by Maxwell Steer
Only hindsight creates experts. Imagine someone predicting to Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-87) or François Couperin (1688-1733) in the Paris of Louis XIV that, two centuries hence, an aspect of their performance practice might fertilise the evolution of a worldwide musical lingua franca in a continent they would think of only as a source of cheap leather and fur. Why, predictions of space travel would have seemed more credible!
In this article I suggest the links by which the French style of 'lilting' offbeats in performance, known as notes inégales (uneven notes), could be the origin of swing in Jazz, and throu it the idiom of contemporary global mass market music. I cannot prove this argument conclusively - noone could - but I can present strong circumstantial evidence.
I have an unusual perspective on this question, for I am that unusual musician, a harpsichordist who plays Blues, or a Bluesman who is a harpsichordist, depending on which way you look at it. As a result I possess both mindsets: that of the improviser who must address an audience's psyche in the present tense, as harpsichordists themselves once were; but also that of the antiquary who wishes to make the past tense come alive, not just by 'playing the dots' but also by considering the 'feeling-world' whose evocation is a prerequisite of true re-creation. While the latter is an intuitive process, the intuition must be supported by solid research if the letter and the spirit are to be reunited.
I have employed a similar approach here; however the difficulty in writing about these two musical worlds is that their audiences are mutually exclusive. Each is looking for a quite different type of emotional experience, and thus even the appropriate vocabularies for addressing both musicologists and Blues aficionados are quite different ... but here goes ...
In 1998 I edited the music of William Beckford (1760-1844), an English eccentric who built the gothick folly of Fonthill Abbey, near Tisbury. Among his papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford was a collection of 9 Portuguese popular songs styled Modinhas Brazileiras. (Steer 1998) These had been copied for him during a year spent in Portugal (1787). Moda, and its diminutive Modinha, are portuguese words for a popular or fashionable song. These Modinhas were evidently in the brazilian style, Brazil being then a Portuguese colony. In his Journal Beckford writes of his first encounter with this music:
'I passed my evening at Mr Horne's very delightfully in hearing D[onna] Luisa de Almeida and her music master, a little square friar with green eyes, [singing] Brazilian modinhas. This is an original sort of music different from any I ever heard, the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums. I was in high spirits and danced with a parcel of tits till two in the morning.' (Alexander 1954)
I offer no opinion as to the meaning of the final sentence! But Beckford was a composer himself who had taken lessons with Mozart (albeit when their respective ages were 6 and 8!) and undertaken two Grand Tours during which he composed and performed music in Venice and Paris. So when he says 'an original sort of music different from any I ever heard' we can be confident that this style really was unknown in central Europe. Here is the first of them:
If you play this I would defy you not to swing or, at the very least, lilt it. Not only does it look like the notation of an early piece of Jazz, but to play it straight hardly makes it 'the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated to throw saints off their guard and to inspire profane deliriums.'
I start the presentation of my circumstantial evidence about the transmission of lilt/swing from this historical midpoint not because I'm suggesting that this constitutes a link, but because it demonstrates that there were idiomatic undercurrents about which we know little or nothing because they were never incorporated into the central literate tradition of western music. But there is another reason too. When I performed this piece in 1999 as part of a concert in Tisbury presenting Beckford's work for the first time in the modern era someone came up to me afterwards to say that he was certain that somewhere within the comedies of Marivaux (1688-1763) the word jazz occurs meaning 'idle chatter or gossip'. He couldn't give me a reference but a year later in the cultural nexus that is Tisbury I told this story to a Canadian. As an english-speaking Quebecoise she had many francophone friends, and said that their standard phrase in the 1970s for 'shooting the breeze' was jazzer-jazzer as some people might say rappin' or jammin'.
More recently, thanks to Philip Robinson of the University of Kent, I have been able to confirm that there is indeed a french verb jaser, meaning 'to chatter or speak loosely,' which existed in the 17thC and remains in current usage, even to the extent being the name of a french chat-room on the web. Armed with the correct spelling I searched the complete etexts of Marivaux's play and discovered the word in three of them. The earliest is Arlequin poli par l'Amour [Harlequin polished by Love] of 1720, where the following dialog occurs:
Trivelin:- Il jase vraiment!
[He's really shooting the breeze!]
La Fée:- Il jase, il est vrai, mais sa réponse ne me plaît pas:
[Shooting the breeze, to be sure, but I don't care for his answer.]
Here and in Marivaux's other plays of 1722/3 the verb clearly carries the sense of 'spouting' or 'blowing', that is, speaking 'off the top of the head' - and what else is Jazz but 'free blowing'? I find it significant that the expression should have been in common parlance at exactly the time that New Orleans1 was established; and the word can hardly fail to have been exported to the new world along with the other cultural luggage of the time. The s in jaser would have been pronounced as a light z, and as vernacular, transmitted orally rather than literarily, its subsequent pronunciation could have gone either towards the s or the z, or indeed both.
