Grover Sales' book, "Jazz: America's Classical Music," is generally regarded as one of the most succinct and accurate surveys of its kind. But Sales was not the first to offer this definition of jazz. Classical composers and conductors from Andre Previn to Gunther Schuller, involved with jazz as performers or historians, have been similarly convinced that this art form, once denounced as "nigger music" and long confined to brothels, dance halls and nightclubs, will be remembered as America's most vital and durable contribution to the music of this century.
Jazz was not born on Feb. 24, 1917, but its first step out of obscurity was taken on that day when the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a five-piece group of white musicians from New Orleans, went into a studio in New York where they recorded "Livery Stable Blues" and "Dixie Jass Band One Step." Quaint though they sound today, the ODJB's first sessions helped disseminate, to what soon became a worldwide audience, a music created by Afro-American musicians. (Ironically, it was not until 1922, in Los Angeles, that a black jazz group, trombonist Kid Ory's Sunshine Orchestra, was finally put on record.)
The origins of jazz extend back as far as this century, probably much longer. Ragtime, popularized by Scott Joplin and believed to have been originally a banjo music that evolved during the 1890s into a structured piano music, overlapped into "ragtime band" performances that were looser and more improvised.
The black church, with its spiritual and gospel music, and the work song, all were interwoven and were at least first cousins of the blues.
Though marching bands, ragtime bands and the blues were active throughout the United States, black Creoles in New Orleans played a particularly important part in "jazzing up" the rags and blues. Among them were the clarinetist Sidney Bechet the trombonist Kid Ory and the pianist Jelly Roll Morton. The Creoles tended to be better educated musically than the relatively unschooled blacks, yet it was the latter, most notably Louis Armstrong, who made the most definitive leap into jazz.
Very gradually, with the use of more written music and of larger bands that called for arrangements, jazz became a mixture of composition and ad-libbing. One of the unsung heroes of the early 1920s was Don Redman, a saxophonist who wrote most of the music for Fletcher Henderson's band, in which Armstrong played for a year. The classic pattern of breaking down the orchestra into a brass section (trumpets and trombones), reed section (saxes doubling on clarinets) and rhythm section (piano, banjo or guitar, drums, and bass) was firmly set in the Henderson band. The compositions left enough solo space for Armstrong to establish himself as a creative force in music circles. By the time Armstrong left the band in 1925 to return to Chicago (where his genius was more fully framed in the famous "Hot Five" records), the Jazz Age was in full swing.
That was the year when Duke Ellington began recording, and when a cadre of white pioneers like the violinist Joe Venuti, the guitarist Eddie Lang and the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke began to come into their own. Though these men worked in the "symphonic jazz" ensemble of Paul Whiteman, it was in recorded small-group settings that they had a real chance to display their improvisational gifts.
By the end of the 1920s, Ellington had expanded his orchestra and was known to millions who had heard his broadcasts from the Cotton Club; Armstrong had scored in a Broadway show, "Hot Chocolates" (with a score by Fats Waller), and the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem became a cynosure for black dancers (and a few white jazz fans) as the great pre-swing bands of the day played there.
Black entertainment, in short, was very much in vogue in the United States, but for the most part it was treated, both by blacks and by the growing white audiences who patronized it, as entertainment or dance music. In Europe, on the other hand, records by American jazz artists were regarded more and more seriously, and were discussed at length in several music publications. As a result, there were triumphant transatlantic visits by Armstrong in 1932, Ellington in 1933 and even Joe Venuti and Coleman Hawkins (both all but unknown to the general public in the United States) in 1934.
The Depression made a deep impact, particularly in the recording industry, which reached a state of near-collapse. Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues" who had been a tremendous seller since 1923, stopped selling, and an era noted for many great blues vocals recordings came to an end. A new genre of singing, using popular songs and very few blues, emerged in the 1930s with the rise of Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey and Ella Fitzgerald. Unlike the blues singers, they had a white audience.