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Who actually created jazz?, 4 Feb 2012
For decades anyone writing about or referring to the history of jazz followed the same narrative.
Jazz, they said, was developed early in the 20th century in New Orleans by black musicians who combined elements of ragtime, blues and latin-American rhythms to create a very lively style of dance and party music.
Later, particularly when jazz was transferred north to Chicago and New York, white musicians borrowed the music, gave it one or two twists of their own, and launched it into the wider world.
However, recent research by historians and musicologists, supported by claims from early white musicians, has led to a different theory about the origins of jazz.
Certainly, in the late 19th century black musicians were playing in in clubs and dance halls and for a wide range of social events in and around New Orleans. But, says the new theory, they played in a conventional manner, reading music and following prepared arrangements. The sounds were far from being "hot".
At the same time, in a city with a deep racial divide, white musicians were making similar music, but perhaps without the special rhythmic elements which came naturally to black people. During this period the word "jazz", and any derivatives, was unknown in the southern states.
According to the new research, young white musicians in and around New Orleans, perhaps influenced by European-style folk music, began to play in a more lively, four-beat-to-the-bar style. They introduced elements of comedy and a lack of respect into the music. They started to make things up as they went along and improvisation, on a limited scale, became part of their performances.
Some of these musicians drifted north to Chicago where their bright and breezy style was received with enthusiasm. At some time during this period, between 1910 and 1920, the word "jass" appeared. Its exact origins have never been explained but it is likely that it was a slang word used on America's west coast to mean "lively" or "vigorous" and, as a result, took on sexual connotations. Somebody, somewhere, applied it to the sounds created by the bands which were starting to proliferate in Chicago's seedier dance venues.
By 1917 one of the white groups which had moved north from New Orleans was operating under the title of the Original Dixieland Jass Band. Some time later the name developed into the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Eventually the band simply became known, particularly by jazz fans, as the ODJB. It was in 1917 that this five piece group made history by going into a recording studio and laying down some tracks which became the first jazz numbers ever to be issued on disc.
As a result of these recordings the ODJB became a national and international phenomena and was instrumental in launching jazz as a global art form. They also gained fame and a certain amount of fortune.
According to the latest theory, black musicians were impressed by the success of the ODJB and, prompted by the chance to make money, started to play in a similarly happy-go-lucky style. But they brought their own experiences and influences to bear on the music and black jazz soon had a distinct sound of its own.
As time went by and jazz bands travelled, more recordings were made and new opportunities were taken. Up-and-coming white musicians, who had never been anywhere near New Orleans, were hugely impressed by the black jazz bands and started to play in a similar manner. But, as is the nature of things, they too added fresh elements to the music and took it along different routes.
In essence the new theory suggests that white musicians played a much more pivotal role in the creation of jazz than had first been accepted. Whether you buy into this idea or not (there are lots of fors and lots of againsts) it is interesting to reflect on it as you listen to the numbers on this double CD, recorded an amazing 95 years ago, and enjoy the very first sounds of jazz. It all happened a very long time ago. But it still has an important and exciting resonance.