In the early years of slavery in the United States, African American black slaves were forbidden from talking about their masters. Jazz originated from the blues music that black slaves would use to talk in code about their hardships, particularly the oppressive nature of their servitude. In its essence, the blues was a form of music that spoke about the pains of heartbreak, the trials in overcoming adversity, and the joy of victory against social injustices.
While the blues would eventually go on to become a genre that would encompass its own styles of music, its gradual evolution to jazz was seen in the city of New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century. During that time, New Orleans was the perfect embodiment of the term “melting pot of culture”. Musicians from all over Europe would cross the Atlantic to play at the city’s many famed theatres and clubs. Jazz was a product of the blues meeting European classical music mixed with hints of Southern American flavour. In fact, few styles of music are a better representation of the multicultural haven that is New Orleans.
It came as little surprise that many White Americans would look upon jazz as a sort of destructive force, with its sexually overt jitterbug dance moves and irregular chord structures—jazz was the black sheep of the music genres. Unlike other genres of its time, jazz did not pander to its audiences; it was solely about the musicians, and its fans judged the music on the basis of how good it actually was, without caring about race and other irrelevant factors. As a result, jazz music appealed to both black and white people and played a huge part in bringing people from both sides of the fight together for the civil rights movement in America.
In 1935, Benny Goodman, a distinguished white bandleader and clarinettist, was the first to hire a black musician as part of his ensemble—a young pianist by the name of Teddy Wilson. A year later, Goodman added vibraphonist Lionel Hampton to the line-up, which already included drummer Gene Krupa, both of whom would go on to become highly influential black musicians of their time. Goodman’s progressive steps helped push for racial integration in jazz, which at the time was not only taboo but, in some states, also illegal.
Other famous black jazz musicians like Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus also contributed in their own way to help end segregation and racial intolerance. Ellington would refuse to play before segregated audiences, and when touring the South in the mid-1930s, he rented three train cars in which the entire band travelled, ate, and slept, thus skirting around the public segregation laws of the time. Roach, an innovator of bebop drumming, married fellow activist Abbey Lincoln, and recorded songs that represented the heightened tensions in 60s brought about by protests and counter protest of the civil rights movement.
One can hardly deny the heavy influence jazz music has had in shaping America’s current cultural and societal landscape. Music that was once an outlet of oppression for black slaves is now enjoyed by all kinds of people in clubs, concert halls, universities, and large festivals around the world.