Each of the many histories of Jazz offers a derivation of the word Jazz more fanciful than the last, from the alleged abbreviation of a single musician's name, variously Charles, James or Jess, to Creole, Irish or Hispanic derivation - try pronouncing jazz in spanish! Only Irving Schwerké considers the French option, and for some reason concludes it means 'jazz would be a cackling.' (quoted in Goffin 1975) This derivation is lent weight by the final sentence of this passage from Tim Gracyk's Encyclopedia Of Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925
The Original Dixieland Jass Band, commonly called the ODJB, was the first jazz group to be recorded, and two popular discs made by the band in early 1917 --one for the Victor Talking Machine Company and then one for the Columbia Graphophone [sic] Company--helped create a craze for the new music, making the word "jass" known to the general public for the first time (throughout 1917 "jass" was the standard spelling though by 1918 "jazz" became common).2
Most authorities seem to believe that the ODJB's Tiger Rag was the first true Jazz recording, but in fact there was a 1916 cylinder recording by the Edison Company of Collins and Harlan's novelty song That Funny Jas [sic] Band from Dixieland.3 This seems a strong confirmation of my theory, for it reminds us that the early style of what we now call Jazz was at first known as Dixieland. Even the ODJB were initially the Old Dixieland Band and hastily inserted Jass as the word gained currency during 1916. By the same token we also need to remind ourselves that the vogue for this style of music had in fact been started in 1912 by two compositions which don't even mention the word Jazz in their titles - Morton's Jelly Roll Blues & Handy's Memphis Blues. For more on this link, see the quotes from Whitcomb's After the Ball on page 8 below.
The ODJB's second record of 1917 was At the Jass Band Ball. Later that year an editorial headed 'Jass & Jassism' in the New Orleans Times-Picayune thundered:
Why is the jass music, and, therefore, the jass band? As well ask why is the dime novel or the grease-dripping doughnut! All are manifestations of a low streak in man's tastes that has not yet come out in civilization's wash. Indeed, one might go farther, and say that jass music is the indecent story syncopated and counterpointed. Like the improper anecdote, also, in its youth, it was listened to behind closed doors, and drawn curtains, but, like all vice, it grew bolder until it dared decent surroundings, and there was tolerated because of its oddity.4
Two things need to be borne in mind about this excerpt. One is that it may well have been a Navy-inspired polemic associated with the closure of the red light district of Storyville; the other, that while it stops short of attacking African Americans explicitly, the language is clearly an attempt to degrade that sector of the population from whom Jass/Jazz had emerged.
I hope that these references go a considerable way towards establishing a linguistic link. Later on I shall offer some speculations later on how, or at least why, 'jazz' emerged when it did. But let us first look at what is known about notes inégales, the 'lilt' of classical French performance.
As a performance style in France it was guillotined by the Revolutionaries as reeking of the salons of the effete aristos in favour of the égalité of playing 'as writ'. When the revival of interest in early music began in the late 19thC5 pioneers such as Wanda Landowska would no more have thought of playing inégale than appearing in a vaudeville show, for the very idea of swing ran counter to everything eurocentric musicians believed 'serious' music to be. But since the 1970s many performers such as Kenneth Gilbert, Gustav Leonhardt and William Christie have pioneered a recovery of this performance style, some more convincingly than others.
Stephen Hefling's admirable 1993 study shows that the first reference to unnotated rhythmic alteration occur as early as 1550. Surprisingly perhaps, this is in the introduction by Louis Bourgeois to his metrical psalms published in Geneva ... surprisingly because we -and Beckford- may think of swing or lilt as synonymous with sensuality, but this could hardly have been the case in the city of Calvin at the height of Reformation puritanism! I suggest that Bourgeois would not have thought the subject appropriate to mention unless it was a relatively recent stylistic development that he considered crucial to the successful performance of his Psalm settings. He says that with adjacent notes, one should 'dwell a fraction longer on the first [quaver] than on the second ... so they appear more graceful.' It seems that for the french-speaking world this was always the criterion, le bon goût, good taste.
Since we have mentioned Portugal it may be relevant to quote the Spanish theorist Tomàs de Santa Maria in 1565, who advised that 'to play in good taste' one might vary pairs of notes 'long-short, short-long ... in groups of 4 hurrying throu the first 3 and dwelling on the fourth' but only 'just enough to be perceptible'. This accords with Nivers writing in France exactly 100 years later. He instructed players to 'augment ever so slightly the 8th-notes [on the beat] and to diminish ever so slightly in proportion those that follow - which should be done with discretion and other considerations [plusiers autres choses] which good sense and the ear must moderate.'
