History of Jazz. Part II: Precursors

Where does Jazz have its roots? On the one hand there are the so-called worksongs and fieldhollers, African American Ballad,  Blues and Gospels. And on the other hand there is the Ragtime  and Brass band music. All of which contributed to the rise of Jazz as a new genre.

Worksongs, Fieldhollers, Ballads and Gospels

There is not much material for these early worksongs and fieldholler. The earliest examples that come closest are for instance Arwhoolie Cornfield Holler (Thomas J. Marshall) or Roxie, a song by Convicts in Mississippi. You might find the soundsfiles of these and some more fieldhollers here.

A typical example for an African-American Ballad would be a song by John Henry.

The Gospels by that time, were very different from the gospels nowadays. Everybody was supposed to give his own color and feeling to the song. An example of this genre is the piece  Go Preach My Gospel (Deacon Harvey Williams and the New Zion Baptist Church congregation), which can also be found on the website, mentioned above.


Blues is another genre that gained more and more popularity in the twenties of the past century. Blues generally has a 12 tact structure, in is typical in it’s use of blue notes and pentatonic scales. Also the question-answer structures, which we will later also find in Jazz is typical of most Blues songs. A nice example is the following video by Bessie Smith (recorded 1929):


A typical precursor of Jazz are the Ragtimes. Ragtime was the first real popular music in America. It’s a genre, often played on piano, which is characterized by syncopated beats, and off-beats. The following audiorecording might give you a general idea. It’s by Arthur Pryor’s Band: The St. Louis Rag, from 1904.

Ragtime was one the first popular genres that was produced by many record labels.  Why didn’t these labels, initially also produce Blues, Gospel etc? Mainly because the producers thought, wrongly, that white people wouldn’t be interested in ‘black music’, and second that there were not enough black people that were wealthy enough to be able to afford a music player. Both were big mistakes! And this situation changes when a small record producer, Race Records, in the year 1920 decides to produce the album Crazy Blues by Mamie Smith & Her Jazz Hounds. From this moment on the music from the black community gains increasing popularity and other records decide producing Jazz and other black rhythms.


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