The History of Jazz
By Ted Gioia
Chapter One: The Prehistory of Jazz
The Africanization of American Music
An elderly black man sits astride a large cylindrical drum. Using his fingers and the edge of his hand, he jabs repeatedly at the drum head--which is around a foot in diameter and probably made from an animal skin--evoking a throbbing pulsation with rapid, sharp strokes. A second drummer, holding his instrument between his knees, joins in, playing with the same staccato attack. A third black man, seated on the ground, plucks at a string instrument, the body of which is roughly fashioned from a calabash. Another calabash has been made into a drum, and a woman heats at it with two short sticks. One voice, then other voices join in. A dance of seeming contradictions accompanies this musical give-and-take, a moving hieroglyph that appears, on the one hand, informal and spontaneous yet, on closer inspection, ritualized and precise. It is a dance of massive proportions. A dense crowd of dark bodies forms into circular groups--perhaps five or six hundred individuals moving in time to the pulsations of the music, some swaying gently, others aggressively stomping their feet. A number of women in the group begin chanting.
The scene could be Africa. In fact, it is nineteenth-century New Orleans. Scattered firsthand accounts provide us with tantalizing details of these slave dances that took place in the open area then known as Congo Square--today Louis Armstrong Park stands on roughly the same ground--and there are perhaps no more intriguing documents in the history of African-American music. Benjamin Latrobe, the noted architect, witnessed one of these collective dances on February 21, 1819, and not only left a vivid written account of the event, but made several sketches of the instruments used. These drawings confirm that the musicians of Congo Square, circa 1819, were playing percussion and string instruments virtually identical to those characteristic of indigenous African music. Later documents add to our knowledge of the public slave dances in New Orleans but still leave many questions unanswered--some of which, in time, historical research may be able to cast light on while others may never be answered. One thing, however, is clear. Although we are inclined these days to view the intersection of European-American and African currents in music as a theoretical, almost metaphysical issue, these storied accounts of the Congo Square dances provide us with a real time and place, an actual transfer of totally African ritual to the native soil of the New World.
The dance itself, with its clusters of individuals moving in a circular pattern--the largest less than ten feet in diameter--harkens back to one of the most pervasive ritual ceremonies of Africa. This rotating, counterclockwise movement has been noted by ethnographers under many guises in various parts of the continent. In the Americas, the dance became known as the ring shout, and its appearance in New Orleans is only one of many documented instances. This tradition persisted well into the twentieth century: John and Alan Lomax recorded a ring shout in Louisiana for the Library of Congress in 1934 and attended others in Texas, Georgia, and the Bahamas. As late as the 1950s, jazz scholar Marshall Stearns witnessed unmistakable examples of the ring shout in South Carolina.
The Congo Square dances were hardly so long-lived. Traditional accounts indicate that they continued, except for an interruption during the Civil War, until around 1885. Such a chronology implies that their disappearance almost coincided with the emergence of the first jazz bands in New Orleans. More recent research argues for an earlier cutoff date for the practice, probably before 1870, although the dances may have continued for some time in private gatherings. In any event, this transplanted African ritual lived on as part of the collective memory and oral history of the city's black community, even among those too young to have participated in it. These memories shaped, in turn, the jazz performers' self-image, their sense of what it meant to be an African-American musician. "My grandfather, that's about the furthest I can remember back," wrote the renowned New Orleans reed player Sidney Bechet in his autobiography, Treat It Gentle. "Sundays when the slaves would meet--that was their free day--he beat out rhythms on the drums at the square--Congo Square they called it.... He was a musician. No one had to explain notes or feeling or rhythm to him. It was all there inside him, something he was always sure of."
Within eyesight of Congo Square, Buddy Bolden--who legend and scattered first-person accounts credit as the earliest jazz musician--performed with his pioneering band at Globe Hall. The geographical proximity is misleading. The cultural gap between these two types of music is dauntingly wide. By the time Bolden and Bechet began playing jazz, the Americanization of African music had already begun, and with it came the Africanization of American music--a synergistic process that we will study repeatedly and at close quarters in the pages that follow. Anthropologists call this process "syncretism"--the blending together of cultural elements that previously existed separately. This dynamic, so essential to the history of jazz, remains powerful even in the present day, when African-American styles of performance blend seamlessly with other musics of other cultures, European, Asian, Latin, and, coming full circle, African.
The mixture of African and European culture began, of course, long before the slave dances in Congo Square--in fact, at least one thousand years prior to the founding of New Orleans in 1718. The question of African influence on ancient Western culture has become a matter of heated debate in recent years--with much of the dispute centering on arcane methodological and theoretical issues. But once again, careful students of history need not rely on abstract analysis to discover early cultural mergings of African and European currents. The North African conquest of the Iberian peninsula in the eighth century left a tangible impact on Europe--evident even today in the distinctive qualities of Spanish architecture, painting, and music. Had not Charles Martel repelled the Moorish forces in the south of France at the Battle of Tours in 732 A.D., this stylized cultural syncretism might have become a pan-European force. If not for "the genius and fortune" of this one man, historian Gibbon would declare in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Moorish fleet "might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames" and "the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford."
As it turned out, the spread of African currents into the broader streams of Western culture took far longer to unfold, spurred in large part by defeat rather than conquest--not by triumphant naval fleets toppling the continental powers, but by the dismal commerce of slave ships headed for the New World. Yet the traces of the early Moorish incursion may have laid the groundwork for the blossoming of African-American jazz more than a millennium later. Can it be mere coincidence that this same commingling of Spanish, French, and African influences was present in New Orleans at the birth of jazz? Perhaps because of this marked Moorish legacy, Latin cultures have always seemed receptive to fresh influences from Africa. Indeed, in the area of music alone, the number of successful African and Latin hybrids (including salsa, calypso, samba, and cumbia, to name only a few) is so great that one can only speculate that these two cultures retain a residual magnetic attraction, a lingering affinity due to this original cross-fertilization. Perhaps this convoluted chapter of Western history also provides us with the key for unlocking that enigmatic claim by Jelly Roll Morton, the pioneering New Orleans jazz musician, who asserted that "if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never he able to act the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz." Around the time of Morton's birth, a massive Mexican cavalry band performed daily in free concerts at the Mexican Pavilion as part of the 1884-85 World's Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. Hart's music store on Canal Street published over eighty Mexican compositions during this period, influencing local instrumentalists and providing one more link in the complex history of interlocking Latin and African-American musical styles. Beyond its purely musicological impact, the Latin-Catholic culture, whose influence permeated nineteenth-century New Orleans, benignly fostered the development of jazz music. This culture, which bore its own scars of discrimination, was far more tolerant in accepting unorthodox social hybrids than the English-Protestant ethos that prevailed in other parts of the New World. Put simply, the music and dances of Congo Square would not have been allowed in the more Anglicized colonies of the Americas.
