Jazz History

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When someone interested in jazz finds a book by Jon Panish and looks at its cover, he or she will see the words "The Color of Jazz", the last of which is written in blue. This title makes one think of what color jazz actually is. Does jazz have a color at all? It may be blue by the essence of music played, but it also has to fit somewhere into the once-divided black-and-white world of America. Is jazz black?

Jazz obviously has "black" origins. Jazz developed out of the African-American cultural tradition (Panish, 1997). Peretti is convinced that jazz should be studied both "in" and "as" culture. Moreover, one should look into the roots of jazz in order to understand it, to see jazz's birthplace and to study the information on jazz pioneers and forefathers in order to distinguish the color of jazz. The roots of jazz appear to descend down the ages and deep into the history of the proto-America, back to the times of slavery. As noted in Peretti (1994), jazz has African roots. When first black slaves were detached from their native country and culture, and transported to America, they attempted to hold to their own roots. Obviously, the Africans were not "cultureless blank states" (Peretti, 1994, p. 11), and they wanted to preserve their cultural identity. Within the overall hostile environment of slave labor exploitation, it was a nearly impossible task. The blacks were put into the position of animals deprived of basic human rights not to mention the right for cultural self-expression within the alien American society. Interestingly enough, the blacks found a way to cultural survival through their religion. Religious traditions of Africans were indivisible from music and dance. Therefore, the American white majority attempted at suppressing the musical component of the religion. Under the pressure of prohibitions of a free self-expression, the musical component of the Africans' existence shifted to the fields of labor instead of vanishing. Moreover, not only the African cultural heritage survived, it started to blend into the American culture, affecting the latter (Peretti, 1994).

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After the abolition of slavery, a new era began in the music life of the former slaves. Using the words of Du Bois, the blacks had a "double consciousness" (as cited in Peretti, 1994, p. 13), which meant they had a high potential of integrating into the so-called mainstream American culture and, at the same time, preserving their cultural distinction. Together with the gradual and complicated social integration, cultural integration became possible and occurred on a daily basis. The American "white" society still rejected and opposed the African heritage, but the process was already unstoppable. At the end of the 19th century, black songwriters, singers and dancers managed to find their place in the musical industry, inter alia, and in minstrel shows. The break of the century brought the break in the evolution of the "black" music, as well. New black music, like ragtime, the blues and jazz originated from those turbulent times of the social change. Peretti (1994) calls jazz and blues "musical cousins", because "they both came to feature specific harmonic and pitch features (blues harmony), melismatic phrasing, and instrumental improvisation" (p. 16). An alternative perspective suggests that blues is the foundation of jazz, as well as the prime source of country music and rock 'n' roll (History of jazz, n.d.). Amazingly, the two latter are considered as the kernel, all-American musical styles, the soul of the western culture and the USA, in particular. Taking into consideration the fact that both country and rock 'n' roll bear a label of predominantly or exclusively "white" music, the association with the African origins is quite an unexpected revelation.

Indeed, the details of jazz's making are obscured and lost in the ages, but the available knowledge allows one to state that jazz has the "black" origins. Despite the inability of scholars and historians to name the particular birth date of jazz, there still exists a consensus on the place of birth. According to numerous sources, jazz was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. Historically, New Orleans became a melting pot of various musical styles such as the blues, folk music, ragtime, church music, and "echoes of traditional African drumming" (History of jazz, n.d.). As envisioned by Wynton Marsalis, all these styles combined to form such a multi-faceted music event as jazz. One more quotation echoes this vision, "Jazz is to American music what the Mississippi is to America, and just as many rivers feed into the Mississippi, music (and musicians) from many cultures came together in the creation of Jazz" (Birthplace of jazz, n.d.). New Orleans was not a random place for jazz to be born. Only here, from among all other places of the New World, there existed a relative freedom of musical expression, drums were not prohibited, and VooDoo rituals were tolerated. The fact that drum set was invented by jazz musicians is an eloquent detail in this puzzle of jazz evolution (History of jazz, n.d.).

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At the moment, it is clear that the only detail upon which most historians agree is the birthplace of jazz. As for the jazz forefathers, the issue is as obscure as the birth date and, in fact, is closely interrelated with the latter. Peretti (1994) said, "If we are to understand jazz's significance, we must above all listen to the creators of the music" (p. 3). Nevertheless, looking through the names can only reveal the great personalities of the jazz traditions rather than name the sole creator. In fact, some specialists argue that jazz was born from Buddy Bolden at the moment he started his first band in 1895. Others believe Nick LaRocca was the pioneer of jazz, and jazz was born when LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first jazz record called "Livery Stable Blues" in 1917. Many others would mention Louis Armstrong, the master of jazz solo improvisation, and call him "the jazz original" (History of jazz, n.d.). By the way, Armstrong was born in New Orleans, which is an eloquent "coincidence". In an attempt to put an end to an endless debate, the authors of the article, on one of the websites dedicated to jazz, write that the only undoubted forefather of jazz is New Orleans (Birthplace of jazz, n.d.).

Arnold Shaw voiced a rather controversial description of the American music tradition, which is applicable to jazz, "…black innovation and white exploitation". Show's quotation accurately reveals the turbulent history of jazz evolution, as well as the American music revolution triggered by the introduction of jazz into the mainstream music culture. As seen from the research and analysis provided above, jazz has the "black" roots and came to America in the hearts and souls of the first Africans who stepped onto the continent in the status of slaves. Jazz was both a voice of the African religious and musical tradition and a response to the new environment into which the bearers of this tradition were put. Jazz developed and incorporated itself into the "purely" American music, absorbing and uniting it with the African music vision. Just like jazz's African forefathers and pioneers soon became African-Americans in the following generations, the "black" jazz itself became a black-and-white music. The "white" majority finally accepted it as a part of its culture. Moreover, it started to consume and exploit it for the purpose of satisfying the "white" musical taste, which evolved with the evolution of the "black" music like jazz, and was now aching for such music. One can see numerous documentaries and fiction movies where African-American jazz bands and solo performers entertain the "white" American elite. In the process of its evolution, jazz also came through the stage of assimilation. As a matter of fact, many non-black performers started to represent this music style. As a result, the photograph of Harry Connick, Jr. can now be seen in one row with the photos of Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Ellis, Wynton and Branford Marsalis.

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The only valid conclusion can be made to sum up all the above mentioned. The article "Birthplace of Jazz" contains a great thought, which refines the debate on the color of jazz. Although jazz was born through and from the "black" African tradition and its bearers, overall, jazz was not a creation of a single man or race. Lastly, the "innovation" and "exploitation" eventually blended into oneness, just like "the black" and "the white" people became the unified American society.

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