Unconventionality and freedom of expression are characteristics of jazz and brought it both praise and criticism.
Early jazz was often learned by ear (or ‘by head’, as jazzmen said), especially in New Orleans. These musicians often had no formal musical education. Their school was the honky-tonk and the jam sessions where they would listen to more expert musicians and try to imitate that music on their instruments.
Much of this listening and performing happened in the streets of New Orleans where the marching bands operated.
Marching bands (or brass bands) started right after the Civil War when African Americans salvaged instruments (mostly brass) from the military bands. These bands played for the community, mostly outdoors, for any occasion: weddings, funerals, festivals, pick-nicks, social dances. There were numerous marching bands in the city, and they would fight for the audience’s attention in music competitions that often happened on street corners. Turn of the XX century New Orleans was a place where music was everywhere.
The most experienced musicians would play in the front of the marching band and were therefore called front liners. If a young musician wanted to play along, he could do so in the second line. If and when he ever proved himself, he could move to the front line.
Many youngsters and aspiring musicians joined the marching bands as second liners. It was a prevalent means of musical education in New Orleans. Other began playing on their own, often at a very young age, sometimes in ‘spasm bands’, bands who played all sorts of gadgets that produced sound: musical saws, washboards, spoons, bells, sandpaper, sets of bottles.
This kind of alternative, intuitive, free-styled music attracted a lot of criticism from more established musicians, but also community leaders. Many argued that this wasn’t music. Music should be beautiful and follow classic rules of composition, not clang together any noise. In conservatories, many teachers refused to teach jazz, that lower music practised by people who couldn’t ‘play by the book’.
But some jazzmen could read music. In New Orleans, they were mostly Creoles who had indeed received a formal musical education. Differences in music-reading abilities led several New Orleans performers to describe themselves in two different ways: those who could read music were nicknamed ‘musicianers’ and those who could not – who ‘ragged’ or ‘jazz’ it – were of course ‘jazzmen’.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
I was doing all right – Lerning to improvise: ear training
New Orleans Online – Second Liners
I think it’s a shame they had to differentiate, but at least they did it themselves. If the professionally trained conservatory people are anything like me, the idea of improvisation scared the hell out of them 🙂 All the rest is grandstanding 🙂
Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
I think they are two very different ways of doing the same thing. I mean, it’s abit like planners and pantsers in writing. We go differetn way, but we all want to achive the same thing: a good story that will move readers 🙂
This is interesting! I didn’t realize there was such a history behind marching bands!
Oh, there is a lot more. The section about the marching bands was one of the best in Ogren’s book, in my opinion.
There was a caste system for musicians as well? That’s too bad, but either way, the music was great. Loving your historical posts!
Sadly, it appears there was.
Though I also think they needed to know whetehr someone read music or played by head, because they might have operated in different ways and so a musicians had to know whether he could fit in an ensamble or not.