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What is Big Band music?

The Jazz music of the Big Band Era was the culmination of over thirty years of musical development. What is it that made Jazz so innovative and different that it could literally sweep the world, changing the musical styles of nearly every country? And what is it about big band Jazz that makes the feet tap and the heart race with excitement?

African Music and Ragtime

The musical and cultural revolution that brought about Jazz was a direct result of African-Americans pursuing careers in the arts following the American Civil War. As slaves, African-Americans had learned few European cultural traditions. With increased freedom to pursue careers in the arts and bringing African artistic traditions to their work, African-Americans changed music and dance, not only in the U.S., but all over the world. For after the war, African-American dancers and musicians were able to create work that was not hidebound by hundreds of years of musical and dance traditions brought from the courts and peasant villages of Europe.

What was the European tradition? European music through the nineteenth century was melodically based, much of it with a square or waltz rhythmic structure.

What was the African tradition? Much African music has an organization which is based around rhythm and accent, rhythms and accents that may actually shift and move in relation to each other as the music progresses.

The big change that took place in music rhythmically was the shift away from the Ooom-pah-Ooom-pah (1-2-3-4) rhythmic structure. Ooom-pah has a strong accent on "1." African musical tradition tends to count towards the accented beat so that an African may count 2 on the same beat a European would count 1. It is also typical of West African music to have rhythms of different lengths overlaid each other, creating shifting accents. Which is to say that by the late 1920's African-American Jazz music had developed a tradition where musicians put a strong rhythmic accent on "2" and "4" (oom-PAH-oom-PAH) and melodic accents anywhere BUT on "1."

Ragtime

The first popular musical trend in the United States produced by this African-European synthesis was Ragtime which first achieved popularity in the late 19th century. Ragtime musicians often used what are called "ragged" rhythms.

Ragged rhythms were African-influenced rhythms, syncopated so that the accent was "off" the beat (the first beat is "on" or "down"). Ragtime musicians also occasionally used what were called "blue" harmonies and notes. Blue harmonies and notes used notes that didn't fit into the European concept of melody or harmony. Some of the notes don't even exist in European musical scales - these notes fit "between the cracks, " as people sometimes said.

New Orleans and Jazz Origins

The New Orleans bands of the late 19th century from which Big Bands evolved were varied. Some were social bands that played popular songs and music for dancing; some played marches and rags for weekend picnics and parties. Others specialized in their own variations on work and blues songs.

Big Band Jazz, according to one historian, had its start in New Orleans in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American war. Military bands returned to the port to decommission, flooding the city with used band instruments. And African-Americans interested in music quickly bought up hundreds of these instruments and quickly began to form bands. Starting from square one, aspiring African-American musicians taught themselves to play.

This had two results: unconventional playing techniques and unconventional rendering of popular musical tunes. The playing techniques led to new and interesting sounds entering musicians' vocabulary: trumpet and trombone growling sounds, wah-wah sounds, the use of odd household objects as mutes, and others. The unconventional rendering of popular musical tunes led to Jazz. An African-American playing a popular tune would play it adding some African musical traditions: different musical scales (which became traditional in nineteenth century African-American "blues" music) and different and complex rhythms.

Not bound by European traditions of form, these early Jazz bands played music that was, to put it mildly, loosely structured. A soloist or an instrumental section of the band played the melody (as they interpreted it) and the remaining musicians improvised the harmony and rhythmic embellishments. Many Jazz bands "arranged" their music by rehearsing it by "ear" many times until all the musicians were in agreement about what went where, when. These Jazz bands often changed personnel, sometimes on a weekly basis. This frequent changing also helped the evolution of Jazz, preventing bands from becoming hidebound and determined to have a particular style or sound. On into the 1930's change was the watchword of Jazz.

Jazz Enters the Mainstream

As New Orleans progressed into the 20th century, traditional band music gradually changed, so that marches sometimes contained improvised sections, and solos and accompaniments sometimes sported occasional blue notes. Elsewhere in society it was not even unusual for conventional popular songs to display a few ragged "Jazz" rhythms!

But not for the first time, these musicians dreamed of fame and fortune. [Fame and fortune was something which eluded many African-American musicians and bands due to institutionalized racism in the music industry and society at large. It was not uncommon for a African-American Jazz band to record a tune to no acclaim, have a record promoter pay little or no money for rights to the tune, and then for that tune to be issued by a White band to national promotion and great acclaim.] Enter radio and the recording industry into the world of Jazz.

The First "Jazz" Recordings

The first "Jazz" record "Livery Stable Blues", coupled with "Dixie Jass Band One Step" was made in 1917 by a White band from New Orleans called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The band was one of the first to bring the New Orleans style...

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