Afro-American Origin (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Afro-American Origin (Jazz Age Jazz Series) Although nobody really know when and where exactly jazz originated, it'd be very hard to deny its origin deep in the African and Afro-American culture

Jazz Age Jazz - African American Origin

JAZZ AGE JAZZ - A is for African American Origin #AtoZChallenge #jazz Click To Tweet
A (AtoZ Challenge 2016)If there’s something certain about jazz is that nothing is certain about jazz. We don’t know for certain where or when it was born. We don’t know for certain why and how it emerged as its own form of music. Even a definition for it is not easily founded.
But it is normally agreed on the fact that jazz arose in the South of the United States around the turn of the XX century and that, although it was always a mixture of European’s and African American’s musical traditions, the characteristics that most define jazz – especially early jazz – found their origin very far away in time and place: in Africa.

The place where a first form of music that then evolved into many others, including jazz, was the Southern plantation.
The communities of slaves on plantations were very diverse. Slaves came from different parts of Africa and often spoke different native languages, but music was something they all understood because it was a common part of all their different backgrounds. Slowly but steadily, music became a form of communication and one of the very few forms of expressions for slaves, who would draw strongly on their African heritage, but also picked up elements  of the owners’ European music culture. The plantation was one of the first places where contamination occurred.

Music on the plantations manifests in two different, main forms:

  • Spirituals: a syncretic form of religious expression. It had its roots in African spirituality, but was generally tolerated by plantation owners because interpreted as a conversion to Christianity.
  • Work song and field hollers: work in the fields was repetitive and monotonous. Work songs created a rhythm to work at, with strong, steady beats. A leader would sing a line, all the other participants would respond.

Early manifestations of music and songs on the plantations, both sacred and secular, were very similar in structure. The situation when they occurred was what differentiated them. In later years, this connection between sacred and secular music created quite the controversy inside the black community.

escaped-slaves-usAnother thing they had in common was that these songs often had a hidden meaning, a coded message comprehensible only to the community participating in the song and hidden to the slave owners. This secret meaning was sometimes meant to uplift the community and give some kind of hope. Some other times, it actually contained a message that was spread among the different plantations, which is why field hollers were sometimes forbidden.

The communal creation of the music, the syncopated rhythm and the “call and response” practice were all characteristics of African music, that would then evolved inside the African American community, often independently from the dominant white culture. Jazz was one of the many forms of music that emerged from this common experience.




Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Sullivan, Megan, African-American Music as Rebellion: From Slavesong to Hip-Hop (PDF)

Red Hot Jazz – The Origins of Jazz
Hub Pages – How did jazz begin? The start of a history of jazz
Jazz – Jazz Heritages


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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

78 Comments on "Afro-American Origin (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

  1. Wow! I didn’t know about the field hollers. Thanks!
    Lillian Csernica recently posted…Norwescon: Fun Fun Fun!My Profile

  2. Great post and so much information that I never knew. The source and inspiration for music comes from places we haven’t even imagined.
    Parul Thakur recently posted…A for AdaCamp #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  3. Wonderful post. I learned so much! It just makes me appreciate music that much more.

    Twitter: @KnottyMarie
    Literary Gold
    Jingle Jangle Jungle

    • This is what I like of history: it always makes sense. There is always a reason why things happene and when we learn it, we know something more about our past, but often also about our presend and ourselves.
      Thanks so much for stopping by.

  4. Fascinating post. Had heard of coded messages in black music before. Had forgotten this but it does make sense. Clever on the part of slaves in communicating their messages in song. Jazz is less American than we think, although we do take credit!

