Jazz Through The Ages — Part I: Transcendence Out of Oppression

Over the next several posts, we’re exploring Jazz through the ages in an effort to further crystallize this essential and transcendent music genre — one we hold in high regard as it relates to the discerning audiophile listening experience and overall enjoyment of Marantz products. Part 1 endeavors to explore the impetus of jazz and the beginnings of its global import, while also shining a decadal light on Marantz in the home.

Prefacing his 1952 American Quarterly piece "On the Instrumental Origins of Jazz," professor Russell Roth quoted Sir Thomas Browne: "There is something in it of divinity more than the ear discovers: it is a hieroglyphical [sic] shadowed lesson of the whole world." Roth believed the statement applied to jazz's unique importance to American culture. Around the same time, Saul Marantz began working on what became the flagship products of his home audio company, the Model 7 and Model 8.

Nearly 70 years later, many understand jazz's general artistic significance but may not fully appreciate its full progression, evolution and emergence from under the yoke of sociopolitical oppression.

Dreams of freedom

As Cory McKay noted in a dissertation on jazz's origins, determining its precise genesis is difficult due to how few reliable documents exist regarding Black American cultural history, for reasons one can easily, unfortunately infer. However, a firsthand account of a "ring shout" from New Orleans dates back to 1819: These public slave dances accompanied by percussion and stringed instruments, sometimes made of impromptu materials, match known characteristics of indigenous African music and dance, according to Ted Gioia's widely renowned History of Jazz.

Ring shouts took place before and after the abolishment of slavery (and possibly far earlier than 1819, Gioia noted). Not unlike lyric spirituals, they represented a longing for freedom cloaked in escapist language celebrating the mere fact of life. These expressions of African identity would form the spine of jazz and the blues, with Caribbean and European influences finding their way in.

Ragging the time

The ragtime movement is one of jazz's notable precursors, exploding into popularity during the late 1890s but existing before that in the earliest works of traveling pianists like Scott Joplin and Tom Turpin, who played in no-name juke joints from Mississippi to East Texas, according to Music Educators' Journal. Based on syncopated rhythms and fast-paced playing, its rollicking sound notably influenced jazz pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, Art Tatum and Fats Waller. Ragtime also incorporated Cuban techniques, foreshadowing the Afro-Cuban jazz of later decades.

Dixieland and regional scenes

New Orleans jazz played during the late 1890s until about 1917 is usually called Dixieland or hot jazz. Many of jazz's earliest pioneers, including the aforementioned Morton, cornetist and "big-four" inventor Buddy Bolden, bandleader Papa Jack Laine and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, spearheaded or played with ensembles like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Reliance Brass Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

Major developments, ranging from Laine's willingness to integrate his bands to the ODJB's release of "Livery Stable Blues" — the first jazz record ever sold — occurred during this period. Also, Chicago was becoming just as important to this burgeoning musical style as New Orleans, particularly during the late 1910s.

On the other hand, jazz wouldn't start fully catching on with the mainstream until the early 1920s, when the sound developed in New Orleans started to be heard across the nation. Additionally, this part of the genre's history saw more than its fair share of strife, nearly all of it stemming from the persistence of segregation and other types of macro- and micro-scale racism. Such prejudice is what drove so many New Orleans jazz legends to Chicago and other cities in the northern U.S. Though these locales were hardly sanctuaries, they still afforded greater opportunities than any southern metropolis at that time.

In the next piece of this series, we'll explore the Jazz Age, the rise of big-band sounds, the elusive quality of swing and the genre's first superstars, including (but hardly limited to) Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

And as the series continues with nods to these jazz legends, remember… Marantz hi-fi products are the vehicles to hear them in all their resounding glory.