Pat Blythe – All That Jazz Part II…..and music

I’ve spent the past few nights watching Ken Burns’ documentary Jazz. Released in January 2001, Burns gives us a birds-eye view of what he calls “the most original American art form”. A close friend has provided the entire DVD series (big thanks) as a “must watch” and I, being a lover of history (and writing about this very subject) have had my eyeballs glued to the screen. Burns starts off at the turn of the 20th century taking us through the birth and evolution of jazz music. There are 10 episodes with the final one covering an entire 40 years, from 1961 to 2001.

The reviews have been both positive and negative, with some negative remarks mixed with the positive, sort of like a backhanded compliment. I’m just about to start Episode 5 and thoroughly love the series. It’s fascinating to learning about many of the artists of my parent’s generation….ones they listened to or actually saw perform live. It’s happy, lively, joyful music that has me spontaneously “bustin’ a move” across my kitchen floor when the spirit moves.

Considered the most stimulating genre of music, the roots of jazz music lie in the mix of African and European influences. Jazz has three immediate effects on the human brain; it relieves stress, boosts creativity and stimulates the mind. Without getting into details, suffice to say jazz is the only music that combines all three of these effects on the human brain at the same time. Complex…..we haven’t even begun.

As I delve deeper into the world of jazz I’m going to attempt to fill in a few areas Burns didn’t address and flesh out a few others. So, as my jazz-loving friend says, “strap yourself in and enjoy the ride”.

The evolution begins…..

As I noted in last week’s piece, according to Madison Magazine there are five sub-genres of jazz; Blues, Swing, Dixieland, Bebop and Free Jazz. The details and collection of music styles which combine to form these five genres are the heart and soul of jazz, which is still evolving today in the 21st Century.

Although many credit New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz, there is no one single definitive answer and it’s impossible to credit jazz music to a single individual. It was truly an evolution of instruments, harmonies, sounds, backgrounds, beats, rhythms….a melting pot of feel and sound. Musicians offered their own interpretations, creativity, idiosyncrasies, tweaks and twirps….their own voices….influencing each other and inspiring future musicians who would continue to shape the music in the years to come. Meanwhile, as jazz gained in popularity, audiences were lapping it up.

King Oliver, Chicago, 1923

Escaping from the Deep South and making its way to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York and other major U.S. cities, jazz music evolved rapidly as musicians, escaping the oppression of the Jim Crow laws spread the word across the United States.

From field hollers and work songs, hymns and spirituals to brass bands and funeral marches, European opera, theatre and concert music, blues and ragtime, jazz music, according to Max Harrison of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, “comprises a composite matrix made up of a host of diverse vernacular elements that happened to come together at different times and in different regions”.

Although Ragtime is often referred to as “jazz”, it’s more of a distant cousin twice removed than an immediate member of the jazz family. Ragtime, like classical, was fully-composed (primarily for the piano) and charted as the music was intended to be played….the same way each time. Jazz became a predominantly instrumental music, rarely notated and above all, for the most part, improvised.

One of the most famous ragtime composers was Scott Joplin who was dubbed the King of Ragtime. In his brief lifetime Joplin wrote 44 original ragtime pieces, one ragtime ballet and two operas. His most famous ragtime composition, The Maple Leaf Rag would go on to be the biggest ragtime song ever, selling over a million copies of sheet music. The Entertainer, another Joplin piece, would become the theme song for the movie The Sting.

Scott Joplin

The second opera Joplin penned was Treemonisha, described as a “multi-genre theatrical project…telling the story of a rural African-American community near Texarkana” where Joplin grew up.  Presented in a scaled-down version in 1915, Treemonisha was a precursor to George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.  In 1976 Joplin would receive a special posthumous Pulitzer Prize ³“honoring the man who shaped a genre that influenced decades of music.”

Then there was the infamous Jelly Roll Morton, whose life path took him down many roads as a pimp, a gambler and vaudeville comic, who was well-known as a braggart and is the one person to have claimed to be “the inventor of jazz”.  He wasn’t. However, history cannot under-play the major role Morton had in the development of jazz music. A Creole of French, Spanish and African descent, Morton performed ragtime in the bordellos of Storyville eventually working his way to Los Angles, crossing the country as an itinerant musician. From L.A. he headed to Chicago where he became famous during the 1920s as the leader of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. From Chicago he left for New York and finally settled in Washington D.C.

Morton was at the forefront of the jazz movement and it’s believed he was the first jazz musician to chart his arrangements on paper. Morton’s arrogance alienated so many musicians during his lifetime that very few attended his funeral. In poor health, having never fully recovered from a near fatal stabbing, Morton died in Los Angeles in 1941 while planning his comeback. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, Morton was honored a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

For all you jazz music geeks and lovers out there…..

¹Morton often played the melody of a tune with his right thumb, while sounding a harmony above these notes with other fingers of the right hand. This added a rustic or “out-of-tune” sound (due to the playing of a diminished 5th above the melody). This may still be recognized as belonging to New Orleans. Morton also “walked” in major and minor sixths in the bass, instead of tenths or octaves. He played basic swing rhythms with both the left and the right hand.

²Ragtime had its own march-derived, four-part form, divided into successive 16-bar sections, whereas jazz, once weaned away from ragtime form, turned to either the 12-bar (or occasionally 8-bar) blues or the 32-bar song forms. What the two music genres had in common was their syncopated (thus “irregular”) melodies and themes, placed over a constant regular” 2/4 or 4/4 accompaniment.”

There ya go. I’m still cogitating on the difference between diatonic and pentatonic along with polyrhythmic and polymetric (the latter two indigenous to West African ritual dance and ensemble music). Just wait until I get into time signatures!

Jazz…..constantly evolving, advancing, transforming and sometimes revolutionizing.


P.S. I wonder if Long John Baldry knew that Morton’s playing was very close to barrelhouse (basically the blues sped up for dancing), which produced boogie woogie music. Pinetop Perkins……the king of boogie woogie, is the oldest Grammy winner and was still performing right up until his death, at the age of 97.

¹ Wikipedia

² Encyclopedia Britannica

³ Biography

The Entertainer – Scott Joplin

The Maple Leaf Rag – Scott Joplin

The Crave – Jelly Roll Morton

Sidewalk Blues – Jelly Roll Morton

Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie – Pinetop Smith (1928)

Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie – Pinetop Smith LIVE in 2011

Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock & Roll – Long John Baldry


Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

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dbawis-button7“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto. Together for 34 years, Pat little-red-headed-dancing-girlalso worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 

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