Could there be a better description of Bessie Smith's early style?
As a French performance practice, Hefling considers that notes inégales was probably standardised by the great musical monopolist Lully, whose patents from Louis XIV entitled him to exercise despotic control over music and musicians for most of the 1680s: and that it was later introduced to Germany by his pupil Georg Muffat, throu whom it ultimately reached the young JS Bach's awareness.
Perhaps the most often quoted view of this style is that which Couperin gives in the preface to L'art de toucher le clavecin [the art of keyboard playing], where he says:
There are defects in the way we write our music, like those in the way we write prose. For we write it differently from how we play it - and this causes foreigners to play our music less well than we do theirs. The Italians write their music exactly as it should be performed, but we dot [swing] consecutive quavers when they come in melodic succession even tho we write them as equal. We are slaves to our conventions. (1716)
And just to clarify the relationship between two consecutive notes swung or lilted (from 67:33% to 55:45%) and dotted (75:25%) Vague, writing in 1733, says: 'It is necessary to distinguish this inégalité of which we speak from that which requires a dot, which is greater.'6
But enough of that ... back to New Orleans. If you listen to early city-blues recordings such as Downhearted Blues, the 1923 debut recording of Bessie Smith (1894-1937) accompanied by its composer, pianist Clarence Williams, you don't hear a swing triplet: what you hear is a lilt that teeters elegantly on the edge of straight time. Williams was a Crescent City man and altho he lived and recorded in New York where he swung with the best of them -Armstrong, Bechet et al- he seems to have had a special rhythmic sensibility in accompanying Blues. On his own Organ Grinder Blues of 1928 with Ethel Waters you hear Williams 'stroking' the chords in a way that seems to me redolent not just of the spirit of notes inégales, but also to suggest where Errol Garner's style may have come from.
Tho self-taught Errol Garner's (1921-77) extraordinary control over the rhythmic placement of subsidiary notes is most clearly heard in early postwar recordings such as Pastel and She's funny that way. They're often so laid back as to be on the very edge of losing track of the beat altogether yet there's always a coherence to his performance that allows you to trust it - perhaps this is what le bon goût actually meant? Is it significant that Garner was born in Pittsburg which, as Fort Duquesne, had once been a French stronghold? Tho he could bebop with Charlie Parker as well as anyone, Garner seems to have stood aside from the hard driving main stream of postwar jazz. After him I cannot think of any other player who could so easily and elegantly suspend time by inégale means.
There are numerous other recordings from the interwar years that lilt rather than swing. Generally, and I think significantly, these tend to be the somewhat bumbling Country-Blues style such as Henry Davenport's 1928 Cow Cow Blues or even the remarkably late I don't know by Cripple Clarence Lofton of 1938/9 which match the desiderata for notes inégales quoted above. City-Blues always tended to be slicker and closer to the triplet swing of Jazz/Vaudeville.
Before I can satisfactorily suggest how the lilt might have been transmitted within Louisiana's francophone population I need to identify some of the other tributaries that fed into the main stream of Jazz. One of these is the Cuban or Hispanic style of syncopation within straight time. Whilst this undeniably contributed to Ragtime I have yet to hear any early recordings of Latin American music that suggest that jazz-type swing, let alone lilt, was ever a part of Creole music.
Paradoxically perhaps, one source of the transmission of notes inégales was clearly not the public music of New Orleans itself, which, following Louisian's acquisition by the US in 1804, became progressively more cosmopolitan. Henry Kmen's exhaustive Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years 1791-1841 (Kmen 1966) shows how the 18thC city's musical and social life was dominated by dancing. Several Balls a week were the norm, even during periods such as Lent when they were officially forbidden while under Spanish rule. The regular employment these created for musicians was further extended as theatre and opera stuttered fitfully into life ... often requiring to be rescued by Ball-giving!
By the advent of the its most famous 19thC musician, the francophone Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) New Orleans was the musical equal of any city in North America, many of its favoured sons studying music in Europe, as Gottschalk did - tho he was refused admission to the Paris Conservatoire because of the piano professor's snobbery towards Americans.
The light operas of Grétry, Cherubini, Paesiello and others filtered across from Europe as did Mozart and Haydn, the demand for music evidently allowing musicians to escape the social restrictions generally placed on non-white citizens. Slavery gave rise to a tripartite caste-system where white people sought to exclude all blacks from their assemblies, and free people of mixed race, gens de couleur libre, sought to exclude slaves. The fact that the demarcations were constantly being restated shows how, in practice, they were always eroding, and it's worth observing that in the city slaves, who were often skilled artisans, enjoyed far more liberty than on rural plantations. As early as the 1830s there were enough black musicians to form a Negro Philharmonic Society.
