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Origins of Jazz

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    Origins of Jazz

    Yesterday while doing some research I came across a newspaper interview with Capt. Blanche Leathers done in 1927. To paraphrase the article, she was talking about the black roustabouts singing while they loaded and unloaded frieght. She said that "jazz today is very much talked about, but the roustabout songs were true jazz only with more melody." That got me to wondering if the roustabout songs in New Orleans were the true origins of jazz. The black musicians heard the songs, imitated them and from that sprung what has come to be know as jazz. Afterall, she was on the boats from about 1890 to 1920, at the birth of the jazz age.
    Picture is of Blanche Leathers in 1927 at the age of 67.
    Attached Files

    Vic Tooker basically echoed what is reporter above during his "History of Jazz" lecture. He maintained jazz was started by slaves soulful singing in the fields and rousters chanting on the main deck of steamboats long before it was called jazz.


      The soulful singing, call and response, and spirituals more or less led to the blues and soul, a totally different form of music. It was the rhythmical dancing tunes, sometimes called buck and wing, that evolved into ragtime which sort of morphed into jazz. These forms of music sometimes follow a parallel track and even merge now and then. Ken Burns did a documentary on jazz that was very thorough and I would highly recommend it if you haven't seen it.


        One origin that wasn't

        As Lexie said, jazz was a combination of musical styles and New Orleans is where it became popular. It was brought to more of the US via the bands on the Streckfus boats, but the term jazz was NOT given to it from the boat's name J.S. Jass is an African term which means copulation, which goes along with the jazz music rhythm...



          Two books that you might find worthwhile checking into regarding origins of jazz and the place of Mississippi steamboats in spreading that musical idiom:

          William Kenney's JAZZ ON THE RIVER
          Dennis Owsley's CITY OF GABRIELS, a history of St. Louis jazz, including the role played by Streckfus Steamers at that city

          Doc Hawley once commented that Ken Burns or his research team visited with him for several hours about the part that riverboats played in the story of jazz, and not one word about any of it was mentioned in his TV documentary. Go figure!

          And Lexie's observations about jazz's musical ancestry in the ragtime genre is another lead that bears following. Two books I've enjoyed about ragtime are William Schafer & Johannes Riedel's THE ART OF RAGTIME and the classic volume by Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, THEY ALL PLAYED RAGTIME. Of course, the Tex-arkana connections of Scott Joplin et. al. probably provide Lexie with some insights here from "down home." Jump in whenever you wish, Lex!


            The "ragged" time, or syncopation (accenting the off beat) produced by setting African-based rhythmic melodies over top a steady two or four beat European-based bass rhythm is what became ragtime, that original American music and dance style that could only have happened in this land of great cultural diversity. From about 1890 to 1920 syncopation ruled the nation, but it still rules me. Keeping it alive at


              "If the truth were known about the origin of the word 'Jazz' it would never be mentioned in polite society." [ "Étude," Sept. 1924]



                I always snicker when I hear Jazz Me Blues, wondering if anyone knows its 'translation'. A couple of years ago, the NOLA Visitors Bureau, I think, ran some billboards welcoming visitors: Jazz Me in New Orleans! oops. Are you snowed in up there Jazzou?


                  Jazzou beat me to it with his point about syncopation.

                  The harder question to answer is "What is Jazz", and you will get a different answer from almost all the musicians you ask. But the syncopation is what makes you pay attention. You have to follow what the player is doing to really apprecate it. You've got to be able to count to four in most cases. And sometimes that's not as easy as you might think. I still totally lose my place whenever someone plays "Music Box Dancer".

                  In that sense it is truly in the same universe as what most people call "classical" music.


                  "Rock n Roll is three chords played for 10,000 people. Jazz is 10,000 chords played for three people".


                    That's a groaner, Paul...

                    Jazzou 'beat' you to it??? very punny Winter and no steamboating must be getting to us all...


                      I am jazzin' in the snow, and there is plenty of it, Judy. We managed to escape the latest storm that dumped on southern New England and New York, though we still have about four feet in our yard.

                      So, in a broader definition the word jass or jazz means doing whatever you're doing with great vigor and energy, which is the definition I've always thought about in connecting the word to the origin of my stage name. Here's an interesting bit to read that I copied off the website of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (

                      Many people ask where the name jazz comes from. There are many contradicting theories and histories told. Below is one theory that has documents showing a factual perspective.

                      Between 1916 and 1918 the word jass used within the band name of the Original Dixieland Jass Band was changed to Jazz.