Less than a half century after the city's founding, in 1764, New Orleans was ceded by France to Spain. In 1800, Napoleon succeeded in forcing its return from Spain, but this renewed French control lasted only three years before possession passed to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. As a result, French and Spanish settlers played a decisive role in shaping the distinctive ambiance of New Orleans during the early nineteenth century, but settlers from Germany, Italy, England, Ireland, and Scotland also made substantial contributions to the local culture. The city's black inhabitants were equally diverse: many were brought directly from various parts of Africa, some were native-born Americans, still others came to the United States via the Caribbean. Civil unrest in Hispaniola was an especially powerful force in bringing new immigrants, both black and white, to New Orleans: in 1805, alone, as many as six thousand refugees fleeing the Haitian revolution arrived in the city, after being forced to leave Cuba. The resulting amalgam--an exotic mixture of European, Caribbean, African, and American elements--made Louisiana into perhaps the most seething ethnic melting pot that the nineteenth-century world could produce. This cultural gumbo would serve as breeding ground for many of the great hybrid musics of modern times; not just jazz, but also cajun, zydeco, blues, and other new styles flourished as a result of this laissez-faire environment. In this warm, moist atmosphere, sharp delineations between cultures gradually softened and ultimately disappeared. Today, New Orleans residents of Irish descent celebrate St. Patrick's Day by parading in a traditional African-American "second line"--and none of the locals are at all surprised. The masquerades of Mardi Gras are a fitting symbol for this city, where the most familiar cultural artifacts appear in the strangest garb.
Yet the most forceful creative currents in this society came from the African-American underclass. Should this surprise us? The musician's "special" role as slave or lunatic, outsider or pariah, hats a long tradition dating back to ancient times. As recently as the twentieth century, some cultures retained religious prohibitions asserting the "uncleanliness" of believers eating at the same table as musicians. Yet the role of slave labor in the production of African-American song makes for an especially sad chapter in this melancholy history. The presence of Africans in the New World, the first documented instance of which took place in Jamestown in 1619, predated the arrival of the Pilgrims by one year. By 1807, some 400,000 native-born Africans had been brought to America, most of them transported from West Africa. Forcibly taken away from their homeland, deprived of their freedom, and torn from the social fabric that had given structure to their lives, these transplanted Americans clung with even greater fervor to those elements of their culture that they could carry with them from Africa. Music and folk tales were among the most resilient of these. Even after family, home, and possessions were taken away, they remained.
In this context, the decision of the New Orleans City Council, in 1817, to establish an official site for slave dances stands out as an exemplary degree of tolerance. In other locales, African elements in the slaves' music were discouraged or explicitly suppressed. During the Stono Rebellion of 1739, drums had been used to signal an attack on the white population. Anxious to prevent further uprisings, South Carolina banned any use of drums by slaves. The Georgia slave code went even further in prohibiting not only drums, but also horns or loud instruments. Religious organizations also participated in the attempt to control the African elements of the slaves' music. The Hymns and Spiritual Songs of Dr. Isaac Watts, published in various colonial editions beginning in the early 1700s, was frequently used as a way of "converting" African Americans to more edifying examples of Western music.
We are fortunate that these attempts bore little success. Indeed, in many cases, the reverse of the intended effect took place: European idioms were transformed and enriched by the African tradition on which they were grafted. Alan Lomax, the pioneering scholar and preserver of African-American music, writes:
Blacks had Africanized the psalms to such an extent that many observers described black lining hymns as a mysterious African music. In the first place, they so prolonged and quavered the texts of the hymns that only a recording angel could make out what was being sung. Instead of performing in an individualized sort of unison or heterophony, however, they blended their voices in great unified streams of tone. There emerged a remarkable kind of harmony, in which every singer was performing variations on the melody at his or her pitch, yet all these ornaments contributed to a polyphony of many ever changing strands--surging altogether like seaweed swinging with the waves or a leafy tree responding to a strong wind. Experts have tried and failed to transcribe this river-like style of polyphony. It rises from a group in which all singers can improvise together, each one contributing something personal to an ongoing collective effect--a practice common in African and African-American tradition. The outcome is music as powerful and original as jazz, but profoundly melancholy, for it was sung into being by hard-pressed people.
This ability of African performance arts to transform the European tradition of composition while assimilating some of its elements is perhaps the most striking and powerful evolutionary force in the history of modern music. The genres of music that bear the marks of this influence are legion. Let's name a few: gospel, spirituals, soul, rap, minstrel songs, Broadway musicals, ragtime, jazz, blues, R&B, rock, samba, reggae, salsa, cumbia, calypso, even some contemporary operatic and symphonic music.
The history of jazz is closely intertwined with many of these other hybrid genres, and tracing the various genealogies can prove dauntingly complex. For example, minstrel shows, which developed in the decades before the Civil War, found white performers in blackface mimicking, and most often ridiculing, the music, dance, and culture of the slave population. Often the writer of minstrel songs worked with little actual knowledge of southern black music. A surprising number of these composers hailed from the Northeast, and the most celebrated writer of minstrel-inflected songs, Stephen Foster, created a powerful, romanticized image of southern folk life, yet his experience with the South was restricted to a brief interlude spent in Kentucky and a single trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Later generations of black entertainers, influenced by the popularity of these secondhand evocations of their own culture, imitated in turn the white stereotypes of African-American behavior. Thus, in its impact on early jazz, minstrel music presents a rather convoluted situation: a black imitation of a white caricature of black music exerts its influence on another hybrid form of African and European music.
The work song, another frequently cited predecessor to jazz, is more purely African in nature--so much so, that some examples recorded in the southern United States earlier this century seem to show almost no European or American influence. This ritualized vocalizing of black American workers, with its proud disregard for Western systems of notation and scales, comes in many variants: field hollers, levee camp hollers, prison work songs, street cries, and the like. This entire category of singing has all but disappeared in our day, yet the few recordings extant reveal a powerful, evocative, and comparatively undiluted form of African music in the Americas.
Generalizations about African music are tricky at best. Many commentators have treated the culture of West Africa as though it were a homogenous and unified body of practices. In fact, many different cultures contribute to the traditions of West Africa. However, a few shared characteristics stand out, amid this plurality, in any study of African music--with many of these same elements reappearing, in a somewhat different guise, in jazz. For example, call-and-response forms that predominate in African music figure as well in the work song, the blues, jazz, and other Americanized strains of African music; yet, in its original African form, the call-and-response format is as much a matter of social integration as an issue of musical structure. It reflects a culture in which the fundamental Western separation of audience from performers is transcended. This brings us to a second unifying element of African musical traditions: the integration of performance into the social fabric. In this light, African music takes on an aura of functionality, one that defies any "pure" aesthetic attempting to separate art from social needs. Yet, since these functions are often tied to rituals and other liminal experiences, music never falls into the mundane type of functionality--background music in the dentist's office, accompaniment to a television commercial, and so on--that one sees increasingly in the West. Integrated into ritual occasions, music retains its otherworldliness for the African, its ability to transcend the here and now. The cross-fertilization between music and dance is a third unifying theme in the traditional African cultures--so deeply ingrained that scholar John Miller Chernoff remarks that, for an African, "understanding" a certain type of music means, in its most fundamental sense, knowing what dance it accompanies. A fourth predominant feature of African music is the use of instruments to emulate the human voice; this technique, which also plays a key role in jazz music, even extends to percussion instruments, most notably in the kalangu, the remarkable talking drum of West Africa. An emphasis on improvisation and spontaneity is a further shared trait of different African musical cultures, and these too have figured prominently in--and, to some extent, have come to define--the later jazz tradition.
