-- ragtime, stride, and dixieland jazz -- 1/2/14

In today's selection -- from Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington by Terry Teachout. In 1899, ragtime was the rage and middle class parents reacted in horror if their children showed interest in this new music. By 1917, ragtime had been shouldered aside by an even newer craze among the young -- "jazz" or "jass" -- music named after a sexual emission. (A later craze, "rock 'n' roll" also got its name from the sex act.) In that year, a New Orleans group called the Original Dixieland Jazz Band premiered in Manhattan and the Jazz Age had begun:

"By 1913 the ragtime craze that had swept across the country for a decade and a half was starting to die down, but it had already left its mark on Amer­ican music. Raglike songs were first published in 1895, and the popularity of [Missouri-based] Scott Joplin's 'Maple Leaf Rag,' which followed in 1899, triggered world­wide interest in the music on which they were based. Even classical compos­ers like Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky turned out pieces that incorporated the heavy melodic syncopation and marchlike 'oompah' beat of ragtime. It was a fad, but one with lasting effects: Orchestrated versions of Joplin's rags soon made their way to New Orleans, where they were taken up by dance bands whose players loosened up their off-center rhythms and sea­soned them with the blues, an amalgam that evolved into the music that by 1913 was starting to be called 'jazz' (if not in New Orleans, whose musi­cians stuck to the word ragtime for some years to come). Meanwhile, Irving Berlin had written 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' in 1911, and the song's phe­nomenal popularity helped spread the gospel of ragtime to whites who, fol­lowing the lead of Vernon and Irene Castle, started one-stepping their way across America's dance floors. 'In 1912 grandmothers of forty tossed away their crutches and took lessons in Tango and the Castle-Walk,' F. Scott Fitzgerald recalled two decades later in 'Echoes of the Jazz Age.'...

"In 1913 a group of East Coast pianists, the best known of whom were Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, Luckey Rob­erts, and Willie 'the Lion' Smith, was transforming classic ragtime into a more virtuosic style, one that replaced the evenly divided eighth and six­teenth notes of Joplin and his contemporaries with the fluid, tripletized rhythms that would soon be recognized as the trademark of jazz. The fast-moving, wider-ranging accompanying patterns that these men played with their left hands, in which fat midrange chords alternated metronomically with bass notes that dug deeply into the bottom half of the keyboard, caused their style to be dubbed 'stride piano.' ...

A 1918 promotional postcard showing (from left), drummer Tony Sbarbaro (aka Tony Spargo), trombonist Edwin "Daddy" Edwards, cornetist Dominick James "Nick" LaRocca, clarinetist Larry Shields, and pianist Henry Ragas

"Until [1917], New Orleans jazz was essentially un­known outside of the city of its birth and Chicago, where the five players who comprised the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had caused a stir the preceding March. It was, however, nothing compared to the one that greeted their opening [in New York] at Reisenweber's 400 Club Room on January 27, 1917. Within hours the word was out that something very new and very hot had come to town, and the quintet's first Victor recordings, cut on February 26 and rushed into print nine days later, introduced a generation of listeners -- and musicians -- to the raucous music that would give a name to the coming decade. Other jazzlike music had previ­ously been recorded, but 'Livery Stable Blues' and 'Dixie Jass Band One-Step' were among the first 78 sides to be cut by jazz musicians from New Orleans, as well as the first whose label described them as jazz (or, rather, 'jass'). Newspaper ads in New Orleans called the combined results 'positively the greatest dance record ever issued,' and purchasers throughout the country agreed: Victor 18255 is believed to have been one of the earliest popular rec­ords to sell a million copies. Its success put an end to what was left of the ragtime craze, for other bands rushed to record in a similar style, and their music became the gold standard in dance halls across America. The Jazz Age had arrived."


Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington


Terry Teachout


Gotham Books


Copyright 2013 by Terry Teachout


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