About Dixieland

By Malcolm Rodman

Dixieland evolved early in the 20th century in New Orleans, invented by black musicians who drew upon their musical heritage from Africa and the Caribbean, adding elements from their native street parades, gospel and blues music.

As one writer noted: "Improvisational and spontaneous in character, jazz was originally created by musically illiterate men who looked upon their often home-made instruments as extensions of themselves. These men had something new to say musically, and they said it in original and exciting ways.

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"Their music was an essential part of their lives and was born in the cotton fields, on the road gangs and levees, in tent churches. It was nurtured in the brothels, dance halls and street parades of New Orleans.

"From these earthy beginnings, jazz emerged as a truly new form of expression, combining, as did America itself, many strains and many cultural influences."

It was spontaneous music, rarely written down. The best jazz was played by musicians with a genius for improvising around a basic melody. During a tune, each musician had the chance to solo and display his skill. As one critic noted: "A good jazz performance is never repeated in exactly the same way. Solos are inimitably personalized by the musician or musicians and therefore, cannot be written down in the manner which formal concert music is notated. Improvisation is the soul of jazz."

This joyous ensemble style, played to a rousing tempo, remains the basis of today's traditional Dixieland jazz.

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Through the decades, the instrumentation of a traditional jazz band has remained consistent: a "front line" of cornet or trumpet, trombone and clarinet, which conduct a musical dialogue, playing off one another. This is backed by a rhythm section of drum and by some combination of piano, string bass, tuba and banjo.

Never static, jazz evolved over the years. The originators of instrumental jazz in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century utilized hymn tunes, marches, Creole songs, blues and work songs. They fused these into the spontaneous and pulsating band music which has come to be known as New Orleans style. Giants of this era included King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Kid Ory. Fortunately, all of them recorded their music for posterity. The first recordings of jazz were by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917. Before his death in 1941, jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton recorded for the Library of Congress the story of his life, his music and the history of the earliest days of New Orleans jazz.

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