So, as I say, the transmission of the notes inégales tradition could not have occurred in the public arena as the redoutable Kmen would have ferretted out a reference its stylistic oddity. However, there are two genres of music within Louisiana life which I believe could have transmitted it as a private or domestic performance style: both remained in different degrees francophone and both, being isolated from the mainstream of their society, have left very little firsthand literature: one is the French-American tradition, including the Cajun refugees from Canada: the other is the Creole population which included freed slaves and those of mixed-race.7
The French-Americans remained fiercely proud of their heritage under Spanish and American rule - fights frequently occurred at Balls if any of these nationalities felt that an insufficient number of their traditional dances were being given! The Cajuns who migrated to join the Louisiana settlers after they were driven out of 'A(r)cadia', Nova Scotia, by the British after 1755 were an embattled and wholly oral culture, struggling to maintain the traditions that linked them to a European homeland which had long lost interest in them. What is more likely than that their musical lilt was one of their strongest cultural signifiers, and as such was taken by them to be the natural way to play? Since they were effectively excluded from the central discourse of public music what could be more natural than to affirm their own traditions in private or domestic entertainment? And let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that it was called jas(e), a pleasant musical chattering around the family dinner table? Given the aggressive Americanisation of the 19thC may French-Americans and Creoles not simply have been as bilingual in their music as they were in their speech - at ease playing liltingly among friends yet able to switch to straight playing outside their own circle.8
Of the 4000+ traditional Cajun canon a very substantial portion have been traced to French rural folksongs. If they transmitted by the songs within families why would they not have also transmitted the singing style described by Louis Bourgeois on page 3? This I feel is the most likely route. However I fear that contemporary Cajun music, as we know it today, is probably not the most reliable indicator since the community was almost been extinguished in the early 20thC by attempts to enforce the adoption of American language and culture. After a single commercial recording in 1928, no further attention was paid to Cajun music until the Lomaxes began their pioneering ethno-musical recordings in the 1940s. The revival of Cajun culture in the 1950s, fostered by the popular success of Clifton Chenier, was led by his Hispanic-influenced Zydeco style than 'pure' Cajun.
Turning to the Creole tradition. Little is known about true Negro music during the era of slavery, but an unvarnished description of it comes from a British visitor to New Orleans in 1819. Negroes were only permitted to entertain themselves on Sundays, when they would assemble in Congo Square, now Beauregard Square. Henry Latrobe estimated that he saw 500-600 dancers
formed into [a great number of] circular groups in the midst of [each of which] were two women dancing. They held each a coarse handkerchief extended by the corners in their hands, & set to each other in a miserably dull & slow figure, hardly moving their feet or bodies. The music consisted of two drums and a stringed instrument. An old man sat astride of a cylindrical drum about a foot in diameter, & beat it with incredible quickness with the edge of his hand & fingers. The other drum was an open staved thing field between the knees & beaten in the same manner. They made an incredible noise. The most curious instrument, however, was a stringed instrument which no doubt was imported from Africa. On top of the finger board was the rude figure of a man in sitting posture, & two pegs behind him to which the strings were fastened. The body was a calabash. It was played upon by a very little old man, apparently 8o or 9o years old.
The women squalled out a burthen to the playing at intervals, consisting of two notes, as the negroes, working in our cities, respond to the song of their leader. Most of the circles contained the same sort of dancers. One was larger, in which a ring of a dozen women walked, by way of dancing, round the music in the center. But the instruments were of different construction. One, which from the color of the wood seemed new, consisted of a block cut into something of the form of a cricket [bat] with a long & deep mortice down the center. This thing made a considerable noise, being beaten lustily on the side by a short stick. In the same orchestra was a square drum, looking like a stool, which made an abominably loud noise; also a calabash with a round hole in it, the hole studded with brass nails, which was beaten by a woman with two short sticks.
(Later even these assemblies were forbidden as legislators feared that slaves were using the drums to send coded revolutionary messages! If only!)
A man sung an uncouth song to the dancing which 1 suppose was in some African language, for it was not French, & the women screamed a detestable burthen on a single note. (Kmen 1966)
Isn't this reminiscent of the Black poet and scholar Sterling A Brown of performances by the early Blues performer Ma Rainey: "She wouldn't have to sing the words, she would just moan and the audience would moan along with her"? (quoted in Morgan & Barlow 1992)
Unfortunately Latrobe was an architect not a musician so he is not able impart any sense of the musical content, and Kmen, comprehensive as his documentation of Music in New Orleans is, does not concern himself with issues of style.
