The American Sound: The Evolution of Jazz

By Cecilia Padilla
There is nothing so uniquely American as jazz music. In its simplest form, jazz embodies the essence of the American people: bold and inventive. The improvisation of the jazz ensemble can even be seen as a metaphor for the American democratic ideal: musicians playing solos have the liberty to express themselves as long as they adhere to the overall structure of the tune—individual freedom but with responsibility to the group. The evolution of jazz music also carries with it the social development of our nation from slavery to the swinging songs of World War II. Musically, jazz contributed immensely to the way contemporary musicians approach instrumentation, composition, and vocal arrangements. It is difficult to find a popular tune today that does not derive from such jazz icons as Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk. Jazz is the great equalizer; for more than a hundred years, it has been the common ground between blacks and whites, men and women, radicals and conservatives.

African American man sitting outside playing a banjo.
Photo by V.G. Schreck, 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress. 
The early origins of jazz trace back to two sources in New Orleans history: African slaves and Creole descendants. By 1808, the Atlantic slave trade had brought half a million Africans to the United States, where they were forced to work on southern plantations. While working in the fields, slaves sang work songs that combined African tribal chants with Christian hymns incorporated from the Southern Baptist Church. Together, these influences created Negro spirituals that had strong, percussive beats and were accompanied by intense physical dancing. White slave owners felt that this music and dance distracted slaves from their work, and in New Orleans, slaves’ participation in Negro spirituals was confined by law to Congo Square in 1817. The strong, rhythmic music played in Congo Square remains a distinctive tone in jazz today. 
After the abolition of slavery in 1865, the United States was confronted with the need to rebuild the nation out of the wreckage of the Civil War. The Reconstruction Era was a period of revitalization of the U.S. economy and government, as well as the redefinition of race relations between blacks and whites. In New Orleans, this racial reconsideration influenced the sound of jazz. Creoles, the light-skinned descendants of white French and Spanish colonists who had had sex with their black female slaves, identified more with their European roots than with their African ancestry. They often looked down on their dark-skinned counterparts and avoided association with slave stereotypes. Many Creoles were classically trained in music and played with the elegance of European orchestras, which became a means of distancing themselves from “crude” slave music. The blending of Negro spirituals and Creole classical music, along with Civil War military marches, would contribute to a new genre: ragtime.
In the 1890s, pianists in New Orleans took to playing this new style of music set to syncopated rhythms—previously unaccented beats were now strongly accented. This gave the tunes ragged rhythms, hence the term “ragtime.” First circulated by itinerant musicians, ragtime songs were eventually printed as sheet music, something that had not been done for Negro spirituals. Ragtime was popularized by Scott Joplin, who composed the iconic tune “The Entertainer.” The genre’s syncopated musical meter remains one of jazz’s defining characteristics. 
*To read more about the evolution of jazz, click here to purchase a hard or digital copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. All proceeds go to our ACTsmart education programs, serving teachers and students throughout the Bay Area. 

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