It was music unlike any other. Often rather simplistically reduced and pejoratively described as “European instruments played by the African-American” Jazz was anything but. With Buddy Bolden, Mr Jelly Roll, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong (“Satchmo”) it became a singular American form of music that evoked sophisticated African polyrhythms (often erroneously called syncopations), and was also often subsumed by European dance forms – especially the Spanish “Habanera”, the Polish “Polka”, the French and German “Valse” – which had also permeated the rest of the region of from Cuba and Haiti to the rest of the Caribbean (from coast to coast). It is one of the primary reasons for Jelly Roll’s now legendary and revolutionary “Latin tinge”; something that probably unbeknownst to him was being discovered and invoked in the harmonies and rhythms of almost all Afro-Caribbean music too. The distinctive form of Jazz took shape when all of this collided with The Blues.
Early Jazz, as many writers and music historians such as Gunther Schuller who wrote an eponymously titled seminal book on the subject (Oxford University Press, 1968), like to call it, was the beginning of the revolution. It made legends out of Jelly Roll Morton, Box Beiderbecke, Bessie Smith, King Oliver, Satchmo and others. The great legend of the music was, of course, the near-mythical cornet-player and trumpeter Buddy Bolden. He is supposed to have recorded one album but the cylinder on which it was recorded is believed to be lost and remains the Holy Grail of Jazz. Mr Bolden, like Mr Bechet, Mr Oliver and Satchmo marched in many a funeral in New Orleans playing mournful music as the body of the beloved was accompanied to its gravesite, followed by joyous music that accompanied the soul of the dead man (or woman)as it was lifted up to the ancestors. The “Jazz funeral”, an undying part of New Orleans culture even today, featured the now proverbial “Second Line” of snare and bass drummers who played an improvised marching beat behind men like Mr Bolden, Mr Oliver and Satchmo provided the base for the polyrhythms that followed.
The “One-step”, “Riff Chorus” and (“Jubilee) Stomp” became celebrated forms in New Orleans music and started the revolution that came to be “le jazz hot” thrived for decades as the fast, rambunctious and was picked up and refined by the one of the greatest American composers and bandleaders of them all: Duke Ellington, who, along with Fletcher Henderson, Benny Moten and Count Basie not only testified to how far Jazz had spread, but also how sophisticated it was becoming. Clearly the Babel-like dialects of Congo Square and the Jazz of New Orleans was being echoed across the country and being adopted as the lingua franca of musicians across the United States and beyond. Those “King of the Big Band” played fast and furious and people in dance halls and in the aisles of concert halls danced equally furiously, throwing inhibitions to the proverbial winds.
“Swing” became “King” until the states of Kansas, North and South Carolina and Pennsylvania collided in New York in the 1940’s. Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke and the greatest of them all, Charlie Parker, turned Jazz on its head, creating and forever changing the music with what came to be known as Bebop, which despite the many efforts to redefine The Music with aesthetics such as everything “Cool”, “Modal” and the “avant-garde”, remains the last great innovation in Jazz. Today musicians – including virtuoso musicians who grew up as “Jazz” icons are now averse – and rightfully so – to calling the music they play “Jazz”. In fact many musicians starting with a son of New Orleans himself – Nicolas Payton – believe that the music of Jazz ought to be called “Black American Music” in order to distinguish what purists know and believe to be “Jazz” – The “Original” Black American music – from everything else that is being marketed and sold (including by the musicians themselves) as a kind of “pseudo-jazz” – which although rightfully so might be somewhat awkward and take some doing after nearly 125 years of the history of Jazz.