Jazz, A Brief History

The history of jazz began with the transportation of the African people to the American’s in the early 1600’s.  Most of the Africans were taken from the western coast of Africa (regions like Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, and Togo) and transported to the Caribbean and Spanish colonies in Central and South America during the early history of African enslavement. By the mid-1700’s, that had changed. A large percentage of the North American population was composed of Africans, most living in southern colonies.

Although most African people in the Americas were slaves, there was a very small population who were not. They could be found in some parts of Maryland and a city founded by the French in 1718, New Orleans. The free colored people in New Orleans were called the Creoles. Creole people were of mixed ethnic descent, usually a product of a white Frenchman’s affair with a slave. The Creole people were more privileged than the full blooded African slaves because of their genetic make-up. They were allowed access to the finest education and trained as musicians.

In 1764, the Spanish took over the city of New Orleans, doing away with French customs and beliefs. Creole economic and social statuses dropped. Creole people now needed to search for jobs.  A lot of them decided to take advantage of their musical training, and become traveling musicians. This eventually lead to what was called the minstrel show.

The end of the Civil war and the beginning of a period called Reconstruction opened many doors for black people. Black men were now able to vote and hold some political power. Black run higher education facilities were now being opened all over the United States. With the new black universities now open and operating, student organizations and activities were active as well. The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University were some of the pioneers in bring awareness to black music and creative ability. The Fisk Singer’s show flourished greatly, financially. This was where the foundations for jazz music was laid.

As the 19th century came to a close, racial segregation and hatred became reality again. Blacks were again subjected to inferior treatment and were thought to be the untamed and unguided. The Jim Crowe Laws were instituted to isolate black Americans from white Americans. The North and racially mixed and dominated areas such as New Orleans still offered more opportunities to Blacks. With a social atmosphere that called for new music, New Orleanian musicians got to work. Using music and song passed down from their ancestors and combining it with modern day musical style, early Jazz was developed. It was a mixture of African work songs, negro spirituals, rural blues, and European brass band instruments.

This music grew greatly in popularity and was soon being played in all New Orleanian festivities.

By the 1920’s , jazz was a familiar music. It was often associated with Ragtime music and the two were sometimes called Dixieland Jazz. One of the first jazz singers recorded was Bessie Smith. She became very popular immediately and was given the nickname “The Empress of  the Blues”. 1920 was also the time period of the prohibition of alcohol sale.  Alcohol was still being sold in nigh clubs in Harlem which drew both white and black people. This is where both white and blacks heard greats like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. Whites did appreciate music produced by the upcoming legends of that area but they were still subjected to the harsh treatment the Jim Crow laws allowed society to enforce.

Although black jazz musicians had many obstacles to overcome, the jazz train just kept on going, becoming more and more popular through the years. Many great jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Scott Joplin and many others came out of the early jazz era, making it possible for jazz enthusiast like those who visit the Jazz Manor website to enjoy incredible music. No amount of words could compile the history of jazz and give it the justice it deserves, but here at The Jazz Manor we believe it is best a person knows the history of what they love so they can help us spread the word. You have to know where you come from to know where your going.

Lauren P. Barnes

Temple University ’11