However, the most prominent characteristic, the core element of African music, is its extraordinary richness of rhythmic content. It is here one discovers the essence of the African musical heritage, as well as the key to unlocking the mystery of its tremendous influence on so many disparate schools of twentieth-century Western music. The first Western scholars who attempted to come to grips with this rhythmic vitality, whether in its African or Americanized form, struggled merely to find a vocabulary and notational method to encompass it. Henry Edward Krehbiel, author of an early study of African-American folk songs, conveys the frustration of these endeavors in describing the African musicians he encountered at the World's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893:
The players showed the most remarkable rhythmical sense and skill that ever came under my notice. Berlioz in his supremest effort with his army of drummers produced nothing to compare in artistic interest with the harmonious drumming of these savages. The fundamental effect was a combination of double and triple time, the former kept by the singers, the latter by the drummers, but it is impossible to convey the idea of the wealth of detail achieved by the drummers by means of the exchange of the rhythms, syncopations of both simultaneously, and dynamic devices.
Krehbiel engaged the services of John C. Fillmore, an expert in Indian music, in an attempt to notate the playing of these musicians, but eventually they gave up in despair. "I was forced to the conclusion," Krehbiel later recalled, in an account in which irritation and awe are present in equal doses, "that in their command of the [rhythmic] element, which in the musical art of the ancient Greeks stood higher than either melody or harmony, the best composers of today were the veriest tyros compared with these black savages."
The language of certain Eskimo tribes, we are told, has dozens of words for "snow"--where other cultures see only an undifferentiated substance, they perceive subtle differences and a plethora of significations. Similarly, for the African, virtually every object of day-to-day life could be a source of rhythm, an instrument of percussion, and an inspiration for the dance. The tools and implements with which the African subdued the often hostile surrounding environment may well have been the first sources of instrumental music on our planet. Here we perhaps come to realize the hidden truth in the double meaning of the word "instrument," which signifies both a mechanism for subduing nature and a device for creating sound. We begin with the given: shells, flints, animal hides, trees, stones, sticks. And we end up with a dazzling array of instruments, both implements used in day-to-day life--weapons, tools, wheels, building devices--and in music-making--drums, rattles, scrapers, gongs, clappers, friction instruments, percussion boards, and the like. But even earlier, the human body itself must have served as a rich source of musical sound. "Despite the non-African's conception of African music in terms of drums," historian John Storm Roberts points out, "the African instruments most often used by the greatest number of people in the greatest variety of societies are the human voice and the human hands, used for clapping." Both approaches to music--one that reached out and found it in the external world, the second that drew it from the physiological characteristics of the human form came with the African to America.
In the 1930s, researchers working for the Federal Writers' Project undertook a comprehensive program of recording the memoirs of former slaves. This collection, housed today at the Archive of Folksong at the Library of Congress, provides telling insight into this distinctive African-American ability--strikingly similar to native African practices--to extract music from the detritus of day-to-day life. "There wasn't no music instruments," reads the oral history of former slave Wash Wilson, Drums were fashioned out of a variety of discarded items: "pieces of sheep's rib or cow's jaw or a piece of iron, with an old kettle, or a hollow gourd and some horsehairs."
Sometimes they'd get a piece of tree trunk and hollow it out and stretch a goat's or sheep's skin over it for the drum. They'd be one to four foot high and a foot up to six foot across. . . . They'd take the buffalo horn and scrape it out to make the flute. That sho' be heard a long ways off. Then they'd take a mule's jawbone and rattle the stick across its teeth. They'd take a barrel and stretch an ox's hide across one end and a man sat astride the barrel and beat on that hide with his hands and his feet and if he got to feel the music in his bones, he'd beat on that barrel with his head. Another man beat on wooden sides with sticks.
In African music, in both its original and its various Americanized forms, different beats are frequently superimposed, creating powerful polyrhythms that are perhaps the most striking and moving element of African music. In the same way that Bach might intermingle different but interrelated melodies in creating a fugue, an African ensemble would construct layer upon layer of rhythmic patterns, forging a counterpoint of time signatures, a polyphony of percussion. We will encounter this multiplicity of rhythm again and again in our study of African-American music, from the lilting syncopations of ragtime, to the diverse of offbeat accents of the bebop drummer, to the jarring cross-rhythms of the jazz avant-garde.
Theorists of rhythm often dwell on its liberating and Dionysian element, but the history of rhythm as a source of social control and power has yet to be written. The historian Johan Huizinga hypothesized that the introduction of drums into the ranks of soldiers marked the end of the feudal age of chivalry and signaled the beginning of modern warfare, with its coordinated regiments and precise military discipline. Perhaps the subdued and steady rhythms of modern office music--and is not Muzak the work song of our own age?--serve today to exert a subtle control over the white-collar worker of post-industrialized society In any event, both aspects of rhythm--on the one hand, as a source of liberation and, on the other, as a force of discipline and control--make their presence felt in African-American music. The work song was the melody of disciplined labor, and even here its source could be traced back to Africa. "The African tradition, like the European peasant tradition, stressed hard work and derided laziness in any form," writes historian Eugene D. Genovese in his seminal study of slave society Roll, Jordan, Roll. The celebration of labor, inherent in the African-American work song, must otherwise seem strangely out of place coming from an oppressed race consigned to the indignities of slavery. But as soon as one sees the song of work as part of an inherently African approach to day-to-day life, one that integrates music into the occupations of here and now, this paradox disappears entirely.
If the work song reflects rhythm as a source of discipline, the blues represents the other side of African rhythms, the Dionysian side that offered release. More than any of the other forms of early African-American music, the blues allowed the performer to present an individual statement of pain, oppression, poverty, longing, and desire. Yet it achieved all this without falling into self-pity and recriminations. Instead the idiom offered a catharsis, an idealization of the individual's plight, and, in some strange way, an uplifting sense of mastery over the melancholy circumstances recounted in the context of the blues song. In this regard, the blues offers us a psychological enigma as profound as any posed by classical tragedy. How art finds fulfillment--for both artist and audience--by dwelling on the oppressive and the tragic has been an issue for speculation at least since the time of Aristotle. Simply substitute the word "blues" for "tragedy" in most of these discussions, and we find ourselves addressing the same questions, only now in the context of African-American music.
Country Blues and Classic Blues
The early accounts of slave music are strangely silent about the blues. But should this be any cause of surprise, especially when one considers the use of this idiom to articulate personal statements against oppression and injustice? Although the blues dates back to the nineteenth century, our best sense of what the earliest blues songs sounded like comes primarily from country blues recordings made in the 1920s and after. Many historians of African-American music have invested much effort into finding even more primitive roots to the blues, into unlocking the hidden unwritten, unrecorded history of this fascinating music. Some, such as Samuel Charters, have even journeyed to West Africa in an attempt to discover surviving traces of the pre-slave origins of this music. The theories of such researchers, discussed in more detail below, are compelling as quasi-mythic interpretations of the origin of the blues. Yet in presenting an actual lineage of influence, they remain speculative at best. Given our deep ignorance of the true "birth" of the blues, we perhaps do best by focusing on the comparatively modern recordings, by musicians such as Robert Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton, Son House, and Leadbelly, among others.
