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Louis Armstrong, whose gravelly voice took time to sink into the popular imagination


From humble birth
to almost
spoilt adolescence

Jazz grew in unexpected ways in the '20s to become what it is today -- a distinctive, break-free art form

Around 1917, when sound recording was in its infancy, the word "jazz" first turned up on a record. Since the performers called themselves the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), evidently the words "jazz" for a form of music and "Dixieland" for the genre within it specific to New Orleans must have been fairly well known. But since this was music of a sub-culture, its exact origins and even connotations were somewhat obscure.

Thus it was that while jazz was music evolved primarily by blacks, when it came to the business of recording, whites got their foot in the door first. The ODJB's music was pretty far from jazz, and it aleady presaged that there would be a battle ahead to rescue jazz.

Real jazz evolved from a variety of sources. Among the most important was the blues, which was crystallising around the end of the 19th century. It was a song form with a strictly defined structure, consisting of twelve bars with four beats to each bar and setting the melody within a closely defined harmony pattern.

Then there was ragtime, originally a form of piano music in which the melody, played with the right hand, had a different rhythm from the basic beat set out by the left hand striking chords. This idea of "polyrhythm", like the blues, came from the strongly rhythmic West African music of the slaves, now liberated. Other complex ways of staggering the rhythm such as syncopation, or letting the notes of the melody fall just before the beats laid down by the drums, were also of West African origin and fortified the embryo of jazz while it was in the womb.

And then there were the military brass band instruments New Orleans was flooded with after the Civil War and which newly emancipated blacks could pick up on the cheap. As it took shape, with bands such as Edward "Kid" Ory's and Joe "King" Oliver's playing on the streets of New Orleans, or pianists such as "Jelly Roll" Morton and James P Johnson playing indoors, jazz had all these elements -- and something more.

That extra magic element was improvisation. Improvisation meant using the freedom to create while performing, and freedom was what jazz was all about to a formerly enslaved people. The jazz bands of the New Orleans streets did not improvise a great deal. They also did it very simply, in an almost formal way. The whole group (six or seven musicians) would play the theme together, and then the melody instruments (trumpet, trombone, clarinet) would collectively (i.e., simultaneously) improvise, each one playing a variation that kept to the basic harmony. Yet improvisation was what distinguished jazz from the popular music that it almost merged with in the '20s.

Getting Armstrong to do his own thing

By this time jazz had spread all over the United States, first up the Mississippi to Chicago and Kansas, and then to the greatest metropolis of the country, New York. Among those who took it to Chicago was King Oliver, who called over a young disciple, Louis Armstrong. They played some great performances together (both wielding the cornet/ trumpet), but it was left to their ambitious pianist Lil Hardin to prompt the younger man to strike out on his own and incidentally marry her.

She was in Armstrong's band when he invented the great solo introduction to West End Blues that forever turned improvisation in jazz from a simultaneous group effort into a solo art. This was at the end of the '20s, more than ten years before the be-boppers turned solo improvisation into the definition of jazz. But although it was as yet far from being consciously promoted as the essential quality of jazz, its importance to the concept of freedom was instinctively felt.

Armstrong had by this time also started staggering the rhythm of his notes (whether on the trumpet or in singing) away from the basic beat, riding over it irregularly but in a natural sounding fashion.

Meanwhile, away from New Orleans and especially in New York, jazz musicians had started playing together in big bands, much larger than the six-to-eight strong Dixieland outfits. Three or four trombones, as many trumpets, and four saxophones plus a clarinet did service where a trombone, a trumpet, and a clarinet had sufficed. Big bands made for a variety and fulness of instrumental sounds, and syncopation gave a light touch to the music. It made the music and the dancers "swing", and that's what this form of jazz was called.

But not all swing was jazz as we would know it, because the great success swing was enjoying also blurred the line between jazz and pop. The white bands, for instance, were the most successful commercially, but were content to give dancers a light swinging feeling without putting into the performance the fire and creativity that early jazz had instinctively displayed. Black bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, who had a highly original conception of varying the sound textures used from one piece to another or within a piece, and Fletcher Henderson and Bennie Moten, who concentrated on the swing feeling, prevented the role of improvisation from being minimised. But the big money was in the swing being played by whites.

Hitting bigtime on the radio

Henderson threw in the towel and closed shop. He sold all his compositions to a Russian Jewish immigrant called Benny Goodman and joined the latter's band. Goodman hit the big time with a genuine jazz programme on nationwide radio. He was the first highly popular exponent of real jazz with improvisation. Soon he was followed by Count Basie, who had inherited Moten's outfit and turned into the greatest swinger of the swing age. His band's work was marked by the fullest use of solos before the age of be-bop.

Be-bop had to be invented because the distinctive identity of jazz needed rescuing from the confusion with non-jazz swing. But Ellington and Basie, the great innovators of the swing age, survived the be-bop whirlwind and went on performing to enthusiastic audiences for three decades or more after the storm. They lived on and thrived through the revolution because their work was about more than the good time that jazz undoubtedly offered its listeners. It was full of the creativity that strolled hand in hand with a good time through the crowds in the streets of New Orleans.


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