Similarities and Differences Between Ragtime and Blues Essay

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Blues and Ragtime: Paving the Way for Jazz

Blues and ragtime helped to pave the way for jazz, one of America's truly unique music genres. Originating in the South, these genres were inspired by the African backgrounds of slaves coupled with the oppression that freed men and women faced after their emancipation. New Orleans became a musical hotbed during the jazz era. It was also during the development and popularization of the genre that jazz music found its way to Chicago and California, as well as New York. It was through the development of blues and ragtime that jazz emerged and was made accessible to the public.

Blues, from which rock and roll grew out of, was an "indigenous creation of black slaves who adapted their African musical heritage to the American environment" (Szatmary 2). Through music, these slaves were able to retain a piece of their past while at the same time creating a new form of music. The music created by these enslaved men and women involved calculated repetitions, primarily through the call-and-response songs that were sung while working in plantation fields (2). Slaves' African musical heritage also played a major role in the development of African-inspired church music, which would become the basis for gospel music and subsequently provided a foundation for blues. While jazz had a major impact in New Orleans, the blues migrated north to Chicago where they established a stronghold that continues to thrive to this day. The blues "became more entrenched" in Northern urban areas as thousands of Southerners traveled north in search of work during and after World War II (4). It is estimated that more than 50,000 African-Americans from Mississippi alone headed north to Chicago between 1940 and 1944; in total, approximately 214,000 African-Americans migrated to Chicago during this time (5). Piero Scaruffi argues that blues music was "first and foremost, a state of mind" in which the "unbridled materialism of the blues was not self glorification but self-pity" (Scaruffi). Musically, the blues are structured into twelve bars of 4/4 time whose melody is a convergence of the African five note scale and the western seven note scale; blues music also introduced two flattened notes that would become known as "blues" notes (Scaruffi).

Ragtime emerged as a musical form in the mid-1890s, first becoming popular in an unpublished form before spreading across the nation through published music materials. The rise in the publication of ragtime music also saw a rise in piano sales and "swelled the ranks of the recording industry" (Library of Congress). Ragtime has been defined as "a genre of musical composition for the piano, generally in duple meter and containing a highly syncopated treble lead over rhythmically steady bass" (Library of Congress). Additionally, ragtime music is composed of three or four contrasting sections or strains, each being 16 or 32 measures long (Library of Congress). Unlike blues music, which was highly improvisational, ragtime utilized highly syncopated rhythms. Many ragtime musicians were self-taught and uneducated musicians many of whom were slaves, or ex-slaves, minstrel troupe musicians, and "hill folk" from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas (Library of Congress). Ragtime, like the blues, grew out of the South, as well as the Midwestern states. The American general public was first introduced to the ragtime genre during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that was estimated to have been attended by 27 million people between the months of May and October (Library of Congress). By 1896, the terms "rag" and "ragtime" were used to describe the newly published "coon songs" that were being released (Library of Congress). Though ragtime continued to develop into the turn of the century, by 1917, ragtime began to fade and by 1920 was nearly forgotten as a musical style.

The development of these new musical styles also saw the rise of many influential musicians including Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Kid Ory. Buddy Bolden is considered to be the first bandleader to play jazz and is remembered for his loud and clear tone. By 1895, Bolden was leading his own semi-professional group that included Frank Lewis on clarinet and Willie Cornish on the valve trombone (Buddy Bolden). It was also during this time that his band started playing and around New Orleans. By 1901, Bolden was known as a professional musician…[continue]

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