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Timeline: Blues, Ragtime and Jazz

U.S. Public Domain
A jazzing orchestra in 1921. Jazz formed by combining blues harmonies, ragtime drive and habanera rhythms.

In 1865 the 13th amendment of the constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the United States forever. As a result an entire population of citizens was now free to pursue their education and their artistic dreams. The next generation saw the development of new musical styles; the American art-forms of blues, ragtime and jazz.
“The Blues” came from the American south in the late 1800’s. It blends together the work songs, spirituals, chants and ballads of the African-American community. Besides the obvious expression of sadness and melancholy, the blues also introduced stylized scales, chords and unique forms. “Blue notes” are often seen as flattened thirds or sometimes even pitches between notes, blurring the rules of traditional harmony. The form of the 12-bar blues has become ubiquitous in popular music around the world.

Credit US - PD
Sheet music printed in 1914 of the popular "St. Louis Blues".

“Ragtime” was born in the African-American communities of St. Louis in the 1890’s. This style takes traditional march form, much like the music of John Philip Sousa, and adds the syncopated, or “ragged”, rhythms of African music. The style fell out of favor in the early 20th century with the rise of jazz but many compare the American rag to European minuets, mazurkas and waltzes. The rhythm of ragtime had an influence on later composers, such as Satie, Debussy and Stravinsky.

Credit US - PD
The compositions of Scott Joplin helped to make Ragtime a successful genre in the early 20th century.

The word “Jazz” means pep or energy.  This style was born in the taverns of New Orleans at much the same time and with the same influences as blues and ragtime. But jazz had an added element of Cuban/Spanish culture. Habanera rhythms, blues forms and ragtime drive blended together to form something new. Eventually the rigid rhythms of the beat relaxed to allow a feeling we call “swing”. Swing is hard to define and difficult to notate. As Louis Armstrong stated, “If you don’t feel it, you’ll never know it.” The prohibition of the 1920’s saw the rise of “The Jazz Age” in the U.S. cementing this style and sound into American culture.

Credit US - PD
This is a photograph of Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club in 1943.

American orchestras and conservatories were slow to recognize these styles, but their European counterparts embraced them openly. Maurice Ravel saw in American jazz a fresh expression of harmony and rhythm that he borrowed in a great deal of his later works.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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