by Eric Allison
In honour of the Town of Sylvan Lake’s 100th birthday, I have been assigned the task of blogging about the last 100 years of jazz within the 10½ weeks we have to go before the festival begins. Hey, no problem! (Gulp….)
When Sylvan Lake was incorporated in 1913, jazz was in its nascent stages in that wonderful cultural bubbling pot that was the city of New Orleans. I don’t believe that jazz could have been created anywhere else on the planet. New Orleans had the unique mix of African-Americans, Americans of both Spanish and French (and other) ancestry, and the Creoles (an intermingling of all the races). (France founded the city, lost it for a while to Spain, regained it again and then sold it to the Americans for what was probably the second best real estate deal in history; the Manhattan deal ranks number one.)
The African-American slaves brought rhythms and chants from their homeland and the European-Americans brought harmony and form from Western classical and popular music traditions. Add to that the military bands that used the port of New Orleans as their departure point during the Spanish-American War, then abandoning or pawning hundreds of instruments there when the war was over, and you have the perfect storm that created jazz music.
In 1897, a resolution proposed by town alderman Sidney Story was passed which moved all the city brothels into a 38-block area which became known as Storyville, the Crescent City’s legendary Red Light district. Hundreds of musicians were employed in this hugely popular tourist area, from solo piano “professors” to small combos to full brass bands. Jazz was being created probably without even the musicians knowing what it was they were creating.
In 1917, when Sylvan Lake was a mere four years old, two monumental events took place that would change the course of jazz forever.
First, the Secretary of War ordered the mayor of New Orleans to shut down Storyville or the army and navy would do it for him; it seems that the servicemen were enjoying the delights of the district a bit too much. This was probably the first mass layoff of musicians in history. (The second, and even more devastating, would come a mere 10 years later with the advent of talking pictures when theatre orchestras almost disappeared overnight.) Some of the musicians stayed in their home town but many left looking for other employment opportunities. Up the Mississippi River they went, to St. Louis and Kansas City, and ultimately to Chicago which became the hotbed of jazz in the 1920’s. The migration spread west to California and east to New York, too.
Second, the first jazz recording was issued on the Victor label by a white New Orleans band, the “Original Dixieland Jass Band”. They were creating a furor in New York with their steady gig at a Manhattan restaurant; even sophisticated New Yorkers had never heard music like this! The floodgates had opened.
Louis Armstrong, the first great jazz soloist whose influence was so profound that without him, jazz would be a different music today, is known by the current generation for the gravelly voice on “What a Wonderful World.” Folks of my generation remember him as the smiling, mugging singer and trumpet player (with his ever-present white handkerchief in hand) who brought the show tunes “Hello, Dolly” and “Mame” into popularity.
But when Louis’ mentor and fellow cornetist Joe “King” Oliver sent for him in New Orleans to come join his band in Chicago, the jazz world would never be the same. With his astonishing technique, powerful range and unique swing phrasing he compelled all jazz musicians of the day to follow this pied piper breaking new ground in the creation of the music. The many recordings of his Hot Five and Hot Seven throughout the 20’s stand today as the revolutionary documents they were then.
Enchanted by these great New Orleans musicians now holding forth on the South Side of Chicago, a new generation of young white musicians from the Midwest fell completely under their spell and were beginning to create their own revolution. Principal among this group was the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke who had met Louis many years earlier when Louis was gigging on a Mississippi steamboat. One of the stops was Davenport, Iowa, Bix’s hometown.
Bix is generally considered the other great jazz soloist of the era. But where Louis played hot, Bix played cool. Louis played high and loud; Bix stayed mostly in the middle range of the horn and on a more even dynamic keel. Louis dazzled with technique; Bix used his self-taught technique to find just the right notes to create unique melodic improvisations.
Of course there were many other ground breaking musicians at the beginnings of jazz in the Golden Era of the 1920’s, like the great “stride” pianists outdoing each other night after night at Harlem rent parties (James P. Johnson, “Fats” Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith), and young bandleaders (Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington) forming larger ensembles and beginning to orchestrate jazz. This points the way to the next revolution in jazz (and the subject of my next blog), the Swing Era.
When the stock market crashed in 1929 causing the Great Depression of the early to mid-1930’s, many musicians migrated once again, this time to New York. Manhattan would become the epicenter for jazz music, a crown it has never relinquished.
Keep Swinging! -Eric