Jelly Roll Morton (in blackface) and partner
in black vaudeville.
Courtesy of the Duncan P. Schiedt Collection.
By 1830, minstrel shows—variety acts of song, dance, comedy, and theater performed largely by white actors in blackface—had become the signature form of American entertainment. Though the music was still tied to the folk traditions of Europe, the dialogue (an exaggerated form of black speech), dances, instrumentation, characters (or, more accurately, caricatures), and plots were based on black plantation life, both real and imagined. The racist archetypes that minstrelsy helped to create still persist in racial stereotypes to this day. But the music—songs like “Dixie,” “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” and “My Old Kentucky Home”—came to epitomize American culture. And though it was performed and attended primarily by whites, the minstrel show, which parodied the tragic conditions of slavery, brought African-American music—its percussive, syncopated beat, the call and response of the church revival meeting, and the moans, cries, and bent notes of spirituals and work songs—to the forefront of American music. Even after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the minstrel show continued to be the most popular form of American entertainment. But over time, as groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers brought the dignified pathos of Negro spirituals to the rest of the world, as the syncopated strains of ragtime piano (whose greatest composer, Scott Joplin, was an African American) began to transform American popular music, and as the jubilant polyphony of collective improvisation began to seep out of New Orleans, it became ever more clear that black American music offered a perspective that was understood by all Americans. That perspective became known as the blues.
The basic ethos of the blues was a singular combination of optimism and realism; it recognized with equal clarity both grand human potential and inevitable human frailty. It was also quintessentially American: The blues valued innovation and improvisation—hallmarks of the very individualism and self-determination enshrined in the Constitution—and afforded musicians the freedom to reexamine a musical form and reinterpret a lyrical story.
King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, San Francisco, c. 1921.
Courtesy of the Frank Driggs Collection.
The vocabulary that emerged from the blues offered a foundation for dealing with the trials and trivialities of everyday American life. But it was jazz, a collective expression born in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, that fully realized the democratic ideals upon which the nation was built. Like ragtime and the blues, two of its musical precursors, jazz was good-time music meant for dancing. But unlike any music before it, jazz absorbed nearly every musical style it encountered. New Orleans musicians drew upon every conceivable sound in their bustling port city: brass bands, plantation songs, church spirituals, barbershop quartets, African drums, Native American folk songs, European opera, and Latin moods and rhythms. From this array of influences they developed a form of improvised collective expression that, unlike the classical forms of Europe, was as much a process as a product. At street parades and funerals, at dances and on barroom stages, they showed time and time again that by combining shuffle rhythms with the language of the blues and the creative freedom of improvisation, any music could become jazz.
In New Orleans jazz, the instrumentation was fairly steady: The cornet played the lead, the clarinet decorated the melody from up high, and the trombone provided yet another countermelody and bass notes deep in the lower register; often a banjo joined company with the drums to keep the band together. Everyone improvised, making up melodies on the spot, often all at once—a recipe for noise if ever there was one. And yet music prevailed over chaos. The cornet, despite its loud and brassy nature, learned to accommodate the delicate filigree of the clarinet, who in turn responded to the lyrical punctuations of the sliding trombone. And they all figured out how to express themselves in time with the drums and the bass, or tuba. Together, pushing and pulling, calling and responding, and always listening with sensitivity, New Orleans musicians established an art form that reflected the delicate balance of democracy with such accuracy that it remains definitive. Writer Ralph Ellison explains: “True jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group. Each true jazz moment ... springs from a contest in which each artist challenges all the rest; each solo flight, or improvisation, represents (like the successive canvases of a painter) a definition of his identity as individual, as member of the collectivity and as a link in the chain of tradition.”