    Pioneer Women in Aviation A-Z
    Sharon Himsl recently posted…Celebrate the Small Things: Busy Month But on ScheduleMy Profile

    • Well, I think jazz IS an American music. It came into being because of America’s particular history and social situation. I don’t think it could have arisen anywhere else.
      But nothing arises out of nothing. Everything has a history and a ‘before’, and this is what the African roots of jazz tell us about.
      Just my thought 🙂

  5. Fascinating history to Jazz. Quite a few of my family members have played in jazz bands, so I shall be back to read more.
    @Raesquiggles from
    The Quiet Writer

  6. I’d heard of the spirituals, but not field hollers – such a musically rich, but troubled start to the history of jazz.
    Sophie Duncan recently posted…Murder Most Foul! – A is for Alert – Cozy Mystery #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • It’s the history of people. Understanding the music, let us understand the people. Though for me, understaning the history of people made me appreciate the music more. When I started my research, I knew nothing of jazz 🙂

  7. Beautifully informative as always, thank you so much for all the details I hadn’t heard before. I had no idea that the particulars of the origins of Jazz were so vague :).
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
    Tasha recently posted…A – Annabelle Higgins & Aka Manto – Fictional Phantoms #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • Jazz emerged from a melting pot of cultures and influences, just like many other music forms in the same time and places (as ragtime, for example). So the vogueness isn’t as much about what and when created the right conditions for the birth of jazz, but on the details.
      We know that jazz existed in and around New Orleans at a certain time, but was that the place and the time when it first started to be played? Nobody knows. We know that some of the jazz characteristcs come from certain influences (as I tried to expose), but how and when these influences congretated in a recognizable form of music the first time, again, we don’t know.

      Yes, jazz appears to be a very mysterious art 😉

  8. The hidden meanings in the songs have a really meaningful significance!

    All the best for the challenge, and I hope you’ve had a great first day 🙂
    Mithila Menezes @Fabulus1710 recently posted…A for Aurora #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  9. Interesting history about Jazz; like the comment about the field hollers. Great start to the AtoZ! Aloha to you on A day!
    Gail M Baugniet recently posted…A is for APRIL A-TO-Z CHALLENGE MONTH #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  10. The world has music in common. The field hollers remind me of Gaelic waulking songs sung in the Highlands and Islands as women beat (waulked) the tweed to soften it. The rhythm is similar.
    Anabel recently posted…Skye the Puffling and other storiesMy Profile

  11. This is very interesting! I didn’t realize the songs had messages in them. Great post!
    Megan Morgan recently posted…A – Annnd…Action!My Profile

  12. Thanks. This was something I did not know and frankly, would love to read more on. As many mentioned above, the spiritual part I could have guessed but the holler aspect was new info.
    Will be returning for the remaining days of the challenge to see more 🙂
    Roshan Radhakrishnan recently posted…Know Your Show: Agents of SHIELD #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  13. My gram used to play the piano at church. she couldnt read music but she could pick up ANY tune and start jamming her butt off! she could play a negro spiritual or a good old fashioned classical music piece. all by ear. she sang with a deep voice and her call and response voice could rouse the dead. I’d like to think that some of that came from the slave history of our ancestors.

  14. Negro Spirituals, Prison Songs and Hollers give me the chills. I have tried to incorporate them into my novel that’s in its second draft form. They are such an inspiration to me as an African American woman and they can be inspirational to all that open their hearts to these deeply felt messages.
    Stephanie Bird recently posted…Artful LivingMy Profile

    • I think writing about our own culture is easier for soem aspect, but so much more
      difficult for other.
      What is your story about, Stephanie? I’d love to know more.

  15. I am glad you are doing this 🙂 It is a very informative theme. When I teach American culture, my students are often very interested in musical genres and their origins.
    Happy A to Z! 🙂

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    The Multicolored Diary
    Tarkabarka recently posted…A is for Adoption (and Stepmothers)My Profile

    • What has fascinated me the most about researching jazz is that it wasn’t just a matter of music. It was a social movement in so many respects. I hope I’ll be able to let this across 🙂

  16. I’ve learned a lot from this post. Thanks for the education! I didn’t know about the hidden messages or the field hollers.
    Debbie D recently posted…A is for AIREDALE TERRIER | #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  17. Very interesting, especially the part about hidden messages.
    Ellen @ The Cynical Sailor recently posted…A Is For Anchor | Nancy Drew Investigates {A To Z Challenge}My Profile

