The Birth of Blues and Jazz – The Original Birth of Cool

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WC Handy

After Christmas break is over and done, I will begin teaching my most favorite unit – the 1920s and 1930s. I call it “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” for it truly was. But out of this time period will come the foundations of all that we hold dear in our consumer culture and our beliefs in the role of government. But above all else will rise the birth of two forms of American music that are known the world over – blues and jazz.

On a lonely night in 1903, W.C. Handy, the African American leader of a dance orchestra, got stuck waiting for a train in the hamlet of Tutwiler, Mississippi. With hours to kill and nowhere else to go, Handy fell asleep on a hard wooden bench at the empty depot. When he awoke, a ragged black man was sitting next to him, singing about “goin’ where the Southern cross the Dog” and sliding a knife against the strings of a guitar. The musician repeated the line three times and answered with his instrument.

Handy later said, it was “the weirdest music I had ever heard.”

That music was, and is, the blues. The blues come from work songs, field chants, and southern spirituals. It was a rural music of hope, pain, suffering, and desire brought on first by slavery, then by sharecropping, and just being black in the South. Jazz, on the other hand, grew out of ragtime and New Orleans style music and slowly made its way up the Mississippi River and on to Chicago where the term Jazz was first coined in 1913.

Up until this time, it was hard to tell the difference between Jazz and Blues. If you listen to Bessie Smith’s rendition “Yellowdog Blues”, you will hear elements of both types of music.

One of the first great composers of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton, even called his music blues.

Things changed during World War One. In what is known as “The Great Migration”, African-Americans left the South to work in the factories in the North. Up to this point, Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans were seen as Jazz towns. Soon, New York would be too. Add in Philadelphia, Detroit, and any major northern industrial metropolitan city, and the influx of African-Americans coming north to work in the factories changed the culture of music. For with them came the music of the fields (blues) and the music of the river (jazz).

It is in the late 20s that the split between the two forms of music becomes evident. The structure of the 12 bar blues becomes the dominant form of the genre while jazz ebbed and flowed in its structure, rhythms, and instrumentation. It is striking to sit and listen to the similarities of the two kinds of music in their infancy. For today, jazz is seen clearly as a more instrumental kind of music. But in the the 1920s, the lines were not so clear.

Take a look at Louis Armstrong’s “St James Infirmary Blues” to see and hear both.

Then take a listen to Bessie sing “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”.

To the untrained ear, it may seem quite similar, but to musicians, the chord structure, bass, and rhythms and different. And throughout the 20s and 30s, the two forms of music would continue to shift. By the early 30s, Blues reverted more to guitar, slide guitar, harmonica, piano, bass and drums, while jazz incorporated the brass. By the end of World War II, the two forms were completely different in their sound and structure. It is those sounds which formed the basis of our modern conceptions of blues and jazz. However, in the beginning, the lines and the sounds were blurred. But for me, it was the original birth of cool.

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4 thoughts on “The Birth of Blues and Jazz – The Original Birth of Cool

    Mary Beth Henning said:
    December 14, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    How cool that you were mentioned in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.com today!

    historyrat responded:
    December 14, 2009 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks, Mary Beth!

    Mary Kay L. said:
    December 14, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    Totally impressed, kind Todd!! Why should this not surprise me? Hurray for you!

    Missing you tease me about tripping so gracefully and spilling my coffee….
    :)
    MK

    Trackback said:
    December 20, 2009 at 9:22 pm

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