The term "blues" is often used to refer to any sad or mournful song. As such, it is one of the most frequently misused terms in music. For a contemporary musician, the term "blues" refers to a precise twelve-bar form that relies heavily on tonic, dominant, and subdominant harmonies. The blues are further characterized by the prevalence of "blue" notes: often described as the use, in the earliest blues, of both the major and minor third in the vocal line, along with the flatted seventh; the flatted fifth, most accounts indicate, later became equally prominent as a blue note. In fact, this stock description is also somewhat misleading. In country blues, the major and minor thirds were not used interchangeably; instead the musician might often employ a "bent" note that would slide between these two tonal centers, or create a tension by emphasizing the minor third in a context in which the harmony implied a major tone. Much speculation has been offered as to the historical origin of this powerful and unique melodic device--some commentators, for example, have suggested that this technique originated when the newly arrived slaves tried to reconcile an African pentatonic scale with the Western diatonic scale, with the result being two areas of tonal ambiguity, around the third and seventh intervals, that evolved into the modern "blue" notes. In any event, this effect, which is impossible to notate, is one of the most gut-wrenching sounds in twentieth-century music. Given its visceral impact, it is little cause for surprise that the device soon spread beyond the blues idiom into jazz and many other forms of popular music.
When sung, as it usually was in its earliest form, the blues employs a specific stanza form for its lyrics in which an initial line is stated, then repeated, and then followed with a rhyming line. For example, Robert Johnson sings in his blues "Drunken Hearted Man":
My father died and left me, my poor mother done the best that she could.
My father died and left me, my poor mother done the best she could.
Every man likes that game you call love, but it don't mean no man no good.
The form is capable not only of heartfelt lament, but also poetic subtlety, as in the expressive opening chorus sung by blues singer Sippie Wallace in "Morning Dove Blues," her 1925 collaboration with New Orleans cornetist King Oliver:
Early in the morning, I rise like a morning dove;
Early in the morning, I rise like a morning dove;
Moaning and singing about the man I love.
In later years, this form would become known as the twelve-bar blues, with each of the three lyrics taking up four bars. But with the earliest country blues singers, the metrics were approximate at best. In a Robert Johnson or Blind Lemon Jefferson performance, a blues stanza might take twelve bars, twelve and a half bars, thirteen bars, even fifteen bars or more. To a musician raised in the European/Western tradition, such liberties with the length of a song form are almost unthinkable. They violate the ingrained assumption that a song must have a predetermined length and that this length must be the same every time the song is played. But these early blues artists came from a different tradition, building from work songs and other call-and-response forms that had an organic structure, one that no more followed a pattern of perfect symmetry than did the branches of a tree or the warbles of a songbird. Indeed, musicians coming from such traditions often have trouble playing with others--and numerous early country blues musicians were accused of not being able to keep time when they played in group settings--but these criticisms missed the essence of this music, which did not require elaborate band arrangements. Accompanying themselves on guitar, players such as Johnson or Leadbelly could add or subtract beats without worrying about whether other musicians would follow them. A tight ensemble sound was not central to their music. Instead they focused on creating a powerful music of personal expression, one in which the individualized metrics became akin to the natural pauses employed in breathing and speaking.
Robert Johnson remains the best known of the Mississippi Delta blues singers--so much so that a 1990 reissue of his recordings became an international best-seller and achieved surprising crossover sales to fans of rock and heavy-metal music. Such fame contrasts with the semi-obscurity of Johnson's music during his lifetime. Born on May 8, 1911, in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, Johnson left behind only a few dozen recordings, all of them set down in a Texas hotel during November 1936 and June 1937. Only one of these, "Terraplane Blues," achieved significant sales during Johnson's lifetime. After his death on August 16, 1938, Johnson's impact grew with the passing years, and other performances of his, such as "Love in Vain" and "Hellhound on My Trail," have achieved a widespread influence far beyond the confines of jazz and blues. The themes of his lyrics--unrequited love, traveling, the vagaries of fate--have a timeless quality; his richly rhythmic guitar work remains an inspirational model of blues playing; the authenticity of his singing is unsurpassed.
Johnson, despite his accepted position as the paragon of the Delta blues, is actually a fairly late example of this musical tradition. The recordings of Charlie Patton represent an earlier, less urbanized stream in the Delta blues tradition. Patton, who was born in Hinds County, Mississippi, probably in April 1891, was twenty years older than Johnson. Although his recordings date from the late 1920s until his death in 1934, Patton actually began his performing career over two decades earlier, at a time when he retained close ties to plantation life. Patton achieved a fair degree of notoriety in the Mississippi Delta and came to exert a strong influence on a number of other Delta blues players, such as Willie Brown, Tommy Johnson, and Son House, a musical partner of Patton's who later served as teacher and mentor to Robert Johnson.
The two cornerstones of Patton's music were his subtly propulsive guitar style and his rich and relaxed singing, in which melodic phrases were often intermingled with spoken asides. He combined these two elements in a pointed counterpoint of vocal and instrumental music. The effect was that of an artful conversation between the man and his guitar, a dialogue that harkened back to the pervasive African call-and-response tradition. Patton played often in juke joints and various social settings, and one can easily envision his one-man band serving as dance music. The range of his recordings is striking, stretching from the pungent vocal and guitar interaction on his medium-tempo classic "Pony Blues," to the upbeat syncopations of "Shake It and Break It," or the religious fervor of his "Prayer of Death."
The turn-of-the-century country blues tradition was not restricted to the Mississippi Delta. Blind Lemon Jefferson, who was born near Wortham, Texas, in 1897, also developed a powerful rural blues style. Jefferson employed a spare, riff-oriented guitar style behind his droning and resonant vocalizing. Although he was capable of the raspy low tones favored by many blues singers, his voice was perhaps most admired for its thin, high tones--a stylistic device that, for many listeners, stands out as the most distinctive characteristic of the early Texas blues sound. Jefferson's first records date from the mid-1920s and, like Patton's, include both religious music as well as the blues work that would generate renown for him around the South. Jefferson appears to have traveled and performed widely--although it is often difficult to separate the truth from rumor in the case of this now legendary bluesman--before his death in December 1929.
