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Prehistory of Jazz





Traditional West African Music


  • West African cultures have a rich and diverse musical lineage.
  • Many traditions have no separation between music and day-to-day life. There are songs for every occasion – birth, death, puberty, marriage, lessons to warn against bad behavior, etc. and everyone participates.
  • Traditionally men play drums, sing, and dance. Women traditionally sing, dance, and possibly play small handheld percussion instruments – but do not drum.
  • Many of these songs date back generations and have been passed down aurally.



  • Cyclical forms are common in West African music.
  • There are frequently moments to improvise, especially as a lead drummer, vocalist, or dancer.
  • Accepted ways of improvising are specific. It is not like a drum circle at Venice beach.
  • Supporting drummers, dancers, and singers all listen to the lead drummer to know what song to sing/play, which responses to play, which dance moves to do. There is not traditionally a set order, but specific calls imply different parts of a piece.
  • Ewe music frequently uses a 12/8 pattern we know as 12/8 Afro-Cuban.
  • Within that pattern, it is felt as 4,3,2,6 – all at the same time.
  • Polyrhythm is like life. If’s messy, and there’s a lot happening all at the same time.
  • Preludes and interludes connect pieces together that are related.
  • Vocal harmony is improvised. Specific harmonies are more common than others.



Anyako, Ghana, West Africa

  • A modern trend in Ghana is to perform very structured and theatrical versions of traditional pieces for tourists. Some elders feel that this is destroying the tradition of the music. In many small villages the tradition remains in some families.
  • The Ladzekpo family has a long tradition of promoting traditional Ewe song and dance.



Noteworthy characteristics of traditional West African Music:

  • Polyrhythm
  • Call and response
  • Instruments emulating human voice and other sounds.
  • Structured improvisation
  • Cyclical form


Brief History of Atlantic Slave Trade

  • Atlantic slave trade began in the 1400’s with Portuguese colonies in West Africa and with Spanish colonies settling in the Americas shortly thereafter.
  • In addition to African people being kidnapped from their homes, when African kings were offered weapons, manufactured goods, and rum in exchange for human lives, they cleaned out their jails. They sold prisoners of war, criminals, and debtors. The people they sold into enslavement were not viewed by African society as equal Africans.
  • These sales made some tribes very rich, but with such high demand from European nations for human labor, there was a lot of competition among African tribes for their business. As a result, a punishment for crime became enslavement, and it also became a reason for war amongst tribes.
  • Captives were marched to seaside prisons where, if they survived, they were shaved to prevent lice and branded (yes, like livestock). If they survived the horrific environment at the prison, they were then put on boats headed to America. Nearly 20% did not live through the shipping experience.



  • 1807 – England outlawed African Slave trade. Then America relied on its own internal human trafficking.
  • In January 1807, with a self-sustaining population of over four million slaves in the South, some Southern congressmen joined with the North in voting to abolish the African slave trade, an act that became effective January 1, 1808. The widespread trade of enslaved people within the South was not prohibited, however, and children of enslaved people automatically became enslaved themselves, thus ensuring a self-sustaining population in the South. 
  • 1861 – American Civil War begin.
  • 1863 – Emancipation Proclamation was made by President Abraham Lincoln.
  • By 1865, approximately 12 million Africans had been shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas, and more than one million of these individuals had died from mistreatment during the voyage.
  • In addition, an unknown number of Africans died in slave wars and forced marches directly resulting from the Western Hemisphere’s demand for enslaved people.
  • Not to mention the irreparable damage done to Africa’s infrastructure for generations to come.
  • Passed by Congress on January 31, 1865, and ratified on December 6, 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in the United States and provided that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
  • If you haven’t seen the documentary 13th, watch it. It’s on Netflix.



African and African American music that predates Jazz in the United States during the late 1800’s

  • Traditional African Music – documented in Congo Square.
  • Work songs/Field Hollers – unaccompanied vocal solos or call and response pieces. If the “master” could hear where his slaves were in the fields, he knew they were there and hadn’t escaped. He did not necessarily pay attention to what they were singing. Codes and hidden meanings were embedded in these songs.
  • Spirituals – Uplifting songs about hope and freedom. Often originated in the church. Also had hidden meanings embedded.
  • Blues – A true lament about oppression, love, poverty, mistreatment, and whatever else made someone deeply sad.
  • Minstrelsy – Performances of exaggerated black stereotypes for white audiences.
  • Ragtime – 1890’s type of piano music pioneered by Scott Joplin. Borrowed elements of military marches but then changed the rhythms to mimic African banjo music. Accents fell in unfamiliar places. Syncopation





