Popular Jazz and Swing: America’s Original Art Form

(The following is excerpted from the U.S. Department of State publication, American Popular Music.)

Jazz music was the anthem for the first well-defined American youth culture. Rebelling against the horrors of mechanized warfare and the straitlaced morality of the 19th century, millions of college-age Americans adopted jazz as a way to mark their difference from their parents’ generation.

Admittedly, the ability of youth to indulge in the sorts of up-to-date pastimes portrayed in Hollywood films and novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was strongly affected by their position in society – after all, not everyone could afford luxury automobiles, champagne, and top-flight dance orchestras. However, jazz’s attraction as a symbol of sensuality, freedom, and fun does appear to have transcended the boundaries of region, ethnicity, and class, creating a precedent for phenomena such as the swing era, rhythm & blues, and rock ’n’ roll.

“America’s classical music” is inextricably linked to the African American experience.

Jazz, one of America’s original art forms, emerged in New Orleans, Louisiana, around 1900. New Orleans’s position as a gateway between the United States and the Caribbean, its socially stratified population, and its strong residues of colonial French culture, encouraged the formation of a hybrid musical culture unlike that in any other American city. Jazz emerged from the confluence of New Orleans’s diverse musical traditions, including ragtime, marching bands, the rhythms used in Mardi Gras and funerary processions, French and Italian opera, Caribbean and Mexican music, Tin Pan Alley songs, and African-American song traditions, both sacred (the spirituals) and secular (the blues).

The New Orleans-born cornetist and singer Louis Armstrong is commonly credited with establishing certain core features of jazz – particularly its rhythmic drive or swing and its emphasis on solo instrumental virtuosity. Armstrong also profoundly influenced the development of mainstream popular singing during the 1920s and 1930s. Armstrong emerged as an influential musician on the local scene in the years following World War I, and subsequently migrated to Chicago to join the band of his mentor King (Joe) Oliver, playing on what are regarded by many critics as the first real jazz records.

In 1924 Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York City, pushing the band in the direction of a hotter, more improvisatory style that helped to create the synthesis of jazz and ballroom dance music that would later be called swing. By the 1930s Armstrong was the best–known black musician in the world, as a result of his recordings and film and radio appearances. Armstrong’s approach was shaped by the aesthetics of early New Orleans jazz, in which the cornet or trumpet player usually held the responsibility of stating the melody of the song being played. Throughout his career Armstrong often spoke of the importance of maintaining a balance between improvisation (or “routining,” as he called it) and straightforward treatment of the melody. “Ain’t no sense in playing a hundred notes if one will do,” Armstrong is reported to have said on his 70th birthday.

[This article is excerpted from American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3 by Larry Starr and Christopher Waterman, published by Oxford University Press, copyright (2003, 2007), and offered in an abridged edition by the Bureau of International Information Programs.]

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