The Jazz music of the Big Band Era was the peak of over thirty years of musical development. Jazz was so innovative and different that it could literally sweep the world, changing the musical styles of nearly every country. Big band Jazz that makes the feet tap and the heart race with excitement that it is recognized with nearly every type of music.
The musical and cultural revolution that brought about Jazz was a direct result of African-Americans pursuing careers in the arts following the United States civil war. As slaves African-Americans has learned few European cultural traditions. With more freedom to pursue careers in the arts and bringing African artistic traditions to their work, African-Americans changed music and dance, not only in the U.S., but all over the world. For after the war, African American dancers and musicians created work that was not similar by hundreds of years of musical and dance traditions brought from the peasant villages of Europe.
The music of Europe had a more base structure. European music through the nineteenth century was melodically based, with a square or waltz rhythmic structure. Differently, much African music has an organization which is based around rhythm and accent, rhythms and accents that may actually shift and move in relation to each other as the music progresses. The big change that took place in music rhythmically was the shift away from the rhythmic structure. African musical tradition tends to count towards the accented beat so that an African may count 2 on the same beat a European would count 1. It is typical of West African music to have rhythms of different lengths overlapping each other, creating shifting accents, sort of like a mix. Which is to say that by the late 1920’s African-American Jazz music had developed a tradition where musicians put a strong rhythmic accent on “2” and “4” and melodic accents anywhere BUT on “1.”
The first popular musical trend in the United States produced by this African-European combination was Ragtime, which first achieved popularity in the late 19th century. Ragtime musicians often used what are called “ragged” rhythms. Ragged rhythms were African-influenced rhythms, shortened so that the accent was “off” the beat, instead of in rhythm with the beat. Ragtime musicians also occasionally used what were called “blue” harmonies and notes. Blue harmonies and notes used notes that didn’t fit into the European concept of melody or harmony. Some of the notes don’t even exist in European musical scales, so they were not recognized easily.
The New Orleans bands of the late 19th century from which Big Bands evolved were varied. Some were social bands that played popular songs and music for dancing, some played marches and rags for weekend picnics and parties. Others specialized in their own variations on work and blues songs.
Big Band Jazz had its start in New Orleans in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American war. Military bands returned to the port to flood the city with used band instruments. And African-Americans interested in music quickly bought up hundreds of these instruments and began to form bands. Starting from square one, enthusiastic African American musicians taught themselves to play.
This had two results: unconventional playing techniques and unconventional rendering of popular musical tunes. The playing techniques led to new and interesting sounds entering musicians’ vocabulary: trumpet and trombone growling sounds, wah-wah sounds, the use of odd household objects as mutes, and others. The unconventional rendering of popular musical tunes led to Jazz. An African-American playing a popular tune would play it adding some African musical traditions, different musical scales and different and complex rhythms.
These early Jazz bands played music that was, to put it mildly, loosely structured. A soloist or an instrumental section of the band played the melody and the remaining musicians improvised the harmony and rhythmic embellishments. Many Jazz bands arranged their music by rehearsing it by ear many times until all the musicians were in agreement about what went where, when. These Jazz bands often changed personnel, sometimes on a weekly basis. This frequent changing also helped the evolution of Jazz, preventing bands from becoming hidebound and determined to have a particular style or sound. On into the 1930’s change was the watchword of Jazz.
The first “Jazz” record “Livery Stable Blues”, coupled with “Dixie Jass Band One Step” was made in 1917 by a White band from New Orleans called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The band was one of the first to bring the New Orleans style of Jazz to New York. After a music agent heard them in Chicago and brought them to New York, where, within weeks, they were a sensation. Soon after their first record Victor records signed them for several more. The music recorded by the band was nearly conventional with no blue notes and only a smattering of ragged rhythms. Even so, the record sold over one million copies and had a profound effect on musicians and the public all over the U.S.
As Jazz got popular, many New Orleans-based bands began spreading out across the country, playing in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or hitting the smaller towns. The first Jazz record by an African Americans, was by Kid Ory’s band recording under the name of Spike’s Seven Pods of Pepper Orchestra. The songs “Ory’s Creole Trombone” and “Society Blues” where recorded in Los Angeles in 1922. After 1923 the flood gates were open and African American Jazz became widely recorded. Early stars included other New Orlean’s musicians like King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, a Creole musician who, in the early 1920’s, recorded over a hundred of his own and other’s Jazz tunes. Some of the records are solo piano, but many are of Jelly Roll with his band the Red Hot Peppers.
These early releases were great hits and record companies began recording nearly anyone who even claimed to be a Jazz musician. With records coming out by the hundreds, thousands of young people across the U.S. decided they wanted to be “Jazz” musicians. The Jazz music boom had begun.
But the enthusiasm for Jazz was not shared by everyone. Many in White middle America were concerned, and magazine and newspaper articles decrying the influence of African American music on society and the scandalous behavior, including dancing, it supposedly led to were not uncommon. Jazz had arrived and it had made an introduction.
As a decade of rebellion, the Roaring 20’s was made for Jazz. The young and the hip delighted in anything that was new and exciting. The more staid and uptight members of society thought Jazz decadent and a moral which gave Jazz, for some, extra appeal. But the exciting new rhythms and harmonies was the huge force behind society’s acceptance of Jazz.
The first bandleader to achieve national recognition was Fletcher Henderson who formed a band in the early 1920’s. Originally his band was a dance band, playing waltzes and foxtrots. Over the course of a few years Jazz rhythms and blue notes became more prominent in the band’s music. By the time the band took over at Roseland Ballroom and featured Louis Armstrong on trumpet, the band had become a Jazz band.
Duke Ellington, a formally trained musician, also formed his band in the 1920’s, again as a dance band. The arrival of an innovative trumpeter named Bubber Miley and a talented saxophonist named Sidney Bechet exerted a profound influence on the Ellington’s work, gradually helping to change the band into a remarkably creative Jazz big band.
In 1935 that Jazz with a “Swing beat” achieved national attention and then in large part to Benny Goodman. As a youth Goodman was an extremely talented clarinetist. He studied with a respected Jazz clarinetist in Chicago, leaving Chicago in 1928 for NYC where he was successful as a sideman. However, he didn’t form his own band until a few years later when he got a recording contract thanks to the great Jazz impresario John Hammond. Soon after that he bought some scores from Fletcher Henderson, some of them arranged by Henderson himself. Despite Henderson’s fine arrangements, his band hadn’t been doing well. Goodman, at the urging of John Hammond, hired Fletcher. The same arrangements which brought Henderson’s band lukewarm interest proved to be dynamite for the Goodman band. For the next several years Henderson arranged tunes for Goodman band in a Jazz/Swing style.
Henderson’s arrangements are credited with helping sweep the Goodman band to national popularity the following year at the finish of an apparently unsuccessful cross-country tour in California.
As it turned out, the radio broadcasts of the tour were scheduled too late for people in the east and midwest. On the west coast, however, the broadcasts gained a devoted audience who, surprising the band, swarmed its final concerts. And it was with Benny Goodman that the Swing big band boom began, and our narrative on Jazz draws to a close. After Goodman’s dramatic success ignited the Big Band craze, excellent musicians who had been working as sidemen for other bands found encouragement to start their own bands. Bands led by the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, Bunny Berrigan, Lionel Hampton, Harry James, and Gene Krupa sprang into being.With big band Swing music in full bloom, it was only logical that jitterbug dancing should also rocket to national popularity, which it did. Jazz music had an amazing affect on the “Roaring Twenties.” It tells many stories of sadness, experience and most of all, life.