Musicianers vs. Jazzmen (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)

Musicianers vs Jazzmen (Jazz Age Jazz Series) In New Orleans, musicians made a distintion between those who coudl read music (musicianers) and those who couldn't (jazzmen)

Jazz Age Jazz - Musicianers vs Jazzmen

JAZZ AGE JAZZ - Musicianers vs Jazzmen #AtoZChallenge Reading music in early #jazz Click To Tweet

M - Musicianers vs Jazzmen (AtoZ Challenge 2016) Unconventionality and freedom of expression are characteristics of jazz and brought it both praise and criticism.
Early jazz was often learned by ear (or ‘by head’, as jazzmen said), especially in New Orleans. These musicians often had no formal musical education. Their school were the honky tonk and the jam sessions where they would listen to more expert musicians and try to imitate that music on their instruments.

Much of this listening and performing happened in the streets of New Orleans where the marching bands operated.
Marching bands (or brass bands) started right after the Civil War, when African Americans salvaged instruments (especially brass) from the military bands. These bands played for the community, mostly outdoors, for any occasion: weddings, funerals, festivals, pick-nicks, social dances. There were numerous marching bands in the city and they would fight for audience in music competitions that often happened on street corners. Turn of the XX century New Orleans was a place where music was everywhere.
The most experience musicians would play in the front of the marching band and were therefore called front liners. If a young musician wanted to play along, he could do so in the second line. If and when he ever proved himself, he could be accepted in the front line.

lincoln high school cadet band and orchestra 1920

Lincoln High School Cadet Band and Orchestra (1920)

Many youngsters and aspiring musicians joined the marching bands as second liners. This was a very common means of musical education in New Orleans. Other began playing on their own, often at a very young age, sometimes in ‘spasm bands’, bands who played all sorts of gadgets that produced sound: musical saws, washboards, spoons, bells, sand paper, sets of bottles.
This kind of alternative, intuitive, free-styled music attracted a lot of criticism from more established musicians, but also from community leaders. Many argued that this wasn’t music. Music should be beautiful and follow classic rules of composition, not clang together any kind of noise. In conservatories, many teachers refused to teach jazz, a lower music practiced by people who couldn’t ‘play by the book’.

But there were jazzmen who could read music. In New Orleans, they were mostