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Jazz Heritages

Chapter Summary

African and European Influences

Jazz blends many streams of influence. Jazz absorbed a multitude of both musical and cultural traditions yet those of Africa and Europe are the dominant influences. The separate traditions emphasize competing values that successfully co-exist within jazz.

Interpretation and Content

All musical styles and traditions have an interpretive system of presentation. Some presentations cannot always be fully described in terms of the musical elements that make up a performance. Jazz, as a hybrid of musical traditions, reflects a blend of music interpretations as well as a blend of musical elements.

European Influences

Several aspects of jazz derive from European music. These include melodic conception and harmonic sonorities. The diatonic and chromatic scales used in jazz are the same as those used for centuries by European composers. Musical forms of Europe became standard in jazz works. Hymns and marches among many other forms communicated European influences to jazz pioneers. The European tradition is predominantly literate and reflects that interest in its performance practice. The music is composed and notated and the role of the performer is to convey the intent of the composer. Writing music down is useful as a compositional device but is not as important in a spontaneous improvisation, a defining feature of jazz.

African Influences

In the daily life of Africans, music was a vital and demonstrative form of expression. Music performed a vital role in maintaining the unity of the social group. In most Western cultures, music is composed and performed by a select few for the benefit of others. In Africa, music was thoroughly woven into the daily life of the community. All Africans, from the youngest to the oldest, used music to work and play and for social and religious activities.

Africans communicate music to each other orally, rather than through written work. Each generation passes this on to the next creating an integrated oral tradition. The result is an exceptionally expressive language. African slaves brought these traditions to the United States and nurtured them while enduring the hardship of slavery. Slaves did not intentionally invent a new music. Rather the new music arose unconsciously from the transplantation of the African culture to a new world and through the struggle for survival of African Americans.

One major misconception about the origins of jazz is that its rhythms came from Africa. This is true in a sense but, more accurately, it is the emphasis on rhythm that can be truly designated African. Three points regarding the emphasis of rhythmic sounds in African culture are:

  1. Religion, very highly valued in African culture, is a daily way of life
  2. African religions are greatly oriented toward ritual; their sincerest form of expression
  3. African rituals have always involved a great deal of dancing

Call and Response

The call and response pattern heard recurrently in jazz can be traced directly to African tribal traditions. In jazz, a “call” is usually initiated by a solo singer or solo instrumentalist and is followed by a “response” from one instrument, or an ensemble.

African Americans in the Early Colonies

The evolution of African music in the colonies depended greatly on the particular colony to which the slaves were brought. Latin-Catholic colonies allowed slaves their musical life. However, British Protestants tried to convert the slaves to Christianity. As a result, slaves in these colonies were required to conceal their “pagan” musical inheritance.

Congo Square

Congo Square, from around the late 1700s to the 1840s, was a large field in New Orleans where slaves were allowed to gather on Sunday to sing, dance, and play their drums in their traditional manner. Congo Square is significant to the development of jazz because it provided a space in which original African music could be played and heard. In Congo Square, this music “could influence and be influenced by European music.” In 1893, the name was changed to Beauregard Square and then to Louis Armstrong Park in 1974.

Creole Music

The Creoles—people with Negro and French or Spanish ancestry—were not accepted by white society and joined the ranks of the African Americans. Their association allowed for an interchange of musical expression. The formal music training of the Creoles and the spontaneous oral tradition of African Americans resulted in an early form of jazz. Creole music, a blend of oral and European musical traditions, contributed harmonic and formal structure to this early jazz music.

Field Hollers (Cries)

American slaves were often not allowed to talk to one another in the fields while working. However, slave owners permitted singing. American slaves established communication between themselves by field hollers (cries) and whites could not understand this garbled singing. Bending of a tone characterized field hollers. Bending of tone is an exaggerated use of a slide or a slur. In general a tone is bent (slurred) upward to a different tone or downward to another pitch.

Work Songs

Works songs were sung without instrumental accompaniment. Work songs were associated with a monotonous, routine physical task and placed emphasis on rhythm and meter. Some work songs would include grunts and groans.


Minstrel shows were a form of entertainment performed by slaves for white people. White audiences enjoyed these shows so much that they would imitate the slaves by donning black make-up and putting on the same kind of show. At the beginning of the 20th Century, traveling minstrel shows were the main form of entertainment for both races. These shows featured the top blues singers of the day such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.

Religious Music

The African American church made central contributions to jazz expression. The religious expressions commonly associated with the African American church grew out of a marriage of preaching and singing. The Great Awakening, a spiritual movement, occurred around 1800. Spirituals and revival hymns carried a great amount of emotion and were sung at camp meetings.

Spirituals, a type of folk song, were the first original songs created by Protestant African American slaves on American soil. The spiritual, often called “hymns with a beat,” contributed to the development of popular song and vocal jazz. Spirituals employed a call-and-response pattern and placed great emphasis on rhythm with hand clapping and foot stomping.


Gospel music is performed in African American churches and encourages the audience to actively respond to the performer. The singer improvises and embellishes the melodic line by bending, sliding, or adding tones. Gospel songs and spirituals are often considered religious forms of the blues.

Mahalia Jackson and the African American Church

Jackson never performed in a jazz context. She sang only songs that she believed served her religious feelings. Jackson was influenced by Bessie Smith and learned much about the phrasing of African American folk music. For many years, Jackson’s singing was not accepted in the middle-class African American churches. Later in her career, Jackson became one of the most stirring, sought-after singers in the world.

Marching Bands

Early African American music in the United States was predominantly vocal. After the Civil War, African Americans were able to make or buy instruments. By the turn of the 20th Century, the most visible use of marching bands was for funerals. These bands were not only found in New Orleans but also in the Southeast and as far west as Oklahoma. Funeral procession music consisted of a traditional funeral music drone. After the burial ceremony, a couple of blocks from the cemetery the band would break into a lively jazz type of march such as When the Saints Go Marching In.

Typical marching band instrumentation consisted of a cornet, trombone, clarinet, tuba, banjo, and drums. The small size of these marching bands made the groups adaptable for various functions like advertising campaigns, weddings, and serenades. A group might even perform in a horse-drawn wagon. Thus, the name tailgate trombone was used to describe how the trombone player sat at the end of the wagon.


Jazz embodies an emphasis on rhythm taken from African music and harmonies derived from European music. American culture offered a wealth of musical forms and melodies that early jazz musicians used as material for improvisation. The balance of this compositional concern and spontaneous expression was set in motion and ultimately shaped jazz. All these elements fuse to make jazz an American music rather than a music solely of the African Americans who remain its pioneers and innovators.

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