  18. Something so profoundly beautiful emerged from something so horrific! Loved the history lesson. Looking forward to the rest of your posts!
    Modern Gypsy recently posted…{A} Art journaling 101My Profile

  19. It’s always interesting to learn more about how cultures mix and influence each other. Learning Jazz has it’s roots in field songs isn’t too surprising, but I didn’t know it. It’s going to be a great experience watching the history of Jazz unfold this month.
    Robin Rivera recently posted…Masterplots Theater: A is for AdventureMy Profile

  20. This made for such a fascinating and an insightful read! Wow!

  21. I think I’m going to have to get that CD–the music is so stirring.

  22. Fascinating stuff!

  23. Great introduction into the world of jazz age jazz.
    I never realized some of the roots of jazz and that many other roots have been obscured over time.

  24. What about the blues connection? I always think of jazz and blues being close companions, since they’ve influenced each other and came about around the same time, both from that Mississippi region near New Orleans and the delta of the Mississippi River.
    Laura Roberts recently posted…Amazing Art & Architecture #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  25. Music really does define and bond people doesnt it? Jazz speaks from the heart all the way to the toes.
    A well written article that I enjoyed and learned from.
    Thanks and happy A to Z challenge to you.
    I’m A to Zing from: Fill the Cracks and Moondustwriter’s Blog

  26. I know precious little about Jazz… although I do enjoy listening to the music.
    I can see where Jazz did originate from African Spirituals, though (which I also enjoy)
    I look forward to learning more throughout the month.

    Molly @MyCozyBookNook
    My Cozy Book Nook
    Revising Life after 50

  27. Jazz is very much something you know it when you hear it, but extremely hard to define. Actually, I think defining it would detract from it.

    Very insightful post on the roots of jazz in the African slave population.
    Barbara In Caneyhead recently posted…Tender Years: Arkansas, My 1st SnowMy Profile

  28. Work songs definitely helped slaves get through hard forced labor. Your posts are very informative and thought provoking. Thanks for taking part in the challenge.
    Sheena-kay Graham recently posted…All About SteveMy Profile

  29. Great post and very informative, too. Looking forward to the following ones! All the best
    Zeljka recently posted…Bolshoi TheatreMy Profile

  30. Again, (just finished reading about the Blues) very informative. I see where you made a comment that you knew very little about jazz before you started digging. Nice work digging then!!:) And thanks for taking us along for the ride.

    • It’s been a very good journay indeed. I leanred so many things. And because I feel enriched by the journey, I want to share it.

      Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

  31. Thanks for sharing this. Such an insightful read!
    Shalini R recently posted…Living Out of the Box #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

  32. Love the history, thank you.!

    Happy Second Day of the A to Z!
    Ninga Minion @YolandaRenee from
    Defending The Pen
    Murderous Imaginings
    Yolanda Renee recently posted…B – BIG LAKEMy Profile

  33. I knew bits of this, but it’s nice to get a bigger picture on the origins of jazz.
    Anna Tan recently posted…Things I have learnt about self-publishing as a non-American (aka Amazon hates me)My Profile

  34. A is for Amazing which describes this post. You are off to a great start and I’m looking forward to following you through the alphabet.
    Claire Noland recently posted…B is for BrazilMy Profile

  35. Great post! Have you seen the Ken Burns series? It’s excellent.
    – Fellow A-Z-er
    Wicked Goodies recently posted…The Letter DMy Profile

    • Happy you liked it 🙂
      I’ve seen only the first episodes of Burns’s “Jazz” (the time I’m interested in) and “Last Call” about Prohibition. These are all great documentaries.

  36. Awesome post! I loved learning this part of musical history!
    Tawnya recently posted…A to Z- Authentic Inspiration: Community #atozchallengeMy Profile

  37. Jazz has such a deep history. Great post, taking it all the way back to the beginning. Important to discuss where it started.

    Creative Staycation
    Alexis recently posted…A to Z Challenge: H is for HamiltonMy Profile

  38. Wow! I loved that historical recording. Great theme for the A to Z challenge. Thank you for sharing the knowledge. Alex from
    Family Tree Frog

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