Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English


Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz “one summer’s day in 1902” and subsequently was prone to shaving years off his birth date (from a probable 1890 to his assertion of 1885) to make the claim more likely. As a musical term, the word appears in print in 1917. Formerly it had been equated with enthusiasm (1913), not with music. The Original Dixieland Jass Band from New Orleans, led by Nick LaRocca, was a New York success in 1917 and toured Europe. This was an all-white band but it gave the earliest recordings of jazz. Early white jazz musicians learned the style from black musicians, but no recordings of black musicians appear until the 1920s.

True jazz emerges from an aural tradition and many early musicians could not read music. The first decade of jazz retained the form of its ragtime predecessor: repeated strains, fixed notation, etc. Gradually, jazz came to feature improvisation, even simultaneous improvisations, over an underlying harmonic structure. It absorbed structures from Tin Pan Alley popular songs (introductions, 16-bar phrases, 32-bar choruses), but also accrued syncopations, characteristic long and short phrases, and “blue notes.”

The “blue third” is a necessary concept for understanding jazz. African music provides a note halfway between the major and minor third. It’s not accounted for in western culture’s tuning system. One has to perform a sort of glide smudge of both notes on the keyboard. A similar phenomenon occurs with the adjusted seventh also.

“Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” (1927), performed by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, composed by his wife of the time Lillian Armstrong, and recorded in Chicago on December 9, 1927, has a simple form that anticipates the next generations of jazz performers who tend to state a theme of whatever length, and then improvise upon its harmonic structure (“changes”). The harmonies here last especially long. After a 12-bar introduction (in which the last four seem extra) we hear a 32-bar theme in the style of the contemporary popular Broadway song. The trumpet carries the tune. Afterwards come three more statements of this 32-bar section: clarinet and trombone, trumpet with off-beat stop-time chords from the guitar, and ensemble featuring trumpet. The last bars are stop-time moving to a brief coda.

“Hotter Than That” (1927), also by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five and composed by Lillian Armstrong, was recorded in Chicago December 13, 1927. Like “Struttin'” the structure is basic. Armstrong presents the theme in a free, elliptical fashion with slow harmonic changes. The second 32-bar statement is given by the clarinet. But the third time, it’s Armstrong with the solo in his inimitable “scat” singing (nonsense syllables). The solo is impressive, and Brian Mann of Vassar College transcribed it in 1982. The fourth statement is taken by the trombone ­ closer to the tune probably than Armstrong has been, and then the trumpet with ensemble support. Stop-time playing leads to a humorous coda for unaccompanied guitar, which ends with a “wrong” chord — a diminished seventh.

Louis Armstrong’s music often resembles the sound of popular tunes, played through and repeatedly improvised upon. His improvisations have melodic strength, rhythmic integrity, complex irregularity. Armstrong’s harmonic ear is advanced. He uses notes outside of the chords, and each repetition of a theme presses outwards, further from the original melody.

The first symphonic jazz piece appeared before Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924). It was Le Creation du Monde (1923) by Darius Milhaud, who came to the US in 1922 to Harlem in New York. The piece uses the minor third in the bass with the major third above. It abstracts details of the jazz language; features the saxophone; uses syncopation, jazz drumming, and chord “changes.” But Gershwin’s Rhapsody was the first successful American piece of this sort.

More jazz classics include “Mood Indigo” (1930), by Duke Ellington (1899-1974), with its New Orleans instrumentation and bluesy mood; works by Count Basie and His Orchestra; other Big Band “Swing” orchestras such as Benny Goodman’s, Artie Shaw’s, Glenn Miller’s, Tommy Dorsey’s, and Gene Krupa’s.

A new sparser style of jazz emerged during the war years, and crystallized after. The big bands seemed like dinosaurs and dwindling funds meant that many soloists struck out on their own. Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955) had both been big band musicians. The style came to be called Bebop, possibly a corruption of the Spanish “ariba,” but essentially an onomatopoeia. The style featured old harmonies but new titles because of the new melodic virtuosity, fast running notes, convoluted or unexpected shapes, disjunct phrases ­ sounding like fossilized improvisations. Favorite songs such as Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” would provide the obscure harmonic underpinnings (as in Dizzy Gillespie’s All Star Quintet’s 1945 “Shaw’ Nuff”), but you can’t copyright a harmonic progression — only a melody. So these were fair game. Other songs were sometimes quoted by the virtuoso soloist. Well worth a listen: “Salt Peanuts” by Dizzy Gillespie and His All Star Quintet (1945); “Groovin’ High” by the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet (1945) which uses the harmonies of the song “Whispering” (1920); “Ko-Ko” by Charlie Parker’s Re-Boppers (1945); and “Embraceable You” composed by the Gershwins but completely varied by Charlie Parker with his Quintet (1947).

Subsequent splinters of jazz include cool jazz, hard bop, and “the new thing” (or atonal jazz or free-form jazz). Big names include Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Dave Brubeck Quartet (“Take Five” is in 5/4 time), John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman (who dispensed with chord changes), Charlie Byrd, Herbie Hancock (although I still think his big hit “Rockit” from 1983 is cheese), and Wynton Marsalis.

“Aire” by the jazz-rock band Chicago on Chicago VII (1974) is one of best tracks ever recorded. Yes, that’s what I said. Of any type of music from any nation from any time period, this piece has the timeless power to bring a type of joy otherwise no longer available since the world went to hell after the mid-70s. “Aire” is one of three tracks serving as a tribute to the Adderley brothers (Julian and Nat). Walter Parazaider, the group’s saxophonist and flutist, claims, “Danny [Seraphine, on drums] had ideas on time changes … and I had gone through school and studied composition, and thought ‘Why not give it a whirl and see what it’s about?'” James Pankow (trombone) also shares composition credit on this one. The piece is in 7/4 time, a rarity. (There’s the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” That’s about it though. Pretty nice company, eh?) It’s got a breezy, asymmetrical melody, and just when it returns and we think that’s it, another musical idea develops in another section. All is forgiven.

“Birdland” (1977) by Weather Report exemplifies the fusion idiom with impressive orchestration for the synthesizers. The introduction is three identical phrases, followed by a blue-noted A section. B consists of brass sounds, C a riff, C and D with a sax; E finally brings the tune of the piece with its repetitive shapes; F consists of a chromatic descent and muddy harmonies. Then the whole thing repeats with the big band sounds in B, but less filler and two Cs instead of the D. E brings a sense of arrival and feature offbeat clapping. My American music college professor played this piece the first day because it draws from rock & roll with the electronic sound, the driving beat, the harmonic simplicity and the repetitions, but also from big band sounds, from jazz and especially bebop virtuosity, and syncopation from ragtime even. So it didn’t capture Charles Ives, but it seemed like a good start.

Works Consulted

Chicago. Chicago VII. Warner Music Group, 1974. Reissue: Rhino, 2002.

Hitchcock, H. Wiley. Music in the United States: A Historical Introduction. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.

Ken Burns– Jazz: The Story of America’s Music. Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 2000.

Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 2000.

Mann, Brian. Professor of Music, Vassar College. Class notes, 1982.