Latrobe also registered the existence of huge black funeral processions which were a unique part of city life, extending to several hundred people all dressed in white. In 1819 music does not seem to have been a part of them, but the rise in the popularity of marching bands among all shades of New Orleanian had, by 1838, according to the Picayune, become 'a real mania' so that many residents were fervently praying for 'the last trump'. Reports of New Orleans funerals 30 years later show that it had become the practice for Negro funerals to hire a brass band to play the 'mournful notes of the death march ... en route to the grave,' which then struck up a 'gay and lightsome air as they returned.'9 This tradition has of course become enshrined in the iconography of Dixieland Jazz.
Louisiana, being one of the States which seceded from the Union rather than abolish slavery, it comes as little surprise that after the Civil War it did as little as possible to enfranchise its coloured population. Indeed in Ordinance 111 of 1894 it officially classified Creoles as coloured -for the first time- and subjected them to the same social restrictions as Negroes. Evidently the 'manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly-multiplying millions' articulated by John O'Sullivan in advocacy of the annexation of Texas in 1845, did not include provision for the non-White population! The Louisiana Creoles were generally descended from miscegenation between white men and negro women and had been proud of their non-slave status. They were just as hierarchical ranging from créoles to gens de couleur libres (free mulattos) and nègres libres. Having been francophone a century earlier, I imagine that 90 years after the Louisiana Purchase they were predominantly, if not exclusively, anglophone. Nevertheless this Ordinance now had the effect of enforcing a fusion between the cultural lives of these two oppressed minorities; and I see this as being the crucible in which this persistent folk-memory of notes inégales fused with recent musical forms.
A further question then has to be answered: why did this lilt only flower into Jazz around World War One? It has to be remembered that in the days before mechanical reproduction, live music-making played an enormous part in the lives of most people. This took many forms from parlour songs around the piano, to instrumental and vocal ensembles, choirs, orchestras, brass bands, wind bands ... you name it. And we have already seen that there was a particularly rich mix in New Orleans, wherein marching bands were a popular ingredient. This was the era of Philip Souza. In Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans (Pelican 1983) John Broven states in connection with the formation of the Excelsior Cornet Band in 1885 that Creoles were already famous as the best woodwind players in the city.
I surmise that inégalité came into its own in the decade of 1910 due to the following conjunction of circumstances. I have mentioned the ingrained racism of the dominant culture in the USA. This found expression on the Vaudeville stage10 (then the principal medium of mass entertainment) in the patronising ridicule of the black-face Minstrel Shows, where whites (epitomised several decades later by Al Jolson) depicted blacks as Jim Crows, pathetically happy simpletons. Even the few black performers of those days had to wear the same makeup and develop acts that stayed within these stereotyped limits. Typical of the period was the title of Will B Morrison's Jolly Darkies March-Cakewalk of 1910, or this explicitly offensive illustration to Wm Frederick Peters' Darktown Minstrels March and Two-Step of 1890. (There are others which show whites being boiled in cauldrons by dancing blacks with bones throu their noses.)
Even the 'father of the Blues', WC Handy, who had been precipitated into publishing because nobodyelse would publish Memphis Blues, used covers which featured 'harsh images of African Americans ... whatever his own feelings might have been about [them] because they were what sold music.' (Morgan & Barlow 1992)
The Cakewalk dance craze (immortalised in Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk of 1907) started in the 1880s and lasted until it was overtaken by Ragtime. But while the Cakewalk was fundamentally white music loosely based on a supposedly-black dance style Ragtime was the first real 'music of black origin' to gain the (grudging) respect of whites because they were defeated by its intricate syncopations - its 'ragged time'11. Altho Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was by no means the first composer of rags, his compositions certainly represent the quintessence of Ragtime, and it was he who penned the first big Ragtime hit, Maple Leaf Rag, in 1899.
Joplin had been born to a poor family on the Texas-Louisiana border, where his preternatural musical skills came to the attention of a German music teacher who offered to teach him - and this influence is significant. His education was cut short at 15 when the family broke up following the death of his mother. After drifting around as itinerant musician for a couple of years he arrived in the then frontier town of St Louis. This had grown up around a French trading post 800 miles upriver from New Orleans - which he does not appear to have visited in his early life. Here he soon established himself as a talented and popular barrel-house pianist, traveling to Chicago for the World Exposition in 1892/3 - which created an exceptional demand for the services of the ladies whose clients he entertained! Subsequently Joplin settled in Sedalia, Missouri where his skills, honed by rubbing shoulder with the leading Ragtime pianists of Chicago, were much in demand at the Maple Leaf Club and the 400, the two principal 'sportin' houses'. So much so that he could afford to put himself throu a music course at the George Smith College for Negroes and participate widely in local music of all kinds.
