HISTORY OF JAZZ FROM THE VIEWPOINT OF FIDDLE PLAYER
This is an exploration of the history of jazz from the point of view of a fiddle player. As a barn dance and ceilidh bands and as a classical violinist, playing mostly string quartet repertoire, I have hardly ever touched on jazz as played by this real jazz band. The violin is certainly a jazz instrument, but not a very common one. I've heard Stefan Grappelli, one of the greatest jazz violinist of all time, live at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh. I enjoyed the performance, and it was certainly brilliant, but at the time I didn't really take to it. I did enjoy jazz, that only from the point of view of listening to the more traditional jazz ensembles incorporating woodwind, brass, piano, double bass and percussion. Somehow the violin just didn't fit in my mind.
I suppose that as I've heard more jazz violin playing, I've grown to like it more, but somehow it still doesn't fit entirely comfortably to the instrument, no matter how brilliantly it is played. I think this is a shortcoming in me rather than a failure of the jazz violin players, so I thought it was about time I rectified this and learned a bit more about jazz. Many of the musicians I play with in the folk scene also jazz musicians and so, for their sake, I need to educate myself. So here, for what it's worth, it's the result.
A BACKGROUND TO JAZZ.
American popular music up until the end of the Second World War and a little beyond was heavily influenced by jazz. In the hands of the musicians, the style is gradually changed, but has remained recognisable. Hybrid varieties of jazz have been developed, written down, dance to and listened to by people of quite diverse racial and social heritages, and jazz has become a mainstay of the music industry. (And wheredoes it end up? Anywhere! take this jazz band featuring "swamp infested gypsy blues with wild guitar playing and even voodo calls!" )
The rethink of jazz the general language for American popular music, a number of historical differences style have normally been taken for granted. Sometimes these differences were real and sometimes they have only been the result of changes of marketing style, design to create public demand for dancers, sheet music recordings and other trappings of the commercial music industry.
The various changes are fairly clear. In the 1890s jazz follows danced the cakewalk, whose prime foursquare rhythms showed the tell-tale jazz style only slightly. From the beginning of the 1900s up to the beginning of the First World War, America was swept by the piano style of ragtime. The widespread popularity of the blues during the years immediately preceding the First World War caused an noticeable change in the popular idiom, and left the way open for tuneful and vocal song style jazz that dominated popular music in the 1920s. By 1935 a so-called "hot jazz" became the thing, threatening to displace the song style jazz. It pandered to the tastes of the sophisticated urbanites, and moved jazz back to a style that had flourished in New Orleans, for St Louis and Memphis prior to even the early cakewalk style and the 1920s Jazz Age .
To cater for, or perhaps to drive these changes in style, always looking for new dance or new twist to the music, the make up of jazz and dance bands changed. Ragtime was helped to gain popularity by the development of player pianos in a period when most American towns had their own theatre groups and their own writers of popular music. The theatre of the ragtime era, the rag shared the stage with the Anglo Celtic sentimental songs of the Paris – Vienna operetta tradition. The commercial jazz of the 1920s was, by contrast, a standardised product emanating from Broadway and the commercial music industries of tin Pan Alley and Hollywood.
Jazz became the dominant music on the radio and in film soundtracks, and pushed aside almost completely, other kinds of popular music. Development from this was the crooner, where the style became popularised on the radio and was a vocal arts that developed from the invention of the microphone. (It's impossible to sing this style of music with tighter microphone and amplification, unlike operatic style singing.)
The "hot jazz" or swinger craze began around 1935 and owed its popularisation to the development of the phonograph, or early gramophone. By the time's popularity skyrocketed, hot jazz was not really a new thing. Many of the best hot jazz musicians had in fact preceded the craze, and the phenomenon of syncopated improvisation had been going on in the deep south of the USA for at least 75 years.
But as now with the tablet, the MP3 player and all the recent technological developments, technology even back in 1935 was a formidable force in the popularisation of a style of entertainment. People began to catch on and understand what the phonograph made available, on a mass production basis, enabling a variety of spontaneous music that had befallen only been accessible to a few people, either the rich or the people who were in the communities where jazz had developed. People could now by "swing jazz" recordings and listen to it being played by skilled musicians, whereas beforehand possibly the best they could do was to buy sheet music and try to play themselves.
This was a new method of disseminating information that had perhaps almost as big an impact as the Internet has made in recent times. Where ragtime had appealed to the amateur pianist, (the simpler tunes were accessible to even moderate pianists, though to play it in its true style and to its true potential requires a very skilled musician), the jazz that developed in the 1920s became thoroughly professionalised. Hot jazz, as a nationwide in the USA, and then a worldwide craze, was driven by the phonograph and the radio.
Hot jazz was also something that could appeal to many types of people. It was certainly popular and could appeal to those with no musical training, but it also appealed to the musical intellectual in this somewhat changed the picture of American popular music. Performers of the more primitive types of pure black American improvisation became more popular. Intellectuals and critics like Hugues Panassie and Americans like Wilder Hobson, Paul Edward Miller, and Frederick Ramsay argued intellectually and backed the style of improvised jazz are supposed to the highly polished but by now commonplace jazz, of the entertainment industry. They made people aware that there was a kind of jazz, though not popular, that was played for the primary enjoyment of the musicians and of their friends. This kind of jazz was at the rate the highly polished production and repetitive formulas of commercial jazz and had great musical integrity.
This kind of improvised jazz was not for the high-fashion ballrooms that were so popular in those days, nor for the film industry, but was played in private get-togethers, universities, the slums of the black south, but thankfully also occasionally on some specialist recordings. This reference an exuberance which gave it something of the charm of the primitive artwork, showed it to be a source of inspiration from which the more successful commercial bands were pulling their more imaginative ideas.
Back in the 1930s, the followers of this improvised style of jazz, uncovered a tradition that had been obscured by the glitz of the commercial dance band industry. This style of jazz continued on its own route, in parallel with the commercial music. This original style of jazz was played by black American musicians, and had its origins in the Negro communities of New Orleans up to the 1900s. This is where jazz really developed. But it was only one jazz style and America produced many strands. New Orleans had produced a tradition of jazz performance which was carried northwards by bands such as The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who performed in Chicago and New York. Following them came musicians like Sydney Bechet, Armstrong and Oliver, bringing the music style at the Mississippi and settling in Chicago between 1918 and 1928, where it developed into what is now known as the Chicago style.
This brought an interface between the black American musicians and white musicians like Dave Tough, Jack Teagarden, who also became part of this musical tradition which by 1930 had spread to New York, where in the view of some people, it got tainted by the commercial entertainment world.
So by 1935, at the peak of Benny Goodman's popularity, America suddenly became aware of the New Orleans and Chicago style, which by then had become known as "swing jazz" in contrast to the "sweet" jazz style that at that time most people were familiar with. During the Swing add, New Orleans Chicago jazz became incredibly popular and highly successful for those involved in the style. But, as one would expect, it became commercialised and lost its true spontaneously of character, it became bland. At the time it seems that the originators of this jazz style didn't make any recordings. They were humble simple musicians. The world isn't as it is now way can pick up recording equipment at prices affordable by the individual. Individual band couldn't afford to make recordings, as bands typically do who are on our Midsummer Music website. Recordings were something new in the domain of the big companies. However when it was realised by the aficionados of this kind of jazz, that the original style was being lost, a number of them gathered up the early musicians made quite a number of recordings of them playing in their original style, and this has been valuable to music historians.