Black History Month: Jazz

At the turn of the 20th century, a new sound sprung out of the southern US: Jazz. This new sound could be characterized with syncopation, improvisation, blues notes and the swung note.  Bands playing jazz could often be seen with pianos, clarinets, trumpets, trombones, double basses and many other instruments.

The origins of Jazz are filled with African American influences and names. The music itself is a mix of African and European styles with a strong root in west African sounds. The movement in the early 20th century was rooted in New Orleans, and forever changed music.

Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong

Louis Armstrong was born to a poor family in New Orleans.  Growing up he enjoyed going to Jazz clubs and listening to jazz bands including Joe “King” Oliver, whose band Armstrong later joined to kick start his career.  Armstrong, known for his trumpet playing, influenced jazz heavily, shifting focus from collective improvisations to personal solos. Armstrong also had a very well known low raspy voice, with which he was scatting, a vocal style using different sounds instead of actual lyrics.  Some of Armstrong’s famous songs include “What a Wonderful World” and “La Vie en Rose”.

“La Vie en Rose” by Louis Armstrong

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, born Elanor Fagan, was born in Philadelphia in 1959 to a very young mother. Billie Holiday had an extremely rough childhood; she first heard jazz records while serving a short sentence in prison around the age of 12 or 13.  Holiday got her start singing in a club called Covan’s in Harlem, New York. Holiday is known for her strong influence on jazz and pop singing.  Her vocal style laid the groundwork for a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Some of her more notable performances include “Don’t Explain”, “Easy Living”, “All of Me” and “Strange Fruit”.

“All of Me” by Billie Holiday

Duke Ellington

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington was born in 1899 to two pianists living in Washington DC He started playing piano at the age of 7 taking lessons throughout his childhood.  Ellington started his career playing in different venues in the DC area, and eventually moving to Harlem, New York where he was an icon of the “Harlem Renaissance”.  Ellington became known as a pianist, composer and big band leader in a career that stretched over several different genres, but most notably jazz. Ellington has a reputation for being one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.  Ellington led his band for over 50 years, until his death in 1974.

“Satin Doll” by Duke Ellington

Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway was born to a middle class family in Rochester, New York.  His parents nurtured their son’s musical abilities and enrolled him in private music lessons in his teens.  In his early years, Calloway met and performed with Louis Armstrong who taught him a lot about vocal style.  Calloway and his band got their big break at the Cotton Club in Harlem as the replacement for Duke Ellington’s band while they were touring.  Anyone who has seen The Blues Brothers, where they performed “Minnie the Moocher”, will remember Calloway, as a lively stage presence who excelled at scat style singing and improvisation.

“Minnie the Moocher” by Cab Calloway

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