands of the Dixieland, New Orleans, and Swing styles yet to be developed. An individual musical voice was being established in America, it was an exciting era of development and change.


Dixieland is an umbrella to indicate musical styles of the earliest New Orleans and Chicago jazz musicians, recorded from 1917 to 1923, as well as its developments and revivals, beginning during the late 1930s. It refers to collectively improvised small band music. Its materials are rags, blues, one-steps, two-steps, marches, and pop tunes. Simultaneous counter-lines are supplied by trumpet, clarinet, and trombone, accompanied by combinations of piano, guitar, banjo, tuba, bass, and drums. Major exponents include; Joe King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Paul Mares, Nick LaRocca, Bix Beiderbecke, and Jimmy McPartland.

Major developers and revivalists include Bob Crosby’s Bobcats, Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Bob Scobey, Bob Wilber, Yank Lawson and Bob Haggart (World’s Greatest Jazz Band), The Dukes of Dixieland, Turk Murphy, and James Dapogny’s Chicago Jazz Band. Aficionados make distinctions between various streams of traditional New Orleans jazz, the earliest Chicago jazz, and the assorted variations that are performed by revivalist bands. Some historians reserve Dixieland for white groups playing traditional jazz. Some restrict it mostly to disciples of the earliest white Chicagoans.

Early New Orleans Dixieland (1900-1917)

As rural music moved to the city and adopted new instruments, the polyphony typical of the African- American singing tradition found expression in the style now identified as Early New Orleans Dixieland. It differed from the later Chicago Dixieland and the even later revival Dixieland in its instrumentation and rhythmic feeling. These first groups used a front line of a cornet, clarinet, and trombone. The rhythm section was made up of banjo, tuba, and drums. The origin of these instruments was in the marching bands reflected the need to move while playing.

The rhythm section accompanied the front line on a flat-four fashion, a rhythmic feeling that placed equal emphasis on all four beats of the measure. This equal or flat metric feel was later replaced by Chicago groups with a measure that emphasized the second and fourth beats and was referred to as 2/4 time (accents on 2 and 4).

Chicago Style Dixieland (The 1920s)

The merger of New Orleans Style Dixieland with ragtime style led to what is now referred to as Chicago Style Dixieland. This style exemplified the Roaring Twenties, or to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “the jazz age.” Chicago was exciting at this time and so was its music. In 1917 with the closing of Storyville in New Orleans, Chicago became the center of jazz activity. Many workers from the south migrated to Chicago and brought with them a continued interest in the type of entertainment they had left behind.

The New Orleans instrumentation was augmented to include a saxophone and piano and the influence of ragtime added 2/4 backbeat to the rhythmic feeling. The banjo moved to the guitar and the tuba moved to string bass. The tempos were generally less relaxed than New Orleans Dixieland, and the music seemed more aggressively performed.

There was jazz activity in other cities as well, mainly New York and Kansas City. These centers would later claim the center stage as they moved toward a definition of swing, but during the 1920s Chicago remained the hub of jazz.

During this time in Chicago, Louis Armstrong’s influence as a soloist was influencing the fabric of an otherwise democratic ensemble. His individual style started the trend toward the soloist being the primary spokesperson for jazz.

Click here to see a Jazz graphic and chart about the development of Jazz.


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