Ara Cho Ethno 50A 803-672-412 October 14, 2011 Seeing Ragtime and Blues as Parents of Jazz Jazz is a music genre that has complex characteristics and history of development and thus many musicians and scholars face troubles in defining what jazz is. In general, jazz is believed to have born in New Orleans. Jazz developed for the pleasure of the social dancers. According to the “Understanding Jazz: What Is Jazz? ” of John F.
Kennedy center for the Performing Arts, Jazz was created mainly by Afro-Americans, and had elements of European and Afro-American culture.
Also, it emphasizes few elements of Jazz, which are swing-feel, syncopation, and improvisation. These different culture and elements of jazz may be explained by how jazz developed from popular music styles of 1800’s. There can be many different music styles that could have effected development of jazz, but ragtime and blues were the two essential music style in development of jazz.
Ragtime and Blues are similar in that they both were forerunner of Jazz in closely overlapping time period, but those two music styles were different in many ways: the origin of the music, whether instrumental or vocal, and which musical technic each music genre focused on.
Thus both ragtime and blues were critical in jazz development, but they influenced jazz in different ways. Again, most important similarity between ragtime and blues is that they both were essential to development of jazz, and both were the music style of the late 1800’s.
According to Ted Gioia in his book The History of Jazz, “Ragtime music rivals the blues in importance – and perhaps surpasses it in influence- as a predecessor to early jazz” (pp. 20). On the other hand, LeRoi Johns and Imamu Baraka claim in Blues People: Negro Music in White America, “Blues is the parent of all legitimate jazz”(pp. 17). People may have different opinions about whether one music style is more important than the other, but it is undeniable that both ragtime and blues were essential in development of jazz.
It is also true that, even though the types of influence and the amount may differ, both ragtime and blues had some African influence. Thus the similarity between ragtime and blues is significant but there are numerous differences between the two music styles. First, their origin was different. Even though they both had African influence as mentioned, ragtime was more strongly influenced by European music style, and blues was heavily African music style.
According to Durk Sutro in his book Jazz for Dummies, “Ragtime was European-influenced, in the sense that it was composed, not improvised, and featured carefully crafted melodies and harmonies…ragtime could sound concisely European” (ch. 5). Although European-influenced, there is some African influence such as rhythm and African banjo music as mentioned during the lecture. Ragtime rhythm was “the rhythms of the black dancers who used their heels to make drum sounds, or to that of the black church singers who could vary the rhythms of a Christian hymn so much that a white Christian could not even recognize it”(Tirro, pp. 7). On the other hand, Blues were basically from work songs of African Americans slaves at the time. “It is a native American music, the product of the black man in this country, or, to put it more exactly the way I have come to think about it, blues could not exist if the African captives had not become American captives”(pp. 17), said Jones and Baraka. In Jazz – A History, Frank Tirro wisely analyzes and explains the relationship between the unique background and the characteristic of blues. He states, “Innuendo and double meanings are important aspects of blues lyrics.
This practice may be traced to the pre-abolition period, when slaves needed a system of secret communication while they were still within earshot of their masters. This custom of double-entendre, intentional ambiguity through the use of words with two meanings, which was strong in the African literary tradition as well, was incorporated naturally and smoothly into the lyrics of the blues” (pp. 48). Thus it is clear that blues is much more of African American music compared to ragtime. Other differences between ragtime and blues seem reasonable knowing their background influences.
Ragtime was mostly piano-dominated genre, and many musicians who were trained in European classical music played ragtime. Citing James Haskin in Black Music In America, “syncopated kind of piano playing came to be known as ragtime” (pp. 38), and this “was a form that excited Scott Joplin” which he also excelled (pp. 38). Scott Joplin was one of the most important ragtime composers, and he was also most popular. “In 1899, his ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ was published”(pp. 39) which is also piano-played music. Thus ragtime was piano dominated, but blues was different. Because blues developed from African American work songs, blues was mainly vocal.
Blues people usually sang about unjust, frustrations, and sufferings. “Personal feelings are verbalized and serve to call community attention to one’s predicament and misfortune” (Tirro, pp. 48). Blues represented voices of people who felt hopeless, and this is also why blues is often sung in lively rhythm; in order to hide the sadness by laughter. One of the most important blues musicians was William Christopher Handy. “As a child, he would sneak away to hear the black laborers singing as they worked loading and unloading cargo along the Tennessee River” (Haskins, pp. 2). W. C. Handy played “Georgia Camp” which he included some of the black work songs, and it was very successful. Also, He “devised a method for notating the way black folk singers ‘slurred,” or ‘broke,’ the third and seventh tones of the musical scale”(Haskins, pp. 45). These tones W. C. Handy was able to notate were the tones that characterized blues music. The musical style which ragtime and blues contributed to jazz are also different. The most prominent ragtime influence on Jazz seems to be the syncopation music style.
Syncopation was the defining characteristic of the ragtime, and also is essential element of Jazz. In Duke Ellington, Jazz Composer, Ken Rattenbury states that “Ragtime’s unique syncopation has developed far beyond mere piano solos, and its range extends vividly and spectacularly from county blues to jazz”(pp. 55). Blues also had some syncopation, but more importantly, there was improvisation. Improvisation is a significant element of jazz. In blues, “Stretching syllables improvisationally for musical…reasons makes the beat placement in blues performances unpredictable”(Tirro, pp. 54).
And although both ragtime and blues had syncopation, Frank Tirro mentions that even syncopation was different. Syncopation in blues were improvised(pp. 54). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that ragtime influenced jazz with syncopation, and blues influenced jazz with improvisation most greatly. Not only with syncopation and improvisation, but ragtime and blues probably helped development of jazz by taking a first and important step to incorporate African music to European-influenced American music in general. Jazz is a blend of ragtime and blues, European and African American style of music.
We can see ragtime and blues as the parents of Jazz. Just as both parents are needed to born a child, ragtime and blues were essential in development of Jazz. Ragtime and Blues are equally important in development of Jazz, but just like a child learns different things from mother and father, ragtime and blues made different influences to jazz development. And what is important to remember is that, even though a child learns and receives many characteristics from parents, a child is not simply a mixed combination of parents. It is certainly a new, distinctive being. Works Cited
Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Haskins, James. Black Music in America: a History through Its People. 1st ed. New York: Harper Trophy, 1993. Rattenbury, Ken. Duke Ellington, Jazz Composer. London: Yale UP, 1993. Sutro, Dirk. Jazz for Dummies. 2nd ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub. , 2006. Tirro, Frank. Jazz: a History. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1993. “Understanding Jazz: What Is Jazz? ” The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Kennedy Center. Web. 14 Oct. 2011. <http://www. kennedy-center. org/programs/jazz/ambassadors/Lesson1. html>.
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