The origins of American jazz are pretty clear cut. Coming out of the blues and dances passed down from West Africans who came to America as slaves, it began at the dawn of the 20th century as the party music played in the brothels of the Storyville district of New Orleans. There were important early figures like trumpeters Buddy Bolden, who left no surviving recordings, and Joe "King" Oliver but the music's undisputed first superstar was an Oliver protege, Louis Armstrong. The constant invention and power Armstrong showed in his playing was the high water mark of the music up to that point. He also sang in a gravelly, melodic voice that sounded as special as his pealing trumpet work. Legend has it that during one recording session he dropped his sheet music and starting making up sounds and words during his vocal break, inventing the art of scat singing. His greatest work came between 1925 and 1928 when he recorded with his small groups called the Hot Five or Hot Seven. Of those records the pinnacle is generally considered to be "West End Blues" which starts with an amazing solo trumpet cadenza and continues with some of his sweetest wordless singing.
Jelly Roll Morton
If Armstrong was the music's first great soloist, Jelly Roll Morton was its first great composer. At one time a pianist for the Storyville brothels, Morton's compositions and arrangements for his group, the Red Hot Peppers, kept the spontaneity and improvisational feel of jazz going in a written context. He wrote many tunes that became familiar in later years like "King Porter Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", "The Pearls" and "Black Bottom Stomp":
From almost the exact moment that records of the New Orleans musicians began to appear, white musicians from other parts of the country listened and began to play their own takes on the sound. Almost immediately some grumbled that this music was just a pale imitation of the real thing, prettied up and diluted for a white audience. Going by the work of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band or orchestra leader Paul Whiteman, a case could be made for that but in the 1920's the first white musicians with undeniably original voices began to emerge from the Midwest and New York. That group included saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, guitarist Eddie Lang and epsciialy trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke's horn had a different sound than Armstrong, sunnier and jauntier with its own sense of freedom and adventure. His most famous solo came on a recording with Trumbauer's orchestra, "Singin' The Blues:
Beiderbecke also did some composing and recorded a few piano solo pieces that were some of the first jazz works to try to pull the music away from traditional blues rhythms and into something influenced by the most progressive classical composers of the day like Ravel and Debussy. If he had continued in this vein he might have become an even more significant figure, but sadly he wouldn't live long enough to carry on. A heavy drinker, Beiderbecke died in 1931 at the age of 30. Here is one of his piano works, "In A Mist":
I wanted to touch on one other big name from the 1920's, Fats Waller. Waller began working as a professional pianist at 15 and soon built a career for himself as a performer and songwriter, writing over 400 songs in some estimates, including future standards like "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Jitterbug Waltz". He was renowned as one of the great stride pianists of his day and had an outsized performing personality that made him as famous as his music. That's evident is the first actual film clip I get to put up for this series, a 1942 Soundie (a early form of music video) for "Honeysuckle Rose":
Next: The Swing Era