Gospel and Spirituals


  • Call and response, with religious poetry.
  • Two types: Polished Fisk Jubilee Singers style and orally transmitted Pentecostal church singing.
  • By the 1920s, gospel music had developed.
  • Spirituals are highly interactional, which strongly influenced jazz musicians.
  • Check out the podcast I posted for this week’s discussion featuring Spiritual Vocalist, Joe Carter. He explains the history and context for spirituals in a really beautiful and profound way.



The Blues


  • Evolved into a structured three-line (A A B) stanza, which distinguishes it from other forms.
  • The blues also has a distinctive fundamental chord progression using dominant chords based off of the I, IV, and V and is frequently a 12-bar structure.
  • The blues expressed personal experience and was frequently sung by one person. This reflected a cultural shift from enslaved peoples’ traditions revolving around community to individualism and the former captives’ engagement with freedom.
  • Country Blues – Combination of folk elements (e.g., field holler) and new technology (wide availability of the guitar). Performed by solitary male musicians accompanying themselves on guitar in the Mississippi Delta; loosely based around blues form.
  • Classic (Vaudeville) Blues – When blues crossed over into pop music, jazz musicians became involved. For example, Gertrude Pritchett (“Ma” Rainey, 1886–1939) heard blues in St. Louis and transformed it into a theatrical form for the black vaudeville circuit during the 1910s and 1920s, featuring a female singer and small band.
  • Blues became more codified (12-bar stanzas, written harmony), more closely resembling the basic blues form known and practiced today. Jazz musicians also played in these bands.
  • C. Handy: cornet player who heard the blues in Mississippi. He started writing and publishing blues for dance ensembles, and many became hits.
  • The first audiences for blues recordings were white, but when Perry Bradford convinced OKeh Records to record Mamie Smith singing “Crazy Blues,” audience composition changed.



Robert Johnson

  • May 8th, 1911 – August 16th 1938
  • From Hazelhurst Mississippi.
  • Considered one of the first blues guitarists. Mississippi Delta blues.
  • You can’t play the guitar without benefiting from the influence of Robert Johnson. Died at 27 years old and played mostly street corners.
  • Famous recordings were made right before his death.
  • The circumstances surrounding his death are suspicious. Some accounts say he was murdered via poison whiskey by a jealous husband whose wife he’d been flirting with.



W.C. Handy

  • William Christopher Handy
  • November 16th, 1873 – March 28th, 1958
  • Known as the father of the blues.
  • From Florence, Alabama. Father was a pastor and believed that musical instruments were the devil’s tools. Without his parents’ permission, W.C. bought a guitar.
  • Father made him take the guitar back but let him take organ lessons. Handy didn’t really like it and he took up the cornet. He joined a band a as a teenager and kept it a secret from his parents.
  • 1892 went to Birmingham Alabama to take a teaching exam and get a teaching job. He passed the test but found the job paid poorly so he got a job at a pipe works plant. On his time off he’d organize bands and taught other musicians how to read music.
  • Played cornet at 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Traveled a lot during this time looking for work through Missouri, Illinois, Texas, Oklahoma, etc. He eventually went on to Cuba as well.
  • 1902 traveled through Mississippi. This is where he first heard the delta blues.
  • Because he was educated, he was able to notate the blues chord progressions, write melodies, and publish blues works.
  • 1917 he and his publishing business moved to New York City. He had offices in Times Square. He published songs like “Memphis Blues”, “Beale Street Blues”, and “St. Louis Blues



Ma Rainey

  • September 1882 or April 1886? – December 22nd 1939
  • Gertrude Pridgett is given name
  • From Columbus, Georgia. Began her career there in the church and minstrel shows
  • Had a duo with her husband, they’d spend winters in New Orleans where she met King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Pops Foster.
  • Through the 1910’s she became very well known, and mentored Bessie Smith.



Bessie Smith

  • April 15th, 1894 – September 26th, 1937
  • From Chattanooga Tennessee. Busked on the street as a kid to help earn money for her household.
  • 1912 joined a dance troop and performed in a chorus line with a touring act that included Ma Rainey.
  • Began recording in 1923. Most popular blues singer of her day and had a voice that recorded really well.
  • Nicknamed the empress of blues. Jazz musicians copied her phrasing and tone on their instruments.
  • Like many musicians of the era, the depression affected her career.