Tho it was not his first published rag, Maple Leaf Rag became an overnight best-seller in 1899, continuing so for 15 years. This was remarkable because hitherto, the Times-Picayune article quoted above shows, the identification of ragtime and boogie-woogie with houses of ill-repute had meant that it was regarded as 'devil's music', doubly so to white racists because it was almost exclusively the province of Negro musicians. No doubt one of the reason for Joplin's success was that his music was so 'un-negro'. The fact that his harmonic language was almost entirely german must have created identification with white middle-class family audiences, that enabled them to assimilate the risqué associations, whereas the more authentically-black Blues-based forms retained too strong an association with sexual licence to be acceptable - as with the Tango in South America.12
From the perspective of this article it is significant that Joplin's rhythms were explicitly straight. Like Couperin's L'art de toucher le clavecin he published a School of Ragtime. This explains that his effects were based on syncopating a slow march and that he neither expected, nor desired, any unnotated rhythmic alteration. Indeed it is part of my argument that he may not even have known of the french tradition, as this was localised to New Orleans and the hinterland of Louisiana. If you think of a Souza march it's easy to see how a cheeky clarinetist might have started to fool around, anticipating the predictable oompah for the amusement of his colleagues.
But the Ragtime boom which followed was much more significant than this: for it marked the beginning of the long slow upward progress of African-American musicians. The seismic shift it initiated eventually changed popular music in the USA from a european style to a 'music of black origin' which has ultimately become a globalised artform. It is important to bear in mind that initially the rhythmic subtlety of Ragtime eluded white musicians: thus it created a market for authentically Black performance which whites simply couldn't meet. Joplin himself became such a celebrity that he spent the last 10 years of life, from 1906, touring the Vaudeville circuit, even tho he was dubious of his own skills as a pianist. Accordingly the white stereotype of the negro changed from a woolly-headed Jim Crow to a 'coon', a reference to the mating habits of the raccoon, that is, to an oversexed threat to the purity of white marriages that had, apparently, never been threatened by white male dalliance with black women!
Ian Whitcomb's definitive history of mass market music After the Ball states that, 10 years later,
By 1910 a new breed of [white] Tin Pan Alley writers had got firmly on top of the coon image with syncopation and slick street wit songs like Somebody Will If You Don't, or another which depicted the Black as sexual beast in city clothes - whose girl begged 'Pump away Joseph' on your 'Red Hot Member - with a Sting Like a Bumble Bee'.
The new vaudeville audiences were crazy for anything with rag in the title: When Ragtime Rosie Ragged the Rosary - Ragtime Cowboy Joe - the Ragtime Soldier Man - the Ragtime Goblin Man - the Ragtime Suffragette - the Ragtime Violin - the Ragtime Temple Bell - the Ragtime Wedding Bell - the Ragtime Bungalow - not forgetting Ragtime Shakespeare.
By the time Irving Berlin assimilated the rag-time style well and served up white-face ragtime in his clever Alexander's Ragtime Band (1911) it was no longer 'darkies' music' which could be patronised in coon songs but had become the very latest craze. Moreover Ragtime fitted ill-rehearsed pit groups who could cut loose with laughing trombone, whinnying cornet, skidding violin and percussion barnyard effects - the very opposite of Joplin's disciplined opuses. Nevertheless, Ragtime. (Whitcomb 1972)
Before we come to consider how notes inégales fit into this picture it's important to consider that the explosion of Ragtime in 1900 came just as the US music industry had begun to learn the lessons of mass marketing. Whitcomb's book takes its title from Charles K Harris' eponymous song, which he had systematically and successfully 'boosted' -as they called it- into the first true nationwide hit. At the same time the nascent music technology industry was looking for the next Big New Thing to aid the uptake of its products - the pianola, the juke box (then an automatic piano &/or violin mechanism played off punched cards) or the primitive phonograph and grafonola. And here was the first authentically American style of music - what a way to start the 20thC! As Whitcomb continues:
Even better suited to the vaudeville pit band was a curious style distinguished by crushed notes packed in an unorthodox twelve bars called the Blues, which first appeared in 1912, became a dance and vaudeville fad in 1914, merged into jazz in 1919. Nobody could discover the folkman who invented the blues, a music magnet pulling the singer's voice towards a blurred squashy raspberry note, apparently just below the correct one. The effect was of a sob, a wail, most undignified; but it sent good girls crazy crying 'Smear it! Smear it!' Three blues numbers were rushed into print in 1912: Baby Seals Blues, Dallas Blues and Memphis Blues.
Here we are at the final and most important aspect of ragtime. Not everybody could sing, less and less played instruments (except the phonograph), but everybody could dance these ultra-simple new steps. Shuffling, bouncing, hugging, neck-holding, the rapidly expanding ranks of the new middle class danced into marriage or fleeting alliance in the anonymity of dance halls, dimly lit restaurant dance floors, taxi-girl joints, all to the accompaniment of ragtime played by a novel organization soon to crystallize into the Dance Band.
