some stuff on "jazz"

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Tue Nov 17 17:56:59 UTC 2009

Every now and again I look to see whether there has been any new research published on the early history of jazz that might draw on newspaper reports of the 1910s and thereby show what music of that style was called, and when, and where.
Here is a progress report:
Music Index, RILM (another index of music research) and America: History and Life don't seem to show any useful articles.  I checked in both for Art Hickman, in particular.

Among books, there was Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans, by Charles Hersch but his project did not require him to do research in that sort of primary source.

Vorgeschichte des Jazz : vom Aufbruch der Portugiesen zu Jelly Roll Morton, by Maximilian Hendler.  A disclaimer here: I don't read German, though nearly 40 years of handling and working with German books has left me with a "hum a few bars and I'll fake it" mastery of the tongue.
Drawing on a 2-page summary of the book, written in a rather disorienting form of English, the table of contents and the index, I can say that the thesis of the book seems to be, that 15th & 16th century Portuguese colonists brought European music to Africa, elements of which were assimilated and in later centuries exported to the Caribbean and the U. S., becoming a part of the basis for jazz.  So his notion of the prehistory of jazz goes way back, and Jelly Roll Morton doesn't get his cue to enter until the last chapter.  Naturally the author has done no research in early 20th C New Orleans newspapers.
On p. 266 he cites from the OED the appearance of the word "jazz" in a song-lyric mistakenly dated to 1909.  This has been discussed here, a few years ago; Gerald Cohen, if I recall, established that the correct date was about 10 years later -- too late to be of any interest.

The Evolution of Jazz in Britain, 1880-1935, by Catherine Parsonage.  This concerns the influence of American popular music in England, starting with the music-halls.  There is a list of song titles from sheet music -- the author supposes that these songs are by English composers, because they don't appear in the Duke Univ. catalog of American sheet music.  28 of 29 titles published 1900-1917 had either "rag" or "ragtime" in the title; 18 of 19 published 1917-1919 had "jazz", so it was in 1917 that the jazz fad and the word "jazz"reached England.

One of these books cited a MA thesis done at the Graduate College of the University of Oklahoma in 1966, by Donald E. Winston called "News Reporting of Jazz Music from 1890 to 1927.  I don't know whether this had been looked at in connection with the history of the word, so I got it through interlibrary loan.
It's in 4 chapters: I: From Obscurity to 1927; II: The Lean Years, New Orleans, 1890-1917; III: Jazz Reporting by a Negro Newspaper: the Chicago Defender, 1918-1926; and IV: New York Times, 1920-1927.
Evidently the author went through the New Orleans Picayune and the Item carefully, because they were more useful for his purpose than the States and the Times-Democrat.  He says he did not look at the French-language daily, the Bee (as he gives the title; presumably aka L'Abeille), published in NO then.  He says also that from 1890 to 1907 there were 3 publications intended to be consumers' guides to whore-houses.  It seems that he looked at these items also, because he says that they "failed to comment on early jazz", though he may be taking this from Herbert Asbury's book on low-life in NO, which he cites in a footnote.  He surmises, sapiently, that the rounders of NO did not choose their brothels for the sake of the music played there.
There is a certain dunderhead quality to the analysis in this study that some may find charming.  He explains the scanty coverage of jazz music in the NO newspapers by observing that "Negro social events, at which much of the early jazz was played" were often marred by "some shooting or knifing" -- "music critics would avoid" such events, and "it is doubtful that police reporters were much interested in music".
In any event -- this study doesn't undermine the notion that the word "jazz" wasn't used in NO until after the jazz fad began in Chicago and NY in 1917.  It also doesn't indicate that the word "dixieland" was applied to music until the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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