  • Minstrel shows developed well before the Civil War showcased White people dressed in blackface mimicking and ridiculing Black enslaved people. In 1843 in New York, the Virginia Minstrels put on a show in blackface that purported to depict plantation slave culture. It was popular.
  • Later on, Black entertainers found a market in producing these shows on their own, and so they imitated White entertainers imitating Black enslaved people.
  • Racist exaggerations in appearance and behavior were typical.



  • Primarily a style of instrumental piano playing/composition. Popularized in Missouri cities of Sedalia, Carthage, and St. Louis.
  • The name comes from “ragged time.”
  • During the Civil War it was mostly played on the banjo. Later it was played on the piano, where the left hand kept a steady two-beat rhythm between bass notes and chords while the right hand created contrasting rhythms, not dissimilar to stride.
  • Improvised piano ragtime was toned down and translated into sheet music starting in 1897. It was wildly popular and featured many composers, of whom Scott Joplin was the best known.
  • Ragtime pieces frequently borrow from march structures. AABBCCDD, or AABBACCDD – D would be the “trio” equivalent in a march.


Scott Joplin

  • Born in east Texas to formerly enslave parents, his father was a violinist and his mother sang.
  • Joplin believed in racial uplift, studied with a local German piano teacher. He became a professional pianist at a young age and toured along the Mississippi River.
  • In 1893 he performed at the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • In 1894, he settled in Sedalia, Missouri, where he led a black marching band and studied composition.
  • In 1897, he wrote “Maple Leaf Rag”. 1899 it was published by John Stark & Sons music.
  • By 1900, the public had caught on and it sold over one million copies.
  • Supposedly defying convention for African American composers of the period, Joplin insisted on royalties instead of a flat fee for the piece. His strategy paid off well.
  • He moved to St. Louis and then New York, publishing many rags, a ballet, and two operas.
  • In 1903, he published “The Entertainer” (which would was made popular again by the 1970 film The Sting).
  • Joplin was committed to a mental hospital* in 1916 and died in 1917 of syphilis* just as recordings started to take over from sheet music as the preferred means of distribution.
  • Though many other fine pianists played ragtime, few of them recorded, so much of this vast repertoire has been lost.



Wilbur C. Sweatman

  • February 7th, 1882 – March 9th, 1961.
  • African-American ragtime composer, band leader, and clarinetist.
  • Played in W.C Handy’s band before organizing his own group.
  • 1908 moved to Chicago. By 1911 he was touring the vaudeville circuit with an act of him playing 3 clarinets at once.
  • 1916 made one of the first recordings of jazz on Emerson Records including “Down Home Rag”
  • Employed Duke Ellington for a while.
  • Some photos of him show that he and his band would lighten their skin for minstrel shows. This was not uncommon for Black bands of that era.



James Reese Europe

  • 1881 – 1919
  • Born in Alabama, moved to New York at 22 to perform in and conduct black musical theater.
  • Once there, he shifted his focus to ragtime and dance music. Associated with Irene and Vernon Castle
  • 1910, organized an association of Black musicians known as The Clef Club
  • 1913, first Black group to make recordings.
  • Europe enlisted in World War I.
  • He fought in the war, and formed the 369th Infantry band known as the “Hell Fighters”
  • Stabbed to death by a drummer during the First World War.



Before Jazz America Was Also Listening to

  • Marching & Brass Bands
  • Dance Music (arguably, orchestrated ragtime)
  • European Classical Music


John Philip Sousa

  • The March King – marches were very popular at the turn of the century.
  • 1854– 1932
  • Son of Portuguese and German immigrants.
  • Grew up outside Washington D.C.
  • Learned violin and theory at a young age. Took up the trombone and began conducting as a teenager. Also began composing.
  • 1868 enlisted as a Marine and served as an apprentice in the Marine Band.
  • 1892 formed his own band that played both military and symphonic works.
  • Composed 136 military marches. Most notably “The Stars and Stripes Forever”
  • He also composed 11 operettas and wrote 3 novels.



Dance Music

  • Charleston
  • Cakewalk
  • Turkey Trot
  • Bunny Hug
  • Grizzly Bear



European Classical Music

  • When people immigrated to the United States from from European countries – France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Austria, Poland, etc. they brought their music with them.