Now, at last, I can delineate the connection which I believe caused the inégale tradition to fertilise Ragtime and thus create Jazz. As I say, Joplin's scrupulous adherence to European models 'cleansed' his music of its 'tainted' origins and made it socially acceptable in mainstream (white) society, but if you play his composition now you often cannot help wanting to swing them. In the ninth bar of his very first Maple Leaf hit there's a sequence of repeated notes in the right hand against a steady left hand that simply aches to swing! For all that he wanted to go uptown, the music wants to go downtown. And I think that's exactly what happened. For 10 years everybody did it his way because 'they didn't know any better' - to borrow Fats Waller's immortal adlib about classical composers! But in the Crescent City they did know any better. They had probably been lilting Ragtime ever since it came their way; so that by the time the Ragtime boom had run its course and the music industry was looking for new product to feed the market it had created, there it was in New Orleans sending 'good girls crazy'.
Yet long before it started to send good girls crazy it had been having that effect on bad girls! And this is nowhere more better expressed than in Al Rose's definitive study Storyville. (Rose 1972) As we have seen commercial sex had been one of the major industries in New Orleans since John Law had cynically responded to a request for wives from the first colonists by rounding up Paris's stray prostitutes and other social outcasts and shipping them off to meet the settlers' needs. In the argot of the 1920s sexually-accessible women were 'jazz babies', and those who sought them 'jazz hounds'.
Following on from the 1894 ordinance establishing de jure segregation similar attempts were made to control prostitution. An ardent and sincere proponent of establishing a red light district as a way of eliminating the 'nuisance' of street-walkers was Councillor Sidney Story - a man who would be invisible to history had the newspapers not decided to name the new zone after him! 'Storyville' was formalised by statute in 1897 - to the incalculable benefit of its Mayor, Tom Anderson, who entered into sleeping partnerships(!) with a number of Madames, voluntary of course, and combined his position as a State Senator with control of the drugs trade. However, the significance of Storyville from our perspective is that it created a virtual conservatoire of Blues, Boogie-woogie and Ragtime.
Nowadays similar establishments would use recorded music, but way back then it wasn't available, so a pianist or ensemble was the only means of entertainment. Rose's book shows how music was integral to maisons tolérées. Here is an advertisement for a high-class bordello run by 'Mme Lulu White' which shows how the traffic of the Quadroon Balls had become formalised and commercialised:
Nowhere in this country will you find a more popular personage than Mme White, who is noted as being the handsomest octoroon13 in America, and aside from her beauty, she has the distinction of possessing the largest collection of diamonds, pearls and other rare gems in this part of the country. To see her at night is like witnessing the late electrical display on the Cascade at the late St Louis Exposition.
Aside from her handsome women her mansion possesses some of the most costly oil paintings in the Southern country. Her mirror-parlor is also a dream. There's always something new at Lulu White's that will interest you. Good time is her motto. There are always 10 entertainers who get paid to do nothing but sing and dance. Phone Main 1102 + 1331. (my emphasis)
In a separate series of advertisement for Lulu White's protegées we learn of
Emma Sears. This clever girl has been mostly termed the coloured Carmencita and the name has not been misplaced. As a tambourine dancer she has no superior and very few equals. Tall graceful winning, what more can be said? Gentlemen, a visit to New Orleans is not complete if you fail to visit Lulu White's and ask to see Miss Sears dance, sing or play some of her own compositions on a Steinway Grand. (Rose 1972)
And did they turn up in droves just to sample Miss Sears' terpsichorean skills and thrill to her touch on the Steinway Grand? Did they ever!
In his chapter on music Rose estimates that Storyville never employed less than 50 musicians, a number which rose substantially during Carnival. The attraction that this field would have had for musicians is shown clearly by the fact that a pianist could make $25 on a good night when the average weekly wage was $15. $75 a week was regarded as a fair week's wage for a musician, and poules de luxes who liked a pianist would use him as a litmus test, intimidating punters into tipping him generously in order to make clear what was expected of them later! In top class establishments they themselves would expect to make up to $100 a night.14
It is from this environment that the image of the foppish black piano 'perfessor' derives. One such was Professor Toney Jackson, whose portrait confirms his reputation as an immaculate dresser. There may perhaps have been another reason for his popularity, at least with the Madames, for Jackson was gay, and thus less likely to turn the heads of the girls who otherwise had few opportunities for encountering straight men except on the job! A more typical New Orleans honky-tonk pianist was Ferdinand Morton, 'Mr Jelly Roll', whose 1912 Jelly Roll Blues, overlooked in Whitcomb's reference above, shares the honour with WC Handy's Memphis Blues, of being the first published songs with Blues in the title. In neither case does the music have any remote connection with what we now think of as Blues, but that didn't matter, because nobody in the white world knew what Blues was anyway.