An early associate of Blind Lemon Jefferson's, Leadbelly (Huddle Ledbetter), was born near Mooringsport, Louisiana, in January 1888, and hence was the oldest of the country blues musicians discussed here. But Leadbelly's recording career did not begin until the mid-1930s, when he was discovered by ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax during a 1933 field trip to record the music of inmates of southern prisons. The Lomaxes helped Ledbetter secure a pardon from Louisiana Governor O. K. Allen, and in the fall of 1934 he moved to New York, where he worked for a time as chauffeur to John Lomax. In the 1940s, Leadbelly performed widely in New York and elsewhere and made a number of important recordings for Moe Asch's Folkways label. He died on December 6, 1949, a victim of Lou Gehrig's disease. Leadbelly's fame only grew after his passing: his song "Irene" became a major hit in the 1950s as "Goodnight Irene," recorded by artists as diverse as the Weavers, Frank Sinatra, and Ernest Tubb; before long, other Leadbelly songs were being featured by folk, country, and popular bands.
As previously mentioned, some have tried to trace the lineage of these early blues singers back even further, envisioning their guitar-and-vocal performances as a black American continuation of the Western African tradition of griot singing. Certainly some similarities can be seen in the two musical forms. For example, the stringed accompaniment of the kora, characteristic of griot music, is somewhat reminiscent of the role of the guitar in the early blues styles, especially in the use of the plucked string to continue and comment on the melody line of the singer. However, in traditional West African society the griot's songs figured not as an outpouring of personal expression--something that is so essential to the blues--but as a way of preserving historical and folkloric stories for the larger tribal unit. Hence, in terms of function, the griot is perhaps closer to the singing bards who preserved epic poetry in Western cultures than to a Robert Johnson or Leadbelly, whose songs reflect a distinctly individual statement. Even within the realm of the Americas, other musical styles--notably calypso and samba--are closer to the griot tradition in terms of social function. Samuel Charters, the great historian of blues music, eventually reached this same conclusion after his fieldwork in West Africa. "Things in the blues had come from the tribal musicians of the old kingdoms, but as a style the blues represented something else. It was essentially a new kind of song that had begun with the new life in the American South."
The recordings of the great female blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s--sometimes referred to as "classic blues"--reveal an even more acculturated form of this musical genre. While the country blues singer would take liberties with the bar lines, the classic blues vocalist would strictly follow the twelve-bar form. While the Delta blues player would accompany himself on guitar, the classic blues singer would typically front a band. The classic blues came to draw more readily and obviously on other forms of music--from the jazz world (with many musicians beginning to perform in both the blues and jazz genre) as well as from minstrel shows, circuses, vaudeville, and other sources of traveling music in the South. As part of this process, the structural underpinnings of the music--arrangements, solos, introductions, the use of call and response--became more formulaic.
But content changed as well, alongside these alterations in form. In contrast to the male-dominated world view of country blues, the classic blues genre was dominated by female singers, who made gender an important--perhaps the most important recurring theme in the ethos of the modern blues lyric. As Sandra a Lieb, biographer of Ma Rainey, explains: "The Classic Blues revealed a specifically female awareness, especially about the nature of love." Unrequited love, salacious love, abused love--these now emerged even more prominently as central aspects of the blues ethos, both amplifying and replacing the more general spirit of alienation, loneliness, and desolation that permeated the country blues idiom.
At the same time, the blues performance was now moving from the happen-stance surroundings of the street corner and tavern to formally designated locations--including theaters, tents, barns, and assembly halls. In essence, the blues had evolved from a folk art to a form of mass entertainment. This transformation was fueled in part by a tremendous growth in the market for blues recordings. In 1920, the General Phonograph Company achieved substantial sales with a recording of popular music sung by Mamie Smith, a black female vocalist. Within the first month of release, Smith's debut record had sold 75,000 copies, and within a year sales had surpassed one million. This surprising success prompted several other companies to enter this nascent market. The "race records," as these releases were labeled, encompassed a wide range of black musical forms, including the blues. In 1926 alone, more than three hundred blues and gospel recordings were released in the United States, most of them featuring black female vocalists. Priced at fifty or seventy-five cents, these records sold well, and by the following year the number of releases grew to five hundred. To fuel this growth, companies sent talent scouts on field trips to find and record promising black musicians. No fewer than seventeen field trips, for example, were made by record industry representatives to Atlanta during the late 1920s, while Memphis, Dallas, and New Orleans were also frequent stopping points for these talent scouts.
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, on April 26, 1886, typified the new generation of blues singers. Together with her husband, Will, Rainey toured the South as part of a traveling minstrel show. She recorded extensively in the mid-1920s--indeed, her throbbing contralto voice graced over one hundred records during a five-year period. In stark contrast to the country blues singers, who usually accompanied themselves, Rainey recorded with some of the finest jazz musicians of her day, including Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins. Her music also reflected the shift from the informal blues renditions of the Delta to the polished stage presentations that institutionalized the music as commercial fare for a mass audience Accordingly, Rainey's performances served to entertain, incorporated humor as a characteristic element, and revealed a more overt relationship to popular music, minstrel shows, and jazz. But a deep artistry co-existed with the more theatrical aspects of Rainey's work. In a piece such as "Yonder Come the Blues," recorded in 1926, the virtues of her singing are readily apparent: her clean intonation, her straightforward declarative manner of presenting a lyric, and her sure sense of time, which propels the rest of the band. Rainey's recordings span a scant half decade. Like many musicians of her generation, Rainey's career was irreparably hurt by the barren economic prospects of the 1930s. In 1935, Rainey retired from performing and returned to her native Georgia, where she became active in the Baptist Church. She died in Rome, Georgia, on December 22, 1939.
Bessie Smith, a protegee of Rainey's, stands out as the greatest of the classic blues singers. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on April 15, 1894, Smith began singing and dancing on street corners for spare change at around the age of nine. In her mid-teens, Smith went on the road as a member of Ma Rainey's touring show, and though Rainey has often been credited as a mentor and teacher to the younger singer, the exact extent of this education is a matter of conjecture. Smith's deeply resonant voice was probably evident from the start and may have been the key factor in getting her the job with the Rainey troupe. On the other hand, Rainey's skills as a performer, as well as her mastery of the blues repertoire, may well have been an inspiration to this teenage newcomer to the world of traveling shows. Smith soon came to surpass her teacher in the variety of her melodic inventions, her impressive pitch control, and the expressive depth of her music. Inevitably the younger vocalist decided to leave Rainey to further her own career, and was initially employed as a singer for Milton Starr's theater circuit, the infamous TOBA--which stood ostensibly for Theatre Owner's Booking Agency, but which was often referred to by black performers, with grim humor, as "Tough on Black Artists" (or sometimes as "Tough on Black Asses"). In Smith's case, the caustic acronym was well deserved: as a TOBA artist she joined Pete Werley's Minstrel Show, where her pay, at least initially, was as little as $2.50 per week. However, in 1923, Smith's recording "Down Hearted Blues" boosted her to widespread fame; the record reportedly sold over a half million in copies in a few months, and soon Smith was recording regularly and performing for as much as $2,000 per week. She toured extensively, entertaining capacity audiences in large venues--tents set up on the outskirts of town as well as in downtown theaters--in the South and along the eastern seaboard.
