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From Jazz To R&B.....

Late 19th century New Orleans was a melting pot of black and European musical styles as migrant workers poured into the city from the old Cotton Belt. Inevitably, black musicians heard and began to play the instruments of white classical and martial music - piano, violin, brass, woodwind etc., and the newly-formed black bands were regularly hired to play at white social occasions. The need to cater for white tastes produced a music which quite naturally infused white harmony and meter with black melodic flexibility and blues idioms. What emerged was jazz, a new musical idiom quite distinct from, though related to, the syncopated piano of ragtime and the propulsive "barrelhouse" blues and boogie-woogie coming from black drinking dens and juke joints.

The essential features of true jazz are threefold : the placing of stress on the "weak" second and fourth beats of the bar as opposed to the traditional first and third; syncopation - the placing of accent on a normally unaccented beat, and "swing", that hard-to-define off-beat pulse without which the music "don't mean a thing", as Irving Mills so aptly put it in 1932.

Whilst jazz was clearly the hybrid offshoot of black and white musical traditions, it's early protagonists were black, the realm of greats such as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. It's coming blew away the popular music of the time - the sentimental ballads, comic and novelty songs, many with racist or other unsavoury overtones, which were the staple diet of white musical theatre at the time. The "Roaring Twenties" swept in, and dances such as the Charleston and the foxtrot, set to the new driving rhythms of the Jazz Age, became all the rage.

Many of Broadway's white, mainly Jewish composers took up the new music with enthusiasm, re-invigorating the stage and film musical, and by the 1930's a new white jazz had become mainstream as the Big Bands of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, The Dorsey brothers and Artie Shaw played swing alongside sophisticated jazz orchestras headed by greats such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Swing Era saw the rise of the jazz cabaret singer - a kind of prototype pop star. Performers such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald emerged, the vanguard of a new vocal pop, a tradition whose heyday was to be the 1940's and 1950's, but which is still evident to this day.
The pre-war era was a time when white and black society seemed, almost, to find a measure of harmony on the dance floor. The reality out on the street was of course very different. With the outbreak of the Second World War the dancing came to an abrupt end, and the immediate post-war years revealed a scene in which distinct musical groupings based around race were still all too evident.

The focus of attention for mainstream white society was now the silver screen and the escapist creations of a booming Hollywood movie industry. Numbered amongst it's biggest stars were the new crooners, with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra at the top of the tree. country & western also had a new star in Hank Williams, and was developing as a major commercial force based in Nashville.
Black society on the other hand, still largely segregated and oppressed, although nominally free, was developing distinctive new styles in response to the realities of post-war urban America. Black church music was giving birth to gospel, jazz was developing new forms such as bebop and cool, blues took on a more confident and harder-edged sound as it entered the northern cities, Chicago and New York in particular, smaller r&b combos took over from the Big Bands, and a new vocal r&b called "doo-wop" emerged from the middle-of-the-road vocal groups of the 1930's and 1940's.

This vibrant musical scene reflected the dangerous magma that bubbled just beneath the surface of American society, as an increasingly alienated black population sought to claim equal rights and an equal share of the wealth of the world's richest nation. A social and musical explosion was about to take place.

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