New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century was a hotbed of musical innovation. The rich oral traditions of African Americans and the upbeat, commercial dance music of the day collided in the city’s thriving nightlife, ultimately giving rise to a new style of dance music that melded the harmonic and formal idioms of the blues with the rhythmic vitality of ragtime. This new music was called “jazz.”
The 1917 recording of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band playing Livery Stable Blues (linked below) clearly illustrates the blending of ragtime and blues styles that forms the basis for jazz music. Each “stanza” basically follows a standard 12-bar blues progression: four bars of tonic harmony, two bars predominant paired with two bars of tonic, concluding with two bars of dominant harmony leading back to the tonic. This harmonic scheme is paired with catchy melodic material that is reminiscent of popular song. Clearly meant for dancing, Livery Stable Blues features the driving pulse and jaunty syncopations of ragtime.
Another key element of jazz music is improvisation; it is likely that most of the music played by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was improvised. In his 1946 article entitled “This is Genuine Jazz,” Douglas S Enefer claims that “real jazz is composed by the executants – both individually and collectively – as they play . . . often the theme may be stated only once; thereafter the melodic line is implied rather than stated.” This melodic treatment can be heard in Livery Stable Blues: melody lines are clearly stated in the clarinet and trombone at the very beginning, and are varied, embellished, and commented upon in subsequent verses. Improvising variations in this way is an integral part of the jazz style.
Finally, jazz music is often associated with a spirit of free-spiritedness and abandon. In Livery Stable Blues, the ODJB takes this freedom to an extreme degree, with rooster crows on the clarinet, horse whinnies on the trumpet, and cow moos on the trombone. This musical evocation of a barnyard could be understood as a simple comedic gimmick, or could be interpreted as a critique of the extreme formality and stuffiness of classical concert culture. Either way, it is clear that light-heartedness and subversion are central tenets of the ODJB’s musical style and public image.
New Orleans may have been the birthplace of jazz, but the music quickly spread throughout the nation. The ODJB itself played in many major cities, including Chicago and New York. The new style took hold, and jazz continued to evolve and proliferate throughout the world. Today jazz is studied, performed and enjoyed by a global audience.
Charters, Samuel. Trumpet around the Corner: The Story of New Orleans Jazz. University Press of Mississippi, 2008. ProQuest Ebook Central, accessed 8 October 2017.
Crawford, Richard. America’s Musical Life: a History. 1st ed., New York, Norton, 2001.
Enefer, Douglas S. “This is Genuine Jazz.” The Negro, 1 Feb. 1946.
Livery Stable Blues. Rec. March 1917. Vintage Vinyl, 2014. Music Online: Jazz Music Library. Accessed 9 Oct. 2017.