Looking at Jelly Roll Blues I'm convinced that Morton simply took the Ragtime form and added swing to it. I suspect that being 'an autobiographer of little modesty' (Grove) Morton simply grabbed a word which existed in musicians' vernacular to assert his invention of a new style to the general public 'and there you has Jazz' - in a similar way that Little Richard later styled himself 'the architect of Rock & Roll'. And the similarity extends further because since the terms Rock & Roll, Jelly Roll, Boogie-Woogie are all coded references to sexual activity.
I have now expounded my theory: when the popularity of Ragtime began to fade enterprising musicians grafted the New Orleans creole tradition of lilt onto its straight syncopations and simply called it what it was: jazz, 'shooting the breeze between friends.' The best they can have hoped for was that it would become a craze that they could eat off for a few months, the idea that it would become a worldwide lingua franca was, I'm sure, way beyond their conception. Of course it went on to become a hard-blowing, hard-driving form, but there's abundant evidence that it wasn't that way at the beginning.
But in this saga of strange coincidences the final one perhaps had as decisive an effect as any other. New Orleans was a major port of embarkation for American troops as they entered World War 1 in 1917. Fearing lest the men should run amok, or perhaps because they already had, the US military authorities ordered Storyville to be closed down. This had the effect of putting musicians out of work and probably did more to disseminate jazz consciousness around the USA than any other single factor.
But let us return to Europe where we started, for a footnote. The French have always had a fascination with things American, as Debussy's Gollywog's Cakewalk attests. When Cocteau collaborated with Satie, Massine and Picasso to create Parade for Diaghilev in 1913 they were determined to use Ragtime since it was le dernier cri [the latest thing]. But at that stage there were no recordings and so none of them actually knew what it should sound like, but then neither did the eager Parisian public. As has been noted, Jazz arrived in Europe with James Reese Europe's 369th Infantry Band in 1918.15 It had of course heard Stravinsky's 'cubist' Ragtime of 1917 which might have been Jazz for all anybody knew, but certainly didn't set the Seine afire.16 In his 1949 biography Notes sans musique Darius Milhaud describes the coup de foudre [hammer blow] of encountering Jazz at the Hammersmith Palais when he was 28.
It was in 1920 that I first encountered jazz. Jazz had arrived in Europe the previous year, but I hadn't had a chance to hear any until I came to London in that year to assist Cocteau in the english production of our ballet Le buf sur le toit. This work is set in a bar in America during the prohibition. My music was based on the rhythms and melodies I had heard during my tour of duty in Brazil17 for I had not yet been exposed to the american negro jazz.
The new music was extremely subtle in its use of timbre, the saxophone breaking in, squeezing the juice of dreams, the trumpet dramatic or languorous by turns, the clarinet frequently played in its upper register, the trombone glancing with its slide over quarter tones in crescendos of volume and pitch, ever intensifying the feeling. And the whole so varied yet not disparate, held together by the piano and subtly punctuated by the complex rhythms of the percussion, and inner beat, the vital pulse of the music.
So notes inégales finally returned to France as Jazz, to inspire what many regard as Milhaud's finest work, La Création du Monde. Was this a wheel coming full circle?
If the evidence I can offer for the transmission of notes inégales is at best circumstantial, I think that my etymological derivation for the word jazz is conclusive. And the testimony of my Canadian friend inspires me with considerable confidence that if the word jaser persisted among the french-speaking Quebecois it would also have done so among their Louisianans cousins. And as the essential meaning of the word evidently retained its currency for 250 years may that not have been equally true of lilted rhythm?
With that I take my leave. I hope you have found it as fascinating to follow the meridian of this rhythmic archetype across these cultures as I did to trace it.
Alexander The Journal of William Beckford in Portugal & Spain: 1787-1788, London 1954.
Barlow The complete country dance tunes from Playford's Dancing Master (1651-ca1728). US/UK 1985
Goffin Jazz: From the Congo to the Metropolitan NY 1975
Hefling Rhythmic Alteration in 17th & 18thC Music. Schirmer, NY 1993.
Morgan & Barlow From Cakewalks to Concert Halls. US 1992.
Rose Storyville. U Alabama Press, US 1972.
Steer & Wilshere The Beckford Edition Vol 6, Miscellaneous Works. Maxwell Steer, UK 1998.
Kmen Music in New Orleans: The Formative Years 1791-1841. LSU, US 1966.
Whitcomb After the Ball. UK 1972, US 1973.