If there’s something certain about jazz is that nothing is certain about jazz. We don’t know for certain where or when it was born. We don’t know for certain why and how it emerged as its own form of music. Even a definition for it is not easily founded.
But it is normally agreed on the fact that jazz arose in the South of the United States around the turn of the XX century and that, although it was always a mixture of European’s and African American’s musical traditions, the characteristics that most define jazz – especially early jazz – found their origin very far away in time and place: in Africa.
The place where a first form of music that then evolved into many others, including jazz, was the Southern plantation.
The communities of slaves on plantations were very diverse. Slaves came from different parts of Africa and often spoke different native languages, but music was something they all understood because it was a common part of all their different backgrounds. Slowly but steadily, music became a form of communication and one of the very few forms of expressions for slaves, who would draw strongly on their African heritage, but also picked up elements of the owners’ European music culture. The plantation was one of the first places where contamination occurred.
Music on the plantations manifests in two different, main forms:
- Spirituals: a syncretic form of religious expression. It had its roots in African spirituality, but was generally tolerated by plantation owners because interpreted as a conversion to Christianity.
- Work song and field hollers: work in the fields was repetitive and monotonous. Work songs created a rhythm to work at, with strong, steady beats. A leader would sing a line, all the other participants would respond.
Early manifestations of music and songs on the plantations, both sacred and secular, were very similar in structure. The situation when they occurred was what differentiated them. In later years, this connection between sacred and secular music created quite the controversy inside the black community.
Another thing they had in common was that these songs often had a hidden meaning, a coded message comprehensible only to the community participating in the song and hidden to the slave owners. This secret meaning was sometimes meant to uplift the community and give hope. Some other times, it contained a message that was spread among the different plantations, which is why field hollers were sometimes forbidden.
The communal creation of the music, the syncopated rhythm and the “call and response” practice were all characteristics of African music, that would then evolved inside the African American community, often independently from the dominant white culture. Jazz was one of the many forms of music that emerged from this common experience.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Sullivan, Megan, African-American Music as Rebellion: From Slavesong to Hip-Hop (PDF)
Hub Pages – How did jazz begin? The start of a history of jazz
Jazz – Jazz Heritages