JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


Tell me about collective improvisation in New Orleans and how that helped the art form emerge.

You had two social groups in New Orleans that in the nineteenth century, in the post-Civil War period, were very segregated from each other. One was the so-called black blacks. These were former slaves in many instances; they were poor, they lived in the uptown area. The other section, the other group, was known as Creoles of color. They had heritage in France and Spain. Many of them had been slave owners themselves. But after the Jim Crow laws came along everything was judged by skin color and suddenly the Creoles of color, after a famous lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court, they were forced to be as one socially with the black blacks. They could not sit in the front of the bus. Now these were people who owned businesses and industries, these were people among whom the musicians were trained, you know, in the strict theories of the French Academy. They were virtuoso musicians, the Creoles of color. The black musicians, many of them were self-taught. Suddenly they're put together. And so now you have the compositional abilities, the technical virtuosity of the Creoles against the blacks, who were more creative, who are more invested in the blues-and blues tonality and blues sounds-and also, because a lot of them don't read music, have learned to improvise. They take basic themes like, ―the bucket's got a hole in it or ―make me a pallet on the floor-these are songs that Buddy Bolden, who had the first jazz band, actually played.

And they would play the theme and then they would improvise on it. And they would play for dancers. They had dancers in these saloons where they worked and they would speed or slow up the tempo to accommodate the dancers. And by improvisation they would make these tunes go on, they would be very sexy. They could-you know, have a languorous kind of tempo or they could be very exciting. Jelly Roll Morton, who belonged to a French family, a Creole of color, was basically disowned by his family because he was so attracted to what was going on in the uptown black community. So Jelly Roll Morton would take those qualities of improvisation and blues but he would organize them with his brilliant compositional and melodic imagination. So in a sense jazz is a combination of what the Creoles are doing, what the blacks are doing, which recapitulates the earlier combination of African Americans and Europe, or the African influence and the European influence. Again, the African influence leaning more toward improvisation, more to rhythm; the European to discipline, control, compositional exactitude.