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
Wow! I didn’t know about the field hollers. Thanks!
There’s so much hidden in history, don’t you find? 🙂
Great post and so much information that I never knew. The source and inspiration for music comes from places we haven’t even imagined.
That’s true. But I think that’s what any kind of art does. It makes us free 🙂
Wonderful post. I learned so much! It just makes me appreciate music that much more.
Jingle Jangle Jungle
This is what I like of history: it always makes sense. There is always a reason why things happene and when we learn it, we know something more about our past, but often also about our presend and ourselves.
Thanks so much for stopping by.
Fascinating post. Had heard of coded messages in black music before. Had forgotten this but it does make sense. Clever on the part of slaves in communicating their messages in song. Jazz is less American than we think, although we do take credit!
Pioneer Women in Aviation A-Z
Well, I think jazz IS an American music. It came into being because of America’s particular history and social situation. I don’t think it could have arisen anywhere else.
But nothing arises out of nothing. Everything has a history and a ‘before’, and this is what the African roots of jazz tell us about.
Just my thought 🙂
Fascinating history to Jazz. Quite a few of my family members have played in jazz bands, so I shall be back to read more.
The Quiet Writer
I’m happy you find it intersting. Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
I’d heard of the spirituals, but not field hollers – such a musically rich, but troubled start to the history of jazz.
It’s the history of people. Understanding the music, let us understand the people. Though for me, understaning the history of people made me appreciate the music more. When I started my research, I knew nothing of jazz 🙂
Mithila Menezes @Fabulus1710
The hidden meanings in the songs have a really meaningful significance!
All the best for the challenge, and I hope you’ve had a great first day 🙂
Thanks for stopping by, Mithila. I’m just halfway through it… I’m anticipating a very busy night 😉
Beautifully informative as always, thank you so much for all the details I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea that the particulars of the origins of Jazz were so vague :).
Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
Jazz emerged from a melting pot of cultures and influences, just like many other music forms in the same time and places (as ragtime, for example). So the vogueness isn’t as much about what and when created the right conditions for the birth of jazz, but on the details.
We know that jazz existed in and around New Orleans at a certain time, but was that the place and the time when it first started to be played? Nobody knows. We know that some of the jazz characteristcs come from certain influences (as I tried to expose), but how and when these influences congretated in a recognizable form of music the first time, again, we don’t know.
Yes, jazz appears to be a very mysterious art 😉
Gail M Baugniet
Interesting history about Jazz; like the comment about the field hollers. Great start to the AtoZ! Aloha to you on A day!
Happy you found it intersting, Gail. Your have a very good opening post!
The world has music in common. The field hollers remind me of Gaelic waulking songs sung in the Highlands and Islands as women beat (waulked) the tweed to soften it. The rhythm is similar.
True, eh? There are so many similarities among different cultures around the world, and not just in music. One would wonder about it…
This is very interesting! I didn’t realize the songs had messages in them. Great post!
Thanks Megan. Happy you liked it 🙂
I’m going over to your post, can’t wait to start reading you ‘very badly written’ story 😉
Mimesis Heidi Dahlsveen
How brilliant to read!
Your story which opens your challenge gave me the chills.
Thanks. This was something I did not know and frankly, would love to read more on. As many mentioned above, the spiritual part I could have guessed but the holler aspect was new info.
Will be returning for the remaining days of the challenge to see more 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by, Roshan. Happy you liked my post. Will visit you soon 🙂
My gram used to play the piano at church. she couldnt read music but she could pick up ANY tune and start jamming her butt off! she could play a negro spiritual or a good old fashioned classical music piece. all by ear. she sang with a deep voice and her call and response voice could rouse the dead. I’d like to think that some of that came from the slave history of our ancestors.
In so many ways, I think music is the most universal of arts 🙂
Negro Spirituals, Prison Songs and Hollers give me the chills. I have tried to incorporate them into my novel that’s in its second draft form. They are such an inspiration to me as an African American woman and they can be inspirational to all that open their hearts to these deeply felt messages.
I think writing about our own culture is easier for soem aspect, but so much more
difficult for other.
What is your story about, Stephanie? I’d love to know more.
I am glad you are doing this 🙂 It is a very informative theme. When I teach American culture, my students are often very interested in musical genres and their origins.
Happy A to Z! 🙂
The Multicolored Diary
What has fascinated me the most about researching jazz is that it wasn’t just a matter of music. It was a social movement in so many respects. I hope I’ll be able to let this across 🙂
I’ve learned a lot from this post. Thanks for the education! I didn’t know about the hidden messages or the field hollers.
