You will often hear it said that “jazz was the soundtrack to the Roaring 20s.” However, the birth of this musical genre took place nearly two decades earlier in the form of “New Orleans Jazz” and the bright, brassy sounds of the black brass marching bands in the streets of New Orleans. Usually, we think of jazz as a post-WWI phenomenon, but really it began before the war did. It was the Victrola, promoted and sold by the Victor Talking Machine Company, that literally broadcast the new sound across the country and made early jazz nearly synonymous with flapper dresses, the Charleston, and, later, Gatsby.
New Orleans jazz originated with the invention of the “Big Four” beat by Buddy “King” Bolden, a cornetist whose band, the Bolden Band, was popular in New Orleans around the turn of the century. Bolden has been dubbed the “father of jazz,” although he is far from alone in holding this title. The Bolden Band combined ragtime and blues in an innovative manner, using brass instruments to play both blues tones and gospel music. Because Bolden and his bandmates played mostly by ear, they were among the first to extemporaneously rearrange well-known tunes to better accommodate their own musical preferences and performances. The “Big Four” beat is a rhythmic variation on marching band beats that allows for more improvisational music than other traditional rhythms. Without the “Big Four,” embryonic jazz might not have become the improvisational art form it is today.
Bolden’s band was popular in New Orleans until 1907, when Bolden himself succumbed to a possibly alcohol-induced psychosis that ultimately led to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He was institutionalized and spent the rest of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum. Jazz, however, was here to stay, and Bolden’s bold move of bringing brass to the blues would set the stage for the bands that would soon begin combining cornets, trumpets, clarinets, trombones, string instruments, drums, and piano to create the lush point-counterpoint of increasingly spontaneous, robust jazz sounds.
Jazz continued to evolve throughout the early 20thcentury, but it truly began to be broadcast across the air during and after WWI. This was due, in large part, to the popular phonograph, which had actually been invented more than 30 years earlier but only began to be mass-produced and -marketed in the 1920s. What better sound to play on your new Victor Talking Machine (Victrola) than the bright, brave sounds of jazz that had sustained hope throughout the war and personified everything bold, hopeful, and irreverent about the new decade? Jazz flourished as more people began listening to and modeling the sound in their own performances, ultimately leading to the evolution of the genre familiar to most of us in the mellow sounds of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing.”
Unlike many musical genres that have evolved, boomed, and then faded, the creative, spontaneous elements of jazz mean that this music will likely never fade from the American consciousness. In fact, you still hear elements of the “greats” and the “grandfathers” of this music today in Bebop, Hard Bop, Cool Jazz, and even the “Fusion” of the 1990s. Of course, in the 21stcentury, we not only hear echoes of the classics and plenty of mimics of them, but also we hear jazz tones in hip-hop, rap, R&B, and the intriguing “jazz rap” that samples jazz from other eras.
As musicians, artists, and humans, we never stop “broadcasting.” This is particularly true in this day and age. And as long we’re broadcasting and our speakers are working, you can be sure jazz will remain in our music and on our stages — virtual, electronic, and otherwise.