Smith, like the blues itself, had risen from the streets to the most spacious performance halls, a setting for which her talents were admirably well suited. Her powerful voice could reach to the back row of the largest theater without the need for amplification, and her sure skills as a comedienne and entertainer, as well as her dominating stage presence, allowed Smith to captivate audiences who would have been put off by the troubled, introspective blues of a Robert Johnson or Charlie Patton. The poignant aspects of the blues became tempered with humor and the use of sexual double entendre. Songs such as "Empty Bed Blues," "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," "You've Got to Give Me Some," and "Kitchen Man" expounded on, with varying degrees of subtlety, the subject of copulation. This openness to sexual themes helped, on the one hand, to sell records, while on the other, it led to the condemnation of Smith in particular and the blues in general among many social and religious groups, including much of the black middle class.
Although Smith played a prominent role in the merging of blues and popular music, her successes in this area built on the earlier efforts of a host of performers and songwriters. This evolutionary process, still making its impact felt today, became increasingly pronounced in the years between 1910 and 1930. Even before the first blues recordings were made, the blues idiom began filtering into the mainstream of American parlor sheet music, under the influence of Tin Pan Alley songwriters such as W. C. Handy. Alabama-born Handy drew on his early apprenticeship in a touring minstrel troupe in composing a number of blues-inflected popular songs such as "Memphis Blues" (1912), "St. Louis Blues" (1914), and "Beale Street Blues" (1916). Although his fame as "father of the blues" is an overstatement, Handy's impact as a popularizer of this new musical genre should not be ignored. After moving to New York in 1917, Handy championed African-American popular music not only as a performer and songwriter, but also as a music publisher and owner of a record company. Many of the songs written by Handy and other blues-influenced songwriters became important parts of Smith's repertoire--a mutually beneficial collaboration in which Smith tapped the songwriting skills of the New York professionals and in which Tin Pan Alley profited in turn from the power and authenticity of Smith's interpretations. At the same time, Smith's work betrayed strong jazz ties, as demonstrated by her recordings with Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, James P. Johnson, Jack Teagarden, Fletcher Henderson, and others. These various links characterized an important evolution in the blues, from the idiosyncratic music of the Mississippi Delta to the syncretic music of the recording studios. This ability to evolve in tandem with changes in other spheres of popular music would continue to characterize the blues in ensuing decades.
Yet the blues has also retained a primal core that has resisted assimilation and change. When we listen to Smith in her 1925 collaborations with Armstrong on "St. Louis Blues" and "Reckless Blues" we can already hear the different aesthetic sensibilities that, even at this early date, were beginning to distinguish the jazz and blues idioms. Armstrong favors ornamentation and elaboration; Smith tends toward unadorned emotional directness. In contrast to Armstrong's baroque accompaniment, Smith's singing is built around drawn-out tones, sometimes bellowed with authority, occasionally betraying a tremulous vulnerability. Smith preferred languorous tempos, while jazz music of this period increasingly relied on faster, dance-oriented rhythms. On "St. Louis Blues," the tempo lingers around 60 beats per minute. Compare this with Armstrong's recording of the same piece from December 1929, which jumps along at well over twice this pace. Even a comparatively fast Smith performance, such as her "Gimme a Pigfoot" from November 1933, barely breaks above 100 beats per minute. In the final analysis, Smith's music celebrated an intensity of feeling, rather than superficialities of technique. The blues idiom, as it has developed, has mostly stayed true to this inspiring vision, while the jazz world has evinced a more fickle temperament, with its methods and vocabulary constantly changing, sometimes mutating into surprising new forms. Yet the two styles, blues and jazz, have remained intimate bedfellows over the years, despite these many fluctuations--an intimacy so close that, at times, it is hard to determine where the one ends and the other begins.
The most enduring myth of the blues culture is its fatalistic celebration of "dues paying," of each musician's need to internalize a blues ethos through the acceptance of--and ultimately the transcendence of--personal tragedy and disappointment. The details of Bessie Smith's life fit in with this attitude, perhaps all too well; yet commentators have not been above embellishing the facts to accentuate its tragic dimensions. At the same time, the feisty, independent side of her personality is often minimized or ignored--this was, remember, a woman who flung society matron Fania Marinoff Van Vechten to the floor at a posh gathering, slugged pianist Clarence Williams in a dispute over cash, and, according to legend, stared down and ultimately intimidated the Ku Klux Klan when they tried to disrupt a performance. Yet ultimately Smith can be rightly viewed as, at least in part, the victim of the lifestyle excesses that she celebrated in her music. Alcohol and smoking coarsened her voice; her drinking binges led to violent outbursts, which made many in the industry wary of this temperamental star; her marriage, to policeman Jack Gee, developed into the type of exploitative personal relationship so often the subject of her blues music. While her career was in bloom, and the money was coming in, Smith was able to rise above these troubles, but the collapse in the recording industry during the early 1930s occurred at the same time that urban black audiences were turning to the faster-paced and slicker music of the larger jazz ensembles. In 1937, Smith appeared well positioned to make a comeback. Recording and performing opportunities were on the rise, and even appearances in films--Smith had already been involved in a short movie in the late 1920s--were being discussed. These plans never came to fruition. During a tour in the deep South, Smith died in a car accident on September 26, 1937. She was forty-three years old.
Scott Joplin and Ragtime
Ragtime music rivals the blues in importance--and perhaps surpasses it in influence--as a predecessor to early jazz. Indeed, in the early days of New Orleans jazz, the line between a ragtime and a jazz performance was so fine that the two terms were often used interchangeably. With the benefit of hindsight, we can draw sharp distinctions between these two genres, but in the context of African-American music in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, the grounds for such subtle delineations were far from clear. In his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton demonstrated an illuminating comparison of two ways of playing Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag"--one reflecting the Missouri ragtime tradition and the second showing a New Orleans jazz--inflected approach to the composition. But even with Morton, the distinction between these two styles could be elusive: in this same series of interviews, Morton asserted that the celebrated jazz pianists of the 1930s, such as Fats Waller and Art Tatum, were simply "ragtime pianists in a very fine form." Few jazz historians would agree with this latter categorization, but statements such as these reveal how fluid was the line between ragtime and jazz, and not just at the turn of the century, but well into the era of swing music and big bands.
Perhaps the best way of understanding the differences and similarities between these two musical idioms is by distinguishing between regime as a manner of composition and ragtime as a style of instrumental (primarily piano) performance. The similarities Morton perceived between ragtime and 1930s jazz relate primarily to keyboard techniques, most notably the striding on-the-beat bass employed by the left hand and the riveting right-hand syncopations. The latter were often so predominant in ragtime that entire melody lines might be constructed out of repeated syncopated figures. The result, at its worst, was a melody so convoluted and inherently pianistic that few vocalists could sing it, and even fewer would want to. But even the second-rate rag pieces compensated for this lack of melodic integrity through the manic rhythmic intensity of their repeated syncopations. In ragtime's finer moments, especially in the mid and late career efforts of Scott Joplin, these devices became subtly incorporated into his supremely memorable melodies, employed in the same way that a master chef adds spice to a recipe, for shades of flavor, not overpowering effect. The left-hand structures of ragtime were equally influential, with a whole generation of jazz pianists adopting its use of a resounding low bass note or octave (sometimes a fifth or tenth) on beats one and three, followed by a middle register chord on beats two and four. The resulting combination of the pounding four-to-the-bar foundation of the left hand and the rhythmic acrobatics of the right hand was a full-bodied piano sound that required no other accompaniment. This style of performance became known as "ragging" or as "ragged time" at some point in the nineteenth century, a term that likely served as the source for the generic title "ragtime."
