Jazz and the blues

Table of Content

The roots of Jazz music and the blues, being intertwined with each other, are as colorful as their names, literally, because it is the music of colored people, African-American slaves, who toiled in the fields of the Southern plantations.  The blues were generally believed to be songs sang by the workers while working in the fields and is generally believed to have originated from African spirituals, African chants, work songs, field hollers, rural fife and drum music, revivalist hymns, and country dance music. (Kopp, 2005)  Jazz preceded the blues in origin as it was first sang and played in Louisiana in New Orleans; just up river along the Mississippi Delta is the place where Jazz was born.  These two musical forms are alike in many ways and grew up almost hand in hand.

The earlier forms of jazz and the blues are not quite different from the kinds that we have today.  Jazz was accepted in more places earlier so it was not until the 1930’s and 40’s that the blues made its way to the South and the Midwest.  The migration of the blues to the South and the Midwest resulted in its evolution.  Soon enough there were many forms of the blues like ‘Chicago blues, other regional blues styles, and various jazz-blues hybrids.’ (Kopp, 2005) Some time in the 1950’s the Blues evolved significantly and gave rise to rhythm ‘n blues and rock ‘n roll.  There is no single person to whom the discovery of the Blues could be attributed to although there are certain people who claim that they are the ones who are responsible for the development of this musical form.  Among those who claim that they originated the genre are H.C. Handy who claims to have acquired the genre from a street guitarist in Mississippi.

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The first recorded piece of music that could be referred to as the Blues is a song titled, “Laughing Song” by George Johnson. (McElrath, 2008)  Soon, when the Blues became popular in more urban areas, various forms emerged, like Traditional county blues, Jump blues,

Boogie-woogie, Chicago blues, Delta blues electrified, Cool blues, West Coast, The Texas blues, Memphis blues, St. Louis blues, Louisiana blues, Kansas City, British blues, rock-blues hybrids, New Orleans, and blues rock.  These forms had custom features that characterized the region or the country where they developed.  Pioneers and advocates of this music form include Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson (Kopp, 2005), Blind Willie McTell and Barbecue Bob (McElrath, 2008); early blues singers included Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters. (McElrath, 2008)

            The early part of the 20th century was a difficult era for the African-Americans – they had to deal with discrimination, slavery, poverty, as well as many other social concerns.  Most of the early forms of the blues gave emphasis on the individual as it was mostly used as a form of communication among workers, or to keep time.  A feature of the blues that denotes its function in this period is the quality of its lyrics which mostly talked of overcoming personal adversity and earning your own luck.  These lyrics clearly showed that a primary function of the blues was to assert that each person was responsible for his own destiny (McElrath, 2008) – this basically means that Blues songs were constant reminders of individual struggles and how these struggles were overcome.  Socially, the Blues, other than serving as a musical testament to the difficult years of the Negroes, moved on to becoming a popular form of entertainment and worship.  The Blues did not remain as slow, and dragging melodies of this era, rather, it became more popular as lively music in pubs, street parties, as well as religious services owing to its versatility and resiliency.

            There are many reasons that influence the development of music as well as its accessibility.  In relation to the Blues, it can easily be concluded that the events that shaped this particular musical genre can be the cause for its popularity as compared to classical music.  Jazz is the music of the masses of the late 1800s and the early 1900s while classical music can be traced back to its European origins in Medieval Rome where it began and developed through the Renaissance period.  Classical is derived from the Latin word, ‘classicus’ which means ‘taxpayer of the highest class’; classical music was generally an elite form of music. (Greene, 2006)  This alone can explain why Jazz is more accessible to the ordinary listener than classical music – classical music is only for the trained and seasoned ear, while Jazz can be appreciated by almost anybody who can relate not just to the lyrics but to the general concept of human struggle.

            Like other more recent musical forms, Jazz has its own qualities that appeal to the general public.  It has to be understood, however, that some musical forms like rock and roll developed as a fusion of blues, gospel, and country music.  Jazz, which traces back its origins to the early 1920s is considered art music in some of its forms but is more often referred to as popular music which includes types like the sentimental ballads of the mid-19th century, the music of the dance halls and pleasure gardens as well as the music hall and the operetta repertory.   Jazz shares this category along with swing and soul; Swing also has its West African origins while soul was performed by African-Americans in the 1960s – this shows that most of the popular musical genres nowadays created for a general audience, either have the same basic characteristics as Jazz or are probably even evolutions of Jazz, itself.  Jazz can be heard almost anywhere nowadays, mostly in pubs in gospel or religious gatherings, in concerts, on the radio, as soundtracks for movies, and even on television; but this was not the case when Jazz started; during its early years, Jazz was played around secret, intimate, campfire gatherings of African-American slaves who were forbidden any kind of pleasure – this was their form of entertainment.

            Jazz is a musical treasure, and in particular, I am drawn to the sense of history of this musical genre as well as feeling of propriety and pride that it invokes.  As is generally accepted, music is supposed to invoke specific emotions in a person, and Jazz in particular is able to give me a sense of history and pride.  It is this particular feature of jazz that makes it easy for me to identify with it.  Music, in all its forms, serve to allow man to experience the intangible; most of the time, these intangibilities comprise the greatest good.  We are all travelers in this journey that we all refer to as life, and for us to be able to get the most out of life, we should all be able to recognize things that are important and possess great value.  Music feeds the soul allows us humans to experience cherished things that make life worth living.

Works Cited

Green, Aaron . “Intro to Classical Music.” About.com.   2006. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://classicalmusic.about.com/od/classicalmusic101/a/intro072104.htm>.

Kopp, Ed. “A Brief History of the Blues.” All About Jazz. 16 Aug. 2005. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=18724>.

McElrath, Jessica . “The History of Blues Music: An Overview.” About.com. 13 May 2008. 6 Mar. 2009 <http://afroamhistory.about.com/od/bluesmusic/a/bluesmusic.htm>.


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