Culture & Change: Black History in America

 


Did you know that jazz was born in the United States? Did you know that the drum set was invented by jazz musicians? Did you know that the word "cool" and "hip" were originally jazz terms?

Join us in learning more about the history of jazz from its birth in New Orleans, Louisiana, to the music we hear on the radio today. Grammy-Award winning trumpeter and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis invites you to take a tour of jazz — see the people, read about the events, and listen to the music. The following history is adapted from the Jazz for Young People Curriculum by Jazz at Lincoln Center. You will need RealAudio to listen to the music pieces, to learn how to get RealPlayer, click here. (It's free!)

 
   

Late 1800s–Today
The Blues: Back to the Source

Born in the South, the blues is an African American-derived music form that recognized the pain of lost love and injustice and gave expression to the victory of outlasting a broken heart and facing down adversity. The blues evolved from hymns, work songs, and field hollers — music used to accompany spiritual, work and social functions. Blues is the foundation of jazz as well as the prime source of rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll, and country music. The blues is still evolving and is still widely played today.

You shouldn't have to feel sad when listening to the blues. Wynton Marsalis explains why.

Learn more about the blues on PBS.org.

 

1900s
New Orleans: The Melting Pot of Sound
Mardi Gras in New Orleans at the turn of the century
Photo: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.
"New Orleans had a great tradition of celebration. Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born." —Wynton Marsalis

Listen to this traditional New Orleans standard called "Second Line." The melody is repetitive and very singable. Notice the banjo rhythms in the background, and listen to the musicians break away from the melody into collective improvisations.

Learn more about New Orleans jazz on PBS.org.

 
   

1901
Louis Armstrong is born: The Jazz Original
Louis Armstrong
Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
"Through his clear, warm sound, unbelievable sense of swing, perfect grasp of harmony, and supremely intelligent and melodic improvisations, he taught us all to play jazz." —Wynton Marsalis

Louis Armstrong was one of the most influential artists in the history of music. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on August 4, 1901, he began playing the cornet at the age of 13. Armstrong perfected the improvised jazz solo as we know it. Before Armstrong, Dixieland was the style of jazz that everyone was playing. This was a style that featured collective improvisation where everyone soloed at once. Armstrong developed the idea of musicians playing during breaks that expanded into musicians playing individual solos. This became the norm. Affectionately known as "Pops" and "Satchmo," Louis was loved and admired throughout the world. He died in New York City on July 6, 1971.

Listen to the drama expressed by the trumpet and clarinet solos in "Potato Head Blues."

Learn more about Louis Armstrong on the website for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

 

Improvisation: The Expression of Freedom
Improvisation is the most defining feature of jazz. Improvisation is creating, or making up, music as you go along. Jazz musicians play from printed music and they improvise solos. From the collective improvisation of early jazz to the solo improvisation of Louis Armstrong to the free jazz of Albert Ayler, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane, improvisation is central to jazz.

Listen to Mr. Marsalis's explanation of improvisation.

To learn more about composition and improvisation, play this jazz game on the PBS Kids website.

 
   
Mid–1930s
Swing: Sound in Motion
Swing is the basic rhythm of jazz. Swinging means being in sync with other people and loving it. Swing as a jazz style first appeared during the Great Depression. The optimistic feeling of swing lifted the spirits of everyone in America. By the mid-1930s, a period known as the "swing" era, swing dancing had become our national dance and big bands were playing this style of music. Orchestra leaders such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman, and Benny Goodman led some of the greatest bands of the era.

Learn about the swing rhythm and listen to how the vocalists accent the second and fourth beats to create that rhythm. These accents give the music a sense of motion and make you want to dance.

Learn more about the swing era on PBS.org.

 

Duke Ellington: Master Composer
Duke Ellington
Photo: Library of Congress
One of the most significant figures in music history, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on April 29, 1899, in Washington, D.C. He began studying the piano at the age of seven. He started playing jazz as a teenager, and moved to New York City to become a bandleader. As a pianist, composer, and bandleader, Ellington was one of the creators of the big band sound, which fueled the "swing" era. He continued leading and composing for his jazz orchestra until his death in 1974. "Ellington plays the piano, but his real instrument is his band. Each member of his band is to him a distinctive tone color and set of emotions, which he mixes with others equally distinctive to produce a third thing, which I like to call the 'Ellington Effect.'" —Billy Strayhorn, composer and arranger

Listen to Wynton Marsalis explain the "Ellington Effect."

Learn more about Duke Ellington on his official website.
 
   
1940s
Bebop: The Summit of Sound
"If you really understand the meaning of bebop, you understand the meaning of freedom." —Thelonious Monk, pianist and composer

In the early 1940s, jazz musicians were looking for new directions to explore. A new style of jazz was born, called bebop, had fast tempos, intricate melodies, and complex harmonies. Bebop was considered jazz for intellectuals. No longer were there huge big bands, but smaller groups that did not play for dancing audiences but for listening audiences.

Listen to a short history of the beginning of bebop, and learn how to scat!

 

Dizzy Gillespie: A Jazz Visionary
Dizzy Gillespie
Photo: William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.
"The first time you hear Dizzy Gillespie play the trumpet, you may think that the tape was recorded at the wrong speed. He played so high, so fast, so correctly." —Wynton Marsalis

Trumpeter, bandleader, and composer John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was born on October 21, 1917, in Cheraw, South Carolina. He got his first music lesson from his father and took off from there. He moved to New York City in 1937 and met musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Together they experimented with jazz and came up with the bebop sound. Dizzy also helped to introduce Latin American rhythms to modern jazz through his collaborations with artists such as Machito and Chano Pozo. His bold trumpet playing, unique style of improvisation, and inspired teachings had a major influence, not only on other trumpet players, but on all jazz musicians in the years to come. He died in Englewood, New Jersey, on January 6, 1993.

How did Dizzy get his name? Wynton Marsalis explains his famous nickname and what made Dizzy so unique as a musician.

Read Dizzy Gillespie's biography on PBS.org.
 
   
1950s
Latin and Afro-Cuban Jazz: Beyond the Borders
"Afro-Cuban jazz celebrates a collective musical history. Through its percussive beat, it unites ragtime, blues, swing, and the various grooves of Cuban music. It proclaims our shared musical heritage." —Wynton Marsalis

The combination of African, Spanish, and native cultures in Latin America created a unique body of music and dance. Jazz musicians from Jelly Roll Morton to Duke Ellington to Dizzy Gillespie combined their music with this Latin sound to create a powerful blend. In the 1940s and 50s, when musicians from Cuba began to play with jazz musicians in New York, the circle was complete. By combining the musical traditions of North, South, and Central America, Latin jazz celebrates our musical differences and helps us to find a common ground.

Gillespie and Chano Pozo, a Cuban musician, created a new form of Latin jazz called CuBop. Listen to the difference between swing and Latin grooves.