Hi Debbie and thanks so much for stopping by. I’m happy you liked my openign post 🙂
Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor
Very interesting, especially the part about hidden messages.
A lot of people seem to be fascinated with that part of history. Secret languages are always intriguing, aren’t they?
Something so profoundly beautiful emerged from something so horrific! Loved the history lesson. Looking forward to the rest of your posts!
I hope you’ll like it. I found the history of jazz fascinating 🙂
It’s always interesting to learn more about how cultures mix and influence each other. Learning Jazz has it’s roots in field songs isn’t too surprising, but I didn’t know it. It’s going to be a great experience watching the history of Jazz unfold this month.
It was a great experience fro me to research it. I hope you’ll enjoy the ride 🙂
This made for such a fascinating and an insightful read! Wow!
Happy you liked it, Shilpa 🙂
Thansk so much for stopping by.
I think I’m going to have to get that CD–the music is so stirring.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? When I was looking for a song to include in my post, I listened to this and I thought, Ok this is the one 🙂
Thanks Carol. Happy you liked it 🙂
Great introduction into the world of jazz age jazz.
I never realized some of the roots of jazz and that many other roots have been obscured over time.
Happy you liked it, Jeffrey. History has so much to reveal to us, if we are willing to listen 😉
What about the blues connection? I always think of jazz and blues being close companions, since they’ve influenced each other and came about around the same time, both from that Mississippi region near New Orleans and the delta of the Mississippi River.
Have you seen my post about B, yet? 😉
Loved your fist post about Chicago. All those pics. Lovely!
Music really does define and bond people doesnt it? Jazz speaks from the heart all the way to the toes.
A well written article that I enjoyed and learned from.
Thanks and happy A to Z challenge to you.
I’m A to Zing from: Fill the Cracks and Moondustwriter’s Blog
Happy you enjoyed it. I loved your post about Africa 🙂
I know precious little about Jazz… although I do enjoy listening to the music.
I can see where Jazz did originate from African Spirituals, though (which I also enjoy)
I look forward to learning more throughout the month.
My Cozy Book Nook
Revising Life after 50
Thanks for stopping by, Molly.
I’m enjoying your theme too. Never been to Paris, so your theme will also teach something to me 🙂
Barbara In Caneyhead
Jazz is very much something you know it when you hear it, but extremely hard to define. Actually, I think defining it would detract from it.
Very insightful post on the roots of jazz in the African slave population.
Like Louis Armstrong used to say, if you need to ask what it is, you’ll never know 😉
Work songs definitely helped slaves get through hard forced labor. Your posts are very informative and thought provoking. Thanks for taking part in the challenge.
It’s a pleasure. Thanks for stopping by 🙂
Great post and very informative, too. Looking forward to the following ones! All the best
Thanks Zeljka. I’m enjoying your photos too 🙂
Again, (just finished reading about the Blues) very informative. I see where you made a comment that you knew very little about jazz before you started digging. Nice work digging then!!:) And thanks for taking us along for the ride.
It’s been a very good journay indeed. I leanred so many things. And because I feel enriched by the journey, I want to share it.
Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
Thanks for sharing this. Such an insightful read!
Thanks, glad you liked it 🙂
Love the history, thank you.!
Happy Second Day of the A to Z!
Ninga Minion @YolandaRenee from
Defending The Pen
Thanks for stopping by, Yolanda 🙂
I knew bits of this, but it’s nice to get a bigger picture on the origins of jazz.
Glad you liked it. And thanks for stopping by 🙂
A is for Amazing which describes this post. You are off to a great start and I’m looking forward to following you through the alphabet.
Oh, thanks so much, Claire. I’m happy you find my post interesting 🙂
Great post! Have you seen the Ken Burns series? It’s excellent.
– Fellow A-Z-er
Happy you liked it 🙂
I’ve seen only the first episodes of Burns’s “Jazz” (the time I’m interested in) and “Last Call” about Prohibition. These are all great documentaries.
Awesome post! I loved learning this part of musical history!
So happy you liked it. Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
Jazz has such a deep history. Great post, taking it all the way back to the beginning. Important to discuss where it started.
Researching jazz was such an interesting journey.
Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂
Wow! I loved that historical recording. Great theme for the A to Z challenge. Thank you for sharing the knowledge. Alex from
Family Tree Frog
And thanks you for stopping by and commenting 🙂
I guess I had not found you when this was first posted. I did know this about jazz and black music, bit great to see you spreading the information.
It’s been four years since I first posted this series. Can’t believe it’s already that long.
This is one of my favourites, though. I enjoyed learning about the social impact of jazz and I loved searching and listening to all the videos.