New Orleans


History of New Orleans

  • New Orleans is a port city located at the base of the Mississippi River on the Gulf of Mexico. Its unique location made it a prime commercial center before trains, planes, and automobiles.
  • Founded in 1718 by France, it was named after Phillipe Charles d’Orleans, Duke of Orleans.
  • In 1719, France used it was a penal colony. The city was then populated by French prisoners and prostitutes.  
  • In 1763 it was given to Spain, and only some 40 years later it was taken back by Napoleon (France) only to be sold to the United States three years later as part of the Louisiana Purchase. 
  • After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the population doubled in the following ten years and New Orleans thrived for about fifty years. 
  • Steamboat trade up the Mississippi made New Orleans in an important hub.
  • After the civil war, the use of locomotives and railway made the Mississippi river less important to the American economy.
  • Louisiana was fraught with corrupt government and by 1874 had a $53 million debt. 
  • Some how New Orleans ended up not having a proper sewer system until 1892, long after most modern American cities. 
  • It is located at a very low elevation point and is prone to flooding. That, on top of the humidity and lack of sanitation made it a hot bed for disease. In 1878 a yellow fever epidemic killed 2% of the population.
  • Average life span for a black native of New Orleans in 1880 – 46 years old. Black infant mortality rate was 45%, which was 56% higher than the average American city at that time. 



Traditions – Celebration, Parties and Parades

  • New Orleans has a long tradition of celebration.
  • Mardi Gras Celebrations date back to the mid 1700’s.
  • Funeral Marches and Second Line can be traced back to Congo Square and the traditions of enslaved Africans
  • Funeral Marches: 1. (dirge) slow march to the cemetery (SNARES OFF), and 2. fast paced marches from cemetary back to someones house for a party- celebration of the departed’s life (SNARES ON).
  • Second Line: The “Main Line” is comprised of the musicians and other important parade members. The Second Line is made up of followers and the community participating in the parade.
  • Second line is also used to describe the style of drumming associated with that type of music.
  • Recorded music was not common until the early 1900’s. Live music was apart of everyday life. Parades, funerals, and weddings had marching bands, brothels had pianists, social gatherings had bands, etc.
  • Even today the tradition of live music in throughout New Orleans is deeply embedded into the culture. It is different than every other city in the world that way.
  • If you have never been to New Orleans, make plans to go (when we are allowed to do such things again)!!!



Religion race, and the social class systems in 19th century New Orleans

  • Spain had brought a Latin-catholic religious culture to New Orleans that was more open to social variation than the English-Protestant church that prevailed elsewhere in the US.
  • As early as 1722, there was a small number black individuals were free in New Orleans.
  • Under Spanish and French rule, enslaved individuals could be set free without official permission. They could also own property and purchase their own freedom through an adjudicated contract.
  • In 1789, there were over 1,000 free Black individuals in New Orleans.
  • Spanish and French settlers as well as immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy, England, and Scotland contributed to the ambiance of the city.
  • The Black communities in New Orleans were equally diverse. People originated from multiple parts of Africa, were native-born Americans, and Afro-Caribbean people migrated there as well.
  • A successful revolt lead by enslaved people in Haiti (1804) lead to nearly 6,000 refugees fleeing to New Orleans by 1808
  • Creole” is a famously complex word whose meaning varies along the lines of time, place, context, and audience. It derives from criollo, a variation of the Spanish verb criar, meaning to raise, or bring up. It is not to be confused with Cajun – different immigrant lineage and different settling location.
  • Creoles were a social class of white individuals with French or Spanish lineage from the first settlers. It was a group of people who set themselves apart from later immigrants. They continued to speak in a French dialect and promote European culture.
  • Many Creoles raped enslaved Black women and made them their “mistresses”. The children produced by these encounters were brought up in Creole homes and sometimes treated nearly equal to white children. A few generations of this behavior resulted in a separate class between Creoles and blacks called Creoles of Color.
  • Frequently, Creoles of Color would hide their Black lineage and identify more strongly with their European heritage. They studied music, art, and were well educated. They wanted to elevate themselves and move past their enslaved ancestors.
  • New Orleans was segregated through the 1800’s. Creoles tended to live in the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, and Faubourg Tremé, which was particularly known for its Creole of Color population, most of them gens de couleur libre (free people of color). Anglo-Americans tended to live in the Faubourg St. Mary (today’s Central Business District), in what is now called the Lower Garden District, and in or near the Garden District. Both sides of town also had their share of immigrants, namely Irish and Germans, and each side worked to establish alliances in rivalry with the other. Free Black Americans (African Americans with no European ancestry) lived in Uptown and worked as house servants and unskilled laborers.
  • 1830, the Creoles of Color community collectively kept 2,500 enslaved individuals, ran businesses, were well respected members of society, often spoke French, and educated their children in arts (including European music). They supported a symphony and an opera house.
  • 1894 – Creoles of Color lost upper middleclass status with enactment of Jim Crow laws and the US Supreme Court decision in 1896.
  • This left the musicians in an awkward situation. Now, they were competing with Black Americans for gigs. Creole of Color musicians were frequently better trained than Black musicians and had previously rejected their style of playing, but the liveliness of the Black style prevailed in popularity. Over time, some of the traditions from the Creole of Color society prevailed in the music (arrangements, harmony, reading).