                      The word "Jazz" stuck and has been used ever since that first jass/jazz recording to describe an ever changing and evolving musical style.

                      The success of the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917 with the first jass recording was immense. The Victor Talking Machine Co. had placed advertising posters in the New York subway cars (the same long thin rectangular posters you see on busses today) and the first letter in the word jass was defaced. This wouldn’t do with society and the Victor Talking Machine Company (for certain with permission from the ODJB) changed the name to Jazz.

                      Prior to the ODJB's "hit" recording the music of the time was known as Ragtime and many other style names but not jazz. It is interesting and amusing to note that today some earlier musicians are referred to as jazz musicians even though the name or style didn't exist. This would be similar to calling the pop/rock star Elvis a "rap artist" because he spoke in many of his recorded songs. The style did not exist and therefore could not be applied and would not make sense.

                      Dating back to 1914 there were only three or four other groups that used the name jass within their band name. The term was used more in general language slang (supposedly) and was certainly not used to describe a musical style until the ODJB secured it with their hit recording in 1917.

                      Think of the word “jass” in the same way you would think of the word “Cool.” Since the 1950’s the word “cool” has been used in general language slang meaning something is good, likable or great. In the 1960’s Miles David recorded in a style that became known as the “Cool” jazz period. Prior to 1916 the word “jass” was supposedly used in general language slang meaning to do something with vigor and energy. “Let’s jass it up on the dance floor.”

                      The use of a slang term “jass,” a hit recording and changing the name from jass to jazz by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band forever secured the word jazz a musical definition term.


                        Originally posted by Judy Patsch View Post
                        Jazzou 'beat' you to it??? very punny Winter and no steamboating must be getting to us all...

                        That was a totally unplanned pun. Didn't even realize I had said it that way until I read it after hitting "Submit"' Honest Injun. Steamboater's Honor.



                          Jazz is a very laid-back system compared to the mathematical precision demanded in European classical music. The coupled note dotted-eighths plus 16th is an example. In classical and march music the symbol is played as 4, alla 1-2-3 4 while, in jazz it is a triplet, alla 1-2 3. It is difficult (or was) to get Europeans to play the jazz dotted eighth plus sisteenth. Today there are many good jazz bands in Europe


                            Here is my favorite quote about the development of jazz, from James Francis Cooke's (c) 1925 "Standard History of Music":

                            One notable manifestation of American musical activity has been the development of "Jazz" music. Jazz is a form of rhythmic and tonal exaggeration, springing from very primitive and often vulgar musical material. In some instances, as in the case of Paul Whiteman's orchestra and in the music of George Gershwin, the stimulating accents and the queer tone combinations have been treated in such a manner as to command the great interest of serious musicians. Musicians feel that this outpouring of dynamism in the new world may leave a permanent note in the serious music of the future. In all Jazz music the name of Irving Berlin (Isadore Baline), a technically unskilled writer of popular music in New York, who had worked his way up from being a singing waiter in a Chinatown dive to the most widely whistled composer of America, deserves passing mention, because of the native charm of some of his tunes. By some he is regarded as the father of modern Jazz, which, it is claimed, started with his "Alexander's Rag Time Band." Teachers of music, however, were not long in realizing that the indiscriminate playing of Jazz music in the myriad cheap editions of trashy songs was having a very bad effect upon the regular musical education of students. It has therefore been wisely avoided by all earnest educators.


                              The proof is in the listening

                              Strange. And here I thought the riverboats were mentioned in the Ken Burns documentary. Mr. Burns is missing a bet by not doing something about steamboats. He needs to be enlightened.

                              I don't really have that much insight on Scott Joplin's origins, except that he grew up pretty much in the deep south. His wonderful opera, Treemonisha, is set on a plantation near Texarkana, in Arkansas. That corner of Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana is called the Arklatex. It does sort of have its own culture.

                              Since I started taking a community college course called jazz ensemble, I have learned a lot. You can listen to jazz all your life and not really know what's going on until you attempt to play it. As Alan mentioned, there is a rhythmical element involved. Then there are what I call licks, or more complex rhythmical elements. I was just watching an old movie with lots of swing era music in it, and trying to cull out the licks, which are written in the music, but the devil to read. You have to shut off the classical mode in your brain. One of the really good musicians in this "class" I'm taking was having trouble with a particular rhythm, and commented that maybe he was too white to get it. He just needed to block out that European classical heritage. Old habits are hard to break.