Ragtime rhythms appeared in print as early as the first half of the nineteenth century, but the first published ragtime piece is generally acknowledged to be "Mississippi Rag" (1897), composed by William Krell. Later that same year, Tom Turpin became the first black composer to publish a ragtime composition with his work "Harlem Rag." Both are well crafted and suggest that the ragtime style had been in incubation for some time prior to their appearance. Before the year was out, Ben Harney had published his method book Rag Time Instructor, the first of many pedagogical works that built on, and fueled, the public's appetite for this intoxicating new music. By the turn of the century, the ragtime craze was in full swing, so much so that highbrow critics felt compelled to attack it. "Ragtime's days are numbered," declared Metronome magazine. "We are sorry to think that anyone should imagine that ragtime was of the least musical importance. It was a popular wave in the wrong direction." That same year, the American Federation of Musicians ordered its members to desist from playing ragtime, declaring that "the musicians know what is good, and if the people don't, we will have to teach them."
In the midst of this rapid dissemination of a new musical style, the term "rag" invariably became both overused and misapplied, often being employed to denote a wide range of African-American musical idioms. Many pieces from this period use the word "rag" in their title while bearing little resemblance to what has come to be known as "classic" rag style, just as many so-called "blues" compositions strayed, sometimes considerably, from the standard twelve-bar form. But as the style evolved, ragtime coalesced into a structured four-theme form, with each melody typically encompassing sixteen bars. The most common form for these classic rag pieces was AABBACCDD, with a modulation to a different key typically employed for the C theme.
Although the published ragtime compositions came to include vocal works and band arrangements, this style reached its highest pitch as a form of solo piano music. Nor should this be surprising. In many ways, the spread of this jubilant new music went hand in hand with the growing popularity of pianos in turn-of-the-century American households. Between 1890 and 1909, total piano production in the United States grew from under 100,000 instruments per year to over 350,000--and it is worth noting that 1909 marked the peak level not only in American piano production, but also in the number of ragtime pieces published. By 1911, a staggering 295 separate companies manufacturing pianos had set up operations in the United States, with another 69 businesses producing piano supplies. During this same period, player pianos increasingly made their way into homes and gathering places. In 1897, the same year that witnessed the publication of the first ragtime piece, the Angelus cabinet player piano--the first such instrument to use a pneumatic "push-up" device to depress the keys--was released to an enthusiastic marketplace, and by 1919 player pianos constituted over half the output of the U.S. piano industry. These two powerful trends--the spread of pianos into American households and the growing popularity of mechanical player pianos--helped spur the enormous public demand for ragtime music during the early years of the twentieth century.
This unprecedented outpouring of ragtime artistry was centered, to a striking degree, in a fairly small geographical area. Just as the rural blues blossomed in the hothouse atmosphere of the Mississippi Delta, and as early jazz would later flourish in the environs of New Orleans, so early ragtime reached its zenith in turn-of-the-century Missouri. The cities of Sedalia, Carthage, and St. Louis, among others, boasted a glittering array of rag composers, as well as an ambitious group of music publishers who recognized the extraordinary body of talent at hand. In Sedalia, a booming railroad town that almost became the state capital, Scott Joplin gathered a cadre of promising rag composers around him, including his students Scott Hayden and Arthur Marshall, while Sedalia music publisher John Stark, a major advocate for ragtime in general and Joplin in particular, proved to be an important catalyst in bringing the work of these local composers to the attention of the broader public. Stark, Joplin, and Hayden eventually moved to St. Louis, another major center of rag activity during these glory years. The local composers here included Louis Chauvin, an exceptionally talented native of the city who left behind all too few compositions, as well as Tom Turpin and Artie Matthews. In Carthage, Missouri, James Scott created a number of outstanding ragtime pieces, many of which were published by the local Dumars music store where Scott worked--initially washing windows and sweeping floors, and later serving as composer-in-residence. Eventually Scott also benefited from a fruitful partnership with Stark--one that produced a body of compositions second only to Joplin's as exemplars of the ragtime style. With the exception of Joseph Lamb, a white composer from Montclair, New Jersey, virtually all the leading exponents of the classic rag style made their home, at one point or another, in Missouri.
Scott Joplin stands out as the greatest of these composers. In fact, the resurgence of interest in ragtime music in recent decades would be hard to imagine if not for the timeless appeal of Joplin's music. While others may have written rags that were more technically demanding or boasted more striking novelty effects, none could approach the structural elegance, the melodic inventiveness, or the unflagging commitment to artistry that characterized Joplin's major works. Nor would any other rag composer match Joplin's ambitions for the music--ambitions that led to the composition of two operas, a ballet, and other works that squarely challenged the lowbrow reputation of the rag idiom. Although his more daring works never gained the acceptance, at least during his lifetime, that Joplin craved, his oeuvre stands out today all the more due to the high standards to which he aspired, as well as to his determined belief in ragtime as a serious form of music--a belief that, decades after Joplin's death, became validated by his belated enshrinement as a major American composer.
Joplin was born in Texarkana, Texas, on November 24, 1868. His father, the former slave Jiles Joplin, had played the violin for house parties given by the local slave-owner in the days before the Emancipation Proclamation, while his mother, Florence Givens Joplin, sang and played the banjo. The latter instrument may have had a particular impact on Scott's musical sensibilities: the syncopated rhythms of nineteenth-century African-American banjo music are clear predecessors of the later piano rag style. While Scott was still in his youth, his father left the family, and his mother was forced to rely on domestic work to support her six children. Joplin exhibited his affinity for the keyboard at an early age. He often accompanied his mother to the houses where she worked and would play and improvise on the piano while she went about her chores. By his teens, Joplin had established himself as a professional pianist, with opportunities to play at churches, clubs, and social gatherings in the border area of Texas and Arkansas. Later he became involved in teaching music as well as in singing with a vocal quintet that performed widely in the region. During this period, Joplin made his first attempts at composition.
At some point in the mid-1880s, Joplin moved to St. Louis, where he earned his livelihood primarily as a pianist, both as a soloist in saloons and other nightspots as well as with a band. The ensemble work gave Joplin an opportunity to develop the skills in arranging that would later reach their pinnacle in orchestrations for his two operas. Joplin made his home in St. Louis for almost a decade, but he traveled widely during these years. His visit to the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, a massive fair that attracted some of the finest musicians of the day, may have been especially influential. Although ragtime music had not yet been published, it was apparently widely played at the Exposition, albeit most often at the outskirts of the fairgrounds, where black musicians performed--meanwhile the choicer, more centrally located venues were reserved for white entertainers. At some point in the mid-1890s, Joplin settled down in Sedalia, where he eventually began studying harmony and composition at the nearby George R. Smith College for Negroes.