A Historical Misconception

  • 1897: Storyville – Councilman Sidney Story drafted legislation to make prostitution legal. •“The District” lasted until 1917 when the Navy shut it down because too many sailors were contracting STDs.
  • The belief that jazz and Storyville were linked is a misconception. At most, there were a few pianists ( most famously Jelly Roll Morton) who worked the bordellos. Many jazz musicians worked in Storyville cabarets or dance halls; but they also worked in parks, parades, excursions, advertising wagons, and riverboats, for dances and other social events throughout the city.


The New Orleans Diaspora

  • Something to consider about New Orleans – the bulk of it was recorded after it’s popularity in Chicago or New York.
  • New Orleans musicians who wanted to “make it” had to leave New Orleans in order to do so and rarely returned except to visit. Musicians of similar quality who stayed in New Orleans never achieved the same kind of recognition as those who left.
  • This trend was not unique to musicians or to New Orleans, it was part of a larger movement called the Great Migration.
  • Some of these players ended up recording past their prime, and some of the legendary icons were never recorded at all




New Orleans Jazz Musicians

Manuel Perez

  • 1878 – 1946
  • A Creole trumpeter, he learned cigar making, studied French and classical music, and played in various bands that required reading music and no improvisation.
  • For 30 years he led the Onward Brass Band and other ensembles, playing picnics, riverboats, and dancehalls. He influenced many famous New Orleans jazz musicians.
  • By 1910, he realized that improvisation was becoming more important, so he hired Joe “King” Oliver for that purpose.
  • By 1937, his style of music had lost its popularity, so he went back to cigar making.



Buddy Bolden

  • Charles “Buddy” Bolden
  • September 6th, 1877 – November 4th, 1931.
  • Son of a domestic servant. His sister and father both passed away when he was young.
  • Probably attended Fisk School for Boys where he learned about music and began taking lessons on cornet from a neighbor. 
  • As an adult worked as a plasterer, and its said he started playing in dance groups, which were string ensembles that included horns. The only surviving photo of the group shows cornet, valve trombone, two clarinets, guitar, and bass. Accounts of the band claim that drums were an integral part, but they are not pictured. 
  • Louis Armstrong claimed he couldn’t really play, and another account from a Creole band said his group was a bunch of “routineers” (fakers). 
  • Other accounts say that he played particularly bluesy, which at the time of ragtime popularity was a relatively new fusion. 
  • It was also said some of his songs contained controversial lyrics and one in particular referenced a local judge. When that song was performed, the police would come and put a violent end to the music. That Bolden performed this song and there are accounts of the altercation is an incredible example of boldness considering the time frame. 
  • No recordings of his playing were made (or if they were, they did not survive), so we’ll never know for sure. 
  • By 1906, his health was in decline – excessive drinking and mental instability. Was arrested a few times led to him being declared insane and committed to a mental hospital in Jackson.
  • The ultimate diagnosis was schizophrenia. For the remaining 24 years of his life he was hospitalized and never played again. 



Freddie Keppard

  • Trumpeter Keppard played all over the United States with his Creole Jazz Band before 1917, bringing New Orleans jazz to the rest of the country.
  • Known for being suspicious and would frequently play with a handkerchief over his fingers so other musicians couldn’t steal his techniques.
  • He was offered an opportunity to record in 1916 but declined.



