A Soft Reminder of Where Jazz Came From

Despite jazz's vibrant sounds, the historical, social, and cultural context that shaped this music has heavy and painful origins.

Published: Apr 30, 2023  |  

Jazz enthusiast and podcast producer


Showered and dressed in shorts and a loose blue checkered shirt, I stepped out of my New Orleans hostel, immediately soaked by 100% humidity. It was the hurricane season of 2018, and I was at peace with it. I strolled above the bald cypress tree swamps in the city where jazz was born, ready to fill my soul with its culture and history.

Glimmers of the previous night were flickering in my head: neon lights, happy faces, the thick smell of party history, and the names of two cocktails I ordered—Blue Whale and Shark’s Tooth. It was a good night. Now I was walking through the daylit Creole architecture streets, on my way to join a walking tour! It was fantastic, leaving me in a state of curious reflection about the origins of jazz music ever since. 

Let’s recap some historical details and then bring our focus to the very conditions under which jazz was created, which are known but often wrongly overlooked.

New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 and changed hands to Spanish rule for much of the 18th Century. The guide told us that it was the Spanish who let their “Catholicized” slaves have Sundays off, on which they would gather in Congo Square. Here they played African music characterized by accented off-beat rhythms that would become a fundamental ingredient to the development of jazz music.

Slave songs, what came to be known as spirituals, are considered a vital element in the origins of jazz in conjunction with the aforementioned element of syncopated African drum rhythms. Bent ‘blue notes,’ which often distinctly characterize melodies in jazz and… well… Blues music, is a direct example of this.

This fusion of African tribal chants with Christian hymns was a spiritual lifeline for slaves to cope with their daily realities in the fields. Spiritual singing and dancing were also a major part of the display in Congo Square, where musicians trained in European classical music heard and fused their knowledge, skills, and instruments with African music and musicians to co-create jazz.

But I want to take a step back in order to sharpen our focus. It’s easy to get caught up in technical musical devices and elements, overlooking the state of outpour from which jazz and other Black cultures were influenced, developed and evolved. 

Jazz harnesses expression to the greatest degree via the intrinsic element of improvisation that puts musicians in the somewhat vulnerable position of just letting the music flow out of them second by second, feeding off the musical knowledge, thoughts and emotions inside of them and those around them. The performer is completely free to express, think, and create, displaying their skill, but also, in the best cases, their soul.

Through this practice, African American jazz pioneers Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, their contemporaries and many more before and after them, have made jazz a constant yet ever-evolving genre of expression, and united musicians across the world for over a century. As a white person who plays, performs, and loves jazz, I want to remind the reader, and myself as I write this, of the complex history and social context that shaped jazz music. 

Jazz’s vibrant and joyful outward appearance might convey a sense of joy and freedom, however, its origins stem from painful experiences of oppression and exploitation, created and developed as a result of the African American community’s cultural and musical expression during and after slavery.

This article most certainly seeks to combat attitudes that hark back to the time of slavery, which are easily attainable through lacking awareness of jazz’s history. As 19th Century former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it himself:

“I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”

The positivity and uplifting effect of the musical product is more likely to mean the musician is cheering themselves and everybody up rather than that the musician is telling us they are happy. This can largely be applied to attitudes to the performance of jazz and other Black cultures in the Western world, like reggae music. 

Whilst some of the aforementioned jazz pioneers, like Ella Fitzgerald, stayed clean, several had a history of drug abuse, including heroin and cocaine, which often resulted in premature deaths. Louis Armstrong, who used the infinitely safer drug marijuana throughout his 69 years, stated that it “makes you forget all the bad things that happen to a Negro.” Drugs are often used as a form of escaping the thoughts in one’s head and the anxieties of one’s existence. Whilst drug use was not uncommon among musicians in general, this pattern that many of the greats of jazz died young due to addictions speaks of a consistent level of turmoil, and alludes to their common experience of racism as a depressive factor in 20th Century America. 

I offer this reminder not to single anyone out, but to suggest that jazz performers must not only learn the technical forms and features of the genre but also show vulnerability and allow their emotions to guide their sound, being authentic to the joy and pain they experience. As a jazz musician, I certainly attend jam sessions to uplift myself: allowing me to release an emotional build-up, cathartically push myself to perform at the highest level I can, or simply reaffirm my identity as a musician after a long day sitting at a laptop! 

I recall all too well how I went from playing regular gigs at my university to entering the first Covid lockdown and how difficult the transition was. Being able to fully express myself through jazz improvisation had become something of a necessity for me to alleviate stress, sometimes the sadness we can all experience, and to maintain a certain level of self-confidence.

To those who listen to jazz or wish to try it, I invite you to acutely observe the emotional journey of the improviser and consider what exactly they are trying to convey through their instrument. After all, is jazz really jazz if it fails to communicate any emotion and soul? This level of engagement required to appreciate some jazz music makes it a universally loved and challenging genre to listen to. The boundless possibilities of improvisation and the role of wordless instruments, as much as singers, as the main vehicles of expression are fundamental factors in this. 

The theme of intent listening reminds me of when I was watching the New Orleans All-Stars in Preservation Hall—an old wooden floorboarded room with some chairs and a bench on the side. The band was set up as if it was the 1920s, purely acoustic, with no microphones or any sign of technology other than warm electric light. Halfway through the set, the old trumpet player lowered his horn and began to sing. At that moment, the entire room leaned in and listened, charmed, joyous, and moved. We were transported to another time. A time that was drastically different for African Americans than it is today (even though the fight against systemic racism very much continues). 

Let us not forget the capacity for expressive range in jazz music and continue to uplift ourselves with its beauty, while also being mindful of the sorrow that may be beneath the lyrics, harmony, melody, or performer. We shouldn’t overly dwell on the past, but we certainly shouldn’t delude ourselves of it so that jazz keeps living and evolving with the authenticity with which it was originally created and developed.

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