Around 1897, Joplin wrote the "Maple Leaf Rag," a composition that would soon become the most famous ragtime piece of its day. It wasn't until two years later that John Stark published the work, and in the first year only four hundred copies were sold. But in the fall of 1900, the "Maple Leaf Rag" caught on with the general public, eventually becoming the first piece of sheet music to sell more than one million copies--a figure all the more stunning when one realizes that there were fewer than 100,000 professional musicians and music teachers in the United States at the time. Amateur pianists, for their part, must have found it anything but easy to navigate the technical and rhythmic difficulties of Joplin's celebrated rag; however, many no doubt purchased the sheet music and labored over its intricate syncopations.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the "Maple Leaf Rag" only hinted at the full extent of Joplin's talent. It lacks the melodic subtlety, compositional ingenuity, and emotional depth that would eventually separate Joplin from other rag composers. But in rhythmic intensity the "Maple Leaf Rag" stands out even today. Put simply, it is the most intoxicatingly syncopated of any of Joplin's rags. If the essence of ragtime's popularity was, as Irving Berlin later suggested, its agility to capture the "speed and snap" of modern American life, then no piece of music evoked this emerging sensibility better than the "Maple Leaf Rag."
Later Joplin pieces revealed the wide range of compositional techniques that this ambitious African-American composer had mastered: the parlor waltz refinement of "Bethena" (1905); the coy interludes that temper the syncopations of "The Ragtime Dance" (1906); the boogie-woogie inflected third section of "Pine Apple Rag" (1908); the languid tango rhythms of "Solace" (1909); the almost self-parodying syncopations of "Stoptime Rag" (1910); the moving minor key sections of "Magnetic Rag" (1914). With the Brahmsian darkness of "Scott Joplin's New Rag" (1912) and, especially, his "Magnetic Rag," the last piece he completed, Joplin had pushed the music far beyond the boisterous beerhall ambiance that characterized, for many listeners and players, the rag idiom. This was music on a large scale that was now being squeezed into the narrow confines of rag form--so much so, that the music often burst at the seams.
These genre-breaking excursions into other styles were one of the defining qualities of Joplin's music. Accounts that stress his role in uplifting and refining the rag idiom mostly miss the point: Joplin viewed himself primarily as a composer, and his relationship to ragtime was more one of fighting against its constraints and stylistic deadends, rather than battling for its honor and glory. "Joplin's ambition is to shine in other spheres," a 1903 newspaper article about him recounts. "He affirms that it is only a pastime for him to compose syncopated music and he longs for more arduous works." Joplin was also ambivalent, at times even hostile, toward the pyrotechnics of most rag pianists, which emphasized speed and showmanship at the expense of melodic beauty. Hence the well-known admonition which graces many of his published compositions: "NOTE: Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play Ragtime fast."
The most noteworthy result of Joplin's aspirations was his opera Treemonisha, often misleadingly referred to as a "ragtime opera," but which has very little ragtime in it. Instead it probes deeply into the pre-rag folk roots of black American music, as well as taps the full range of European operatic devices--the work comes complete with orchestration, overture, recitatives, arias, and ensembles. The last years of Joplin's life found him increasingly preoccupied with this project. It made enormous demands on the composer, not only because of the massive scale of the work, but perhaps even more from the considerable challenge of finding financial and public support for the undertaking. Around 1903, Joplin had written a first opera, now lost, entitled A Guest of Honor, which apparently kept fairly close to the ragtime style. Treemonisha proved to be a far more expansive and consuming musical project.
As early as 1907, Joplin reportedly discussed copywriting the new opera with Eubie Blake, and the following year he played parts of it for Joseph Lamb. Stark turned down the work, sensing the poor commercial prospects for an African-American folk opera, and it was not until 1911 that Joplin, financing the venture himself, was able to publish the 230-page score for piano and eleven voices. His single-minded focus on the opera forced Joplin to ignore more lucrative publishing opportunities--the year before the release of the piano score, only one other Joplin rag appeared in print--causing financial difficulties for the composer and precipitating a break with Stark. Undeterred, Joplin proceeded with the daunting tasks of orchestrating the lengthy work and seeking financial backing for a full-scale production. On completing the orchestration, Joplin began auditioning a cast, determined to stage the opera at his own expense to test the public response. A single performance took place, in 1915 in a Harlem hall, with an underrehearsed cast, no scenery or costumes, and without an orchestra--merely the composer playing the piano score. The work, staged in such a stark manner, generated little enthusiasm at the time among a Harlem audience more interested in assimilating established artistic traditions than in celebrating the roots of African-American culture.
In the fall of 1916, a year after the disastrous performance of Treemonisha, Joplin was committed to the Manhattan State Hospital. On April 1, 1917, Joplin died from "dementia paralytica-cerebral," brought on by syphilis. Although he was only forty-eight, Joplin had already outlived his fame. The ragtime craze in America had passed, and Joplin's popularity had waned to such an extent that a number of his unpublished compositions remained hidden away in the Stark company files and were eventually destroyed when the operation moved in 1935. The various books on African-American music written during the next several decades devoted little or no space to Joplin, and it was not until Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis published their seminal work They All Played Ragtime in 1950 that Joplin's extraordinary career began to be understood in any degree of perspective. And it was only during the ragtime resurgence of the 1970s that Joplin's works took the next step and moved beyond the confines of scholars and specialists to reenter the mainstream of American culture. In the mid-1970s, Joplin's popularity, and the sales of recordings of his music, matched rock-star levels; one piece, "The Entertainer," even became the basis for a hit single. But most gratifying to Joplin would have been the eventual success of his opera Treemonisha. Some sixty-odd years after its failed debut, the work was successfully revived and recorded, and its composer posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize.
Joplin's single-minded determination to merge vernacular African-American music with the mainstream traditions of Western composition prefigured, in many regards, the later development of jazz. By straddling the borders of highbrow and lowbrow culture, art music and popular music, African polyrhythm and European formalism, Joplin anticipated the fecund efforts of later artists such as Duke Ellington, James P. Johnson, Benny Goodman, Charles Mingus, Stan Kenton, and Art Tatum, among others. In his own day, Joplin's audience--both white and black--was ill prepared to understand the nature of such hybrid efforts; we can easily imagine them harboring a preconception that these different traditions were too radically opposed to allow a seamless merging. The idea of a ragtime ballet or opera must have seemed an oxymoron to most of those on both sides of the great racial divide that characterized turn-of-the-century American society. It required the development of a different aesthetic before such works could be appreciated on their own terms.
In our own day, we have embraced just such a new aesthetic, one that allows audiences not only to accept, but often rush to praise, willy-nilly, various transformations of vernacular forms of culture into serious art. This tendency is evident not only--or even primarily--in jazz but in virtually every contemporary genre and style of creative human expression. But even in tolerant, liberal-minded times, the tension between these two streams of activity continues to seethe under the surface. This dynamic interaction, the clash and fusion--of African and European, composition and improvisation, spontaneity and deliberation, the popular and the serious, high and low--will follow us at virtually every turn as we unfold the complex history of jazz music.
Oxford University Press
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