The Birth of Jazz – A Short and Sweet Summary

Unknown Location. New Orleans 1950's

We have a lot of dedicated DJs in Columbus who come out every Wednesday to make sure that we have great swing music to dance to at Nyoh’s. But have you ever wondered what makes a song great for swing dancing? Swing dancing and traditional jazz music evolved together, so let’s take a quick journey together to the start of the the century when jazz was born! – we’ll learn the big important facts about where swing music came from, what makes it what it is, and hopefully pick up some more inspiration for our dancing!

If you think of traditional jazz as belonging to a family, its parents would be blues and ragtime. Blues is one of the first and very possibly the most influential of American art forms ever created. Blues began in African-American communities in the deep south, a powerful combination of traditional African music and European-American folk music, blues appears in nearly every genre you hear today, including jazz, R&B, and rock and roll.

A man named Alan Lomax went to great lengths to record and preserve the music of the original blues artists; here’s one of his recordings – Fred McDowell performing “Soon One Mornin’.”

Ragtime also came from African-American communities and got its name from it’s syncopated, or “ragged” rhythm – a syncopation that would develop to be called swing. (Not sure what this syncopation is? Check out this super-useful Wikipedia article.) Ragtime drew on traditional African music, as well, while also modifying the march. Scott Joplin (whose name you might recognize) was an extremely popular ragtime composer and musician, made famous by his song “Maple Leaf Rag”, one of the most renowned ragtime songs of all time – you might already know it!

Jazz itself was born in turn-of-the-century New Orleans – conceived of blues, ragtime, and marches, and played by dance bands, funeral processions, and jazz musicians in the brothels of the red light district. While a man known as Jelly Roll Morton did not invent jazz (as he claimed), he was the first person to put it on paper, making “Jelly Roll Blues” the first jazz arrangement in print in the year 1915. Here’s a recording of it by Jelly Roll himself, 11 years after its publication.

From here swing dances – Charleston, Balboa, and Lindy Hop, etc. – began to form alongside this new, exciting, and powerful music. Artists such as Sidney Bechet, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, and King Oliver came along, developing jazz and inspiring dancers across the country. One of my personal favorite swing songs is “Sing You Sinners” by Fletcher Henderson. Here’s a version recorded in 1937.

Chick Webb was a phenomenal drummer who played frequently at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, the birthplace of Lindy Hop; home of the famous Whitey’s Lindyhoppers and of Frankie Manning – the Ambassador of Swing! Here’s a song by Chick Webb and his Orchestra called “Lindyhopper’s Delight” with good reason!

Traditional Jazz isn’t the only kind of swing music – from it came the big band tunes, the “Rat Pack era” (if you will), jump blues, and eventually rock & roll, all of which have songs that swing deeply and inspire great ways to move to the music. For many dancers, though, nothing can quite compare to the energy and improvisation of traditional jazz (also shortened to “trad jazz” or called “Dixieland Jazz”, “New Orleans Jazz”, or “Hot Jazz.”)

We encourage you to explore the rich history of jazz and swing music! Lindy hop wouldn’t exist without it; in a very real sense, it truly don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.