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America’s oldest art form

Keeping the spotlight on jazz

Created date

March 20th, 2012

In late 19th century New Orleans, people from a variety of backgrounds lived in close quarters, one race and ethnicity next to another. There was little residential segregation and, with the hot weather and no air-conditioning, all the windows remained open, the ideal setting in which a musical democracy could flourish. On any given day, the sounds of a myriad of cultures filled the air: ragtime, blues, spirituals, military marching bands, Italian opera, Anglo-American folk songs, street cries, and work songs. And so was born a distinctly American art form called jazz.

"If I had to pinpoint the birthplace of jazz, I would say that it was in late 19th century New Orleans, which was a cultural melting pot," explains John Hasse, a jazz expert and curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The extraordinary set of ethnic circumstances that you had there, a wonderful mix of African, Caribbean, Mexican, French, and Italian-American roots, was the foundation of jazz music."

Musical bouillabaisse

According to Hasse, while jazz had numerous influences, two of the most important ingredients in this musical bouillabaisse were blues and ragtime. A product of the early African-American community, blues arose out of the struggles of the post-Civil War reconstruction era and helped give jazz the soulful depth for which it is well known. Ragtime, also an African-American invention, derives its formal elements from the European march, with its striding left hand and syncopated melody lines lending jazz a loose sense of structure.

Spreading the sound

Together, the two styles gave jazz a melodic vibrancy, and its local affiliations with the Big Easy burgeoned from the get-go. Even before the Original Dixieland Band made the first jazz record in 1917, musicians from New Orleans were hitting the road with instruments in tow. They traveled on the Illinois Central Railroad north to Chicago and on to other cities spreading this new sound around the country.

By the 1920s, jazz began to show its artistic potential. For the first time, listeners heard records by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington. These artists, combined with the boom in social dancing, made jazz a mainstream genre and a staple of the swing era in the 1930s. During the 40s, however, jazz moved from the ballroom to the nightclub, led by an up-and-coming group of young musicians that included Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Unlike the largely prearranged music of the big bands, the new nightclub jazz was rooted in sophisticated improvisation on known melodies that continued to evolve throughout the 1950s, when it met fierce competition from rock and roll.

Though jazz never died out, it struggled to stay alive in the wake of disco, punk rock, and rap music, a trend that disturbed Hasse. In the late 1990s, I was worried that jazz wasn't getting the respect that I thought it deserved, he recalls. Our nation's young people were in danger of growing up without knowing about this great American music, which, in my opinion, was comparable to an Italian coming of age without ever hearing opera. So Hasse decided to do something about it.

With the backing of the Smithsonian Institution and a little help from music great Quincy Jones, he declared April Jazz Appreciation Month. An initiative geared toward introducing the nation's youth to the century-old genre, the annual celebration is now going on its eleventh year. Every April, the Smithsonian issues 250,000 posters to schools, libraries, and concert halls, along with a schedule of lectures and performances featuring jazz artists from around the world. In fact, today people celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month in 50 states and 40 countries.

"Of course, being at the Smithsonian, we're really in the ideal position to host this celebration," says Hasse. "We have what is, quite possibly, the world's largest museum collection of jazz-related artifacts." Among the crown jewels in this treasure trove are 100,000 pages of unpublished music that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote for the Duke Ellington Orchestra; John Coltrane's original manuscript of "A Love Supreme"; and Ray Charles' keyboards and trademark Ray-Bans. As Hasse points out, each piece in this collection represents a milestone in one of the single most influential American art forms. "Few musical genres have such a rich history representative of so many different cultures," says Hasse. "In jazz, there's something for everyone."