Jazz (Before Jazz)


As we discussed in another week while we were learning about folk and country, the complicated and very often tense relationship between the races in America made crossing the racial lines difficult for musicians and music fans, yet at the same time, musicians of one race were always just a bit more curious what musicians were doing “on the other side.” We learned then about “minstrel shows,” popular in the 19th century, in which white Americans demonstrated their curiosity about African-American music in a less than flattering way by dressing up like slaves and painting their faces black. Groups like Dan Emmet’s Virginia Minstrels oured the nation imitating African-Americans in a shockingly racist way. [Learn more about the history of minstrel shows.]

On the other hand, not only did many white Americans get their first taste of African-American music through minstrel shows, but they also got their first chance to see African-Americans themselves perform that music. Many minstrel show troupes included African-American performers, also most often with their faces pained black, singing their own songs while imitating elements of their own communities for comic effect. Some African American jazz and blues performers came out of late 19th century minstrelry, like ERNEST HOGAN, who we’ll meet below.

At the same, late 19th century African-American composers were listening not only to the African-American music that was part of their slave or creole heritage–“Negro spirituals,” early church music, energizing “call and response”–but to Western Classical music that was prevalent in “high society.” Some, like pianists SCOTT JOPLIN and “JELLY ROLL” MORTON, also developed a particular affinity for Cuban and other Latin rhythms.

Joplin and Morton payed particular attention to two different but related rhythms:

— the tresillo, which is a three beat rhythmic pattern that’s common in sub-Sarahan African music, and which had become prevalent in the African-Latin music in the Caribbean (meet the tresillo here), and
— the habanera, which was a Cuban enhancement of the tresillo–basically, the tresillo rhythm plus another beat–and also the creolized version of a French “contradanza.” Morton called this “The Spanish Tinge.” (Learn about the habanera here. Listen to a famous habanera, “La Paloma.”)

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