MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

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New Orleans-Style Jazz (1900-1930)
This unit includes pages on the first two important periods in jazz history. This is Part One, on the New Orleans Style (1900-1930).

Part Two is about the Swing era of the 1930s and 1940s.

Assignment #51 asks you thirteen questions! Link will open in a new tab.

We've already listened to "Dippermouth Blues," a recording from 1923 by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. This performance is typical of our first historical period, which used to be called Dixieland Jazz but is now more commonly called Traditional or New Orleans-Style.

New Orleans

Royal Street in New Orleans

Jazz was developed in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, by musicians who gathered together in small bands in order to play all of the fashionable party music of the day, including recent African-American inventions like the Blues and Ragtime. As all of these styles started to meld together and the instrumentalists started to emphasize more and more improvisation, this practice became recognizable as an exciting new thing.

Buddy Bolden (1877-1931)

Bolden (back row, second from left) and his band

Buddy Bolden is often described as the first leader of a jazz band. He played trumpet, and he is credited with organizing his band in the typical format with brass, woodwinds, and a rhythm section.

One anecdote about Bolden that people like to tell is the way he would play a loud horn call out into the neighborhood before each performance started, in order to drum up excitement and "call his children home."

Sadly, he was only active as a musician until around 1907, and then problems with his mental health took him away from the music world. No audio recording of Bolden survives.

Storyville and Beyond

A Storyville madam photographed ca. 1915

The area in New Orleans where jazz really thrived was known as Storyville. This was the "red light district" where prostitution was more-or-less legal, and it was located next to a major train station. People would travel from all over and show up ready to party at the various clubs, bars, and brothels. Live music provided added entertainment in all of these places.

However, in 1917 the city of New Orleans shut down Storyville, and musicians lost a lot of work. This motivated some to leave and travel up the Mississippi River to cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and Chicago. These places also became early hotbeds for jazz, and it was in Chicago that the first jazz records were made.

The Sound of Early Jazz

Let's go back to "Dippermouth Blues" and focus on the characteristics that define the New Orleans Style. One thing you might notice is that the instrumentation is a little different from what you might typically expect in a jazz band.

Spotify Link

Clarinet - We probably think of the saxophone as the quintessential jazz instrument, but in the early 20th century it was not very common, yet. Instead, we get clarinet as our main woodwind.

Banjo - Meanwhile, in the rhythm section we need something that can play chords. Nowadays it is very common to use a guitar, but New Orleans musicians also liked the banjo, probably because it was louder.

Sometimes tuba - We also need an instrument that can play the bass line. Early jazz records sometimes use a tuba for this purpose. This relates to the marching band origins of jazz - even today it is traditional to play jazz in the street in New Orleans, and the tuba is a bass instrument that you can march with.

Not a lot of drums - What you won't hear on these early records is a lot of drums. This is due to the relatively simple recording technology they had at the time - musicians would essentially crowd around a single microphone and do "one take" with no possibility to mix or edit. If the drummer played too loud, it would cover up all of the other instruments, so he would be strictly limited to a single cymbal or woodblock, or left out entirely.

So if you hear a lot of these instruments, that is a pretty clear signal that you are listening to New Orleans-style jazz. The clarinet would remain popular throughout the swing era, but banjo and tuba in particular are really trademarks of this early style.

In addition, there are two more aspects I want to point out.

Ragtime-y Beat - The groove of early jazz is not quite the swinging beat we are familiar with. It still owes a lot to ragtime. I like to call it the "oom-pah" pattern, where the oom is a bass note and the pah is a chord, like so:

Everyone improvises at once - Another telltale aspect of early jazz is sections where all of the musicians improvise at the same time, creating a somewhat chaotic, polyphonic mass of sound. In "Dippermouth Blues" we hear this right away - at 0:08 everyone begins to play different parts, and they all have their own role. The trumpet has the melody, the trombone slides up and down, and the clarinet plays arpeggios, and it all fits together into a raucous and spontaneous whole.

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

We've already noted that Louis Armstrong was playing trumpet in King Oliver's Band in 1923, and by 1925 he was leading his own group, called Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five. The Hot Five (as well as his slightly-expanded band, the Hot Seven) recorded a series of tracks that are crucial documents in jazz history.

The most striking aspect of these records is Armstrong himself, as both an entertainer and improviser. He sings on many of them, and as we'll see he even "scats" solos in the abstract doodlybop language of jazz. But also, his trumpet playing at this time is very advanced, weaving complex lines through the harmonies that are head-and-shoulders above what other people are doing.

Let's listen to "Hotter Than That" from 1927.

The structure of a typical jazz performance

A jazz performance is usually a lot like one of our Classic-period Theme and Variations. It's going to be based on a short composition which we'll call our tune. The musicians start by presenting the tune in a fairly straightforward manner. Then they take turns improvising on the structure of the tune. They cycle through this structure over and over again, creating a series of spontaneous variations, and at the end they return to the tune and play it one more time.

Each pass through the structure of the tune is called a "chorus."

Here I'll draw the structure of "Hotter Than That." Each of these little boxes is a measure with four beats. The overall structure is 32 measures long with two breaks in there. The roman numerals indicate changes in the harmonies.

Of course I have dreams of animating this diagram along with the music, but I've never had a chance to make it. Play the track again and see if you can follow the structure. The introduction plays through the last eight measures, and then we are at the top.

The scat singing

After the clarinet solo, Armstrong steps to the mic and starts "scatting," singing an improvised solo with a vocabulary of abstract syllables that sound a lot like an instrument playing. He is credited with inventing this practice and was the first to record it.

What's remarkable about Armstrong's scat solo is that it's really good! It's the same sort of thing he would play on his trumpet. I think that this was part of the secret agenda of scatting, that it was a way of saying "We are playing by ear. We can play what we hear, and we can sing what we play."

At 1:57 Armstrong pauses to "trade twos" with the guitarist Lonnie Johnson. The guitarist tries to echo and respond back to what Armstrong is singing.

A more contemporary performance in the New Orleans Style

Let's listen to one more performance, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Wynton's mission is to preserve and recreate the past styles of jazz history and bring them back to life, and this video accomplishes that very well, I think.

One thing we gain from a more modern recording is the ability to hear the drums. Herlin Riley starts us off with a really fun drum solo in which you can hear a marching band influence.

Once we get rolling we'll hear our signature NOLA-style instruments, clarinet and banjo. The clarinet player engages in a little call-and-response with the band (from 3:04-3:45), we get a banjo solo, and eventually we hear some choruses where everyone is improvising simultaneously (5:08-6:58).

Overall the effect is maybe more vivid and fun than our scratchy old records.

Moving on to the Swing era

Part II covers the 1930s and 40s, when jazz became mainstream popular entertainment.

Assignment #51 will ask you about this page and the next one.

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