Jelly Roll Morton

  • 1890–1941. Born Ferdinand Joseph Le Mothe
  • Raised in a strict Creole environment that resisted assimilating into New Orlean’s Black community. He shunned his Black ancestry.
  • He was disowned by his great-grandmother when she found out he had been playing piano in the brothels in Storyville. From that point on he traveled widely, assimilating new musical approaches. He settled in Chicago around 1923 for about three years.
  • While in Chicago he made over one hundred recordings or piano rolls of his compositions, published lots of pieces, and formed his capstone ensemble, The Red Hot Peppers. The recordings with band, his recorded history with Alan Lomax in the Library of Congress, and a few other recordings of note are his legacy. 
  • Morton wrote with specific musicians in mind, not unlike Duke Ellington. He played to peoples’ strengths so he could hide any limitations. He was adamant to the brink of gunpoint about his arrangements. He was one of the first jazz musicians recorded making remarks on his theoretical approach to composition and arranging referencing dynamics, vibrato, melodic construction, and the use of breaks. He also makes note of “Spanish Tinge”, or the necessary influence of Spanish and Mexican music in jazz. 
  • The roster of the Red Hot Peppers would vary throughout the years, but New Orleans musicians George Mitchell (cornet), Johnny St. Cyr (clarinet), Kid Ory (Trombone), Omer Simeon (clarinet), John Lindsay (bass) and Andrew Hilaire (drums) are frequently credited. 
  • Morton continued to record throughout the 1920s including a 1927 trio session with Johnny Dodds (clarinet) and Warren Baby Dodds (drums), a duet with Joe “King” Oliver, and the first integrated jazz recording in a studio with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana
  • In 1930 his contract ran out with Victor and like many musicians his recording career was negatively affected by the Great Depression. He maintained some notoriety in his composition “King Porter Stomp” which was made popular when arranged by Fletcher Henderson and performed by Benny Goodman. 
  • One of the more controversial figures in jazz history. Known as a braggart, liar, and pimp, it’s difficult to trust anything he says and in particular his claim to being the inventor of jazz. However, we cannot throw the baby out with the bath water and must acknowledge his many important achievements and contributions to the music. 




Sidney Bechet

  • May 14, 1897 – May 14, 1959


  • Originally from New Orleans. Bechet grew up in a musical Creole family.  He was primarily self taught on clarinet, played a little cornet, and performed in numerous marching bands around New Orleans. 


  • In 1916, he toured with a marching band to Chicago. In Chicago, he met Will Marion Cook – a classically trained violinist who organized my performances and tours, including one to Europe with Bechet and the Southern Syncopated Orchestra. 


  • Bechet purchased a straight soprano saxophone while in London, which ultimately became his signature sound. 


  • The Southern Syncopated Orchestra European tour also  inspired the first serious jazz essay, which was penned by conductor Ernest Ansermet and specifically praised Bechet’s playing.


  • This tour popularized jazz in Europe, and though he opted to stay abroad, Bechet was deported in 1921 following a violent argument in London.


  • In 1921 Bechet teamed up with New Orleans pianist, composer, song publisher, and record producer Clarence Williams and recorded with Williams’s Blue Five. In the group’s 1924 recording of “Cake Walking Babies (from Home),” Bechet proved himself to be the only musician of that era who could rival the talented, up-and-coming Armstrong.


  • Bechet is documented as being one of jazz’s first great soloists and is said to have viewed himself as a featured soloist. He stepped away from the democratic conventions of polyphony found in New Orleans Jazz and into the spotlight. 


Joe “King” Oliver

  • Born sometime between 1881 and 1885 – April 10th, 1938
  • Born outside of New Orleans and grew up in the city. Learned the cornet at a young age and started playing professionally as a teenager. 
  • He was mentored by Manuel Perez in the Onward Brass band and hired by trombonist Kid Ory’s band in 1917. Thereafter he toured for a while and finally settled in Chicago in 1921.
  • In Chicago, Oliver and his band, King Oliver’s Jazz Band (or King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band) had a long engagement at Lincoln Gardens, an upscale Black-owned nightclub on the Southside. He had New Orleans musicians Honore Dutrey, Jonny Dodds, Warren Baby Dodds, and Bill Johnson in the band, as well as Tennessee pianist Lil Hardin. Oliver suffered from pyorrhea, gum disease, during this time. His struggles with his embouchure led to him hiring the young Louis Armstrong to play second cornet, and Armstrong came from New Orleans to Chicago to play in Oliver’s band. 
  • Oliver pioneered many different mute techniques including the plunger, derby hat, bottles, and cups that imitated the human voice. His extensive use of mutes led to the production and marketing of professional instrument mutes. 
  • In 1923, this band recorded for Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana—then a hotbed for the Ku Klux Klan. Gennet had been recording jazz since 1919, but only White musicians. Recordings by Oliver and Morton showed the label the potential of Black American music, but they decided not to segregate their catalogue like some other labels. 
  • These recordings showcased a mature New Orleans sound using stop-time, breaks, and an improvised, polyphonic “first line.” “Dippermouth Blues” also includes solos by clarinetist Johnny Dodds and Louis Armstrong, and a widely imitated solo by King Oliver using mutes which was orchestrated by Fletcher Henderson on “Sugar Foot Stomp”




Original Dixieland Jazz Band

  • The five-piece format of the ODJB comes from Freddie Keppard’s band. (So maybe Keppard was right to be nervous about other people stealing his thing if he recorded).
  • Nick LaRocca – cornet, Larry Shields – clarinet, Eddie Edwards – trombone, Tony Sbarbaro – drums, Henry Rags – piano. 
  • Drummer “Papa Jack” Laine, led the Reliance Band. He discouraged improvisation but trained many important white players, including members of the ODJB.
  • The all-white ODJB went to New York to play at Riesenweber’s Restaurant in 1917. They were a sensation.
  • 1917 – Victor record label signed them to record two pieces, “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jass Band One-Step,” which turned out to be blockbusters. Although previous ragtime records had hinted at some jazz elements, to most white listeners, the ODJB’s music was unprecedented. The records were so popular that they brought the word “jazz” into common parlance.
  • The ODJB’s legacy is complicated. Nick LaRocca successfully promoted band years after group dissolved in 1922 as the first white band from New Orleans (which we know isn’t true, look who trained them), and the first to record jazz and make it popular (James Reese Europe recorded 4-5 years before them). He even touts them as being the “Creators of Jazz”.  And although their recorded renditions of “jazz” leave a lot ot be desired (limited improvisation, a stiffness in time feel) we should acknowledge their range in repertoire, facility on their instruments (Benny Goodman claims Larry as an influence), and controversial seat at the jazz table. 



Louis Armstrong

  • Born in New Orleans August 4th,1901 to Mary Albert (Mayann) who was 15 or 16 at the time and William Armstrong. He was raised by his grandmother until he was 5 and was then returned to his mother. He grew up in extreme poverty in a neighborhood nicknamed “The Battlefield.” 
  • At 7 years old, he worked selling coal to brothels in Storyville. Sometime between ages five 7 and 12 he began playing cornet and sang in a vocal quartet. 
  • January 1st 1913 he was arrested for shooting six blanks into the air from his stepfather’s .38 revolver. He was sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. He spent 18 months there. This is where he first had formal training on cornet. He played in a military style band and learned from local musicians. 
  • In June 1914 he was released and put in his father’s custody. He was then put back to work (he’s about 13 years old at this point), driving a coal wagon. He also worked for a Russian Jewish family, the Karnofskys. He heard European music in their home. He continued to play cornet and started earned money as a musician when more experienced cornetists left town. Around this time he was mentored by Joe King Oliver. He played in many New Orleans ensembles including Kid Ory’s group (got this job when Joe Oliver left town), Sam Dutrey’s Silver Leaf Band, Fate Marables riverboat ensemble (where he learned to read music), and Papa Celstin’s Tuxedo Brass Band (see playlist). 
  • In 1922, at 21 years old, Louis Armstrong left New Orleans for Chicago at the request of Joe King Oliver to play second trumpet in his band. Louis boarded a train with a suitcase, his trumpet, and a trout sandwich made by his mother. 
  • Louis’ experience in Oliver’s band was paramount. It boosted his confidence when people would flock to the Lincoln Gardens theater to hear him. His solo on “Chimes Blues” is what really got his career started in Chicago. 
  • Armstrong meets his second wife, pianist Lil Hardin, in Joe Oliver’s band. After a while, Armstrong began to outshine Joe Oliver, and Lil Hardin encouraged him to leave Oliver’s band in order to play first trumpet. He gave notice and joined Fletcher Henderson’s band. He left Chicago and moved to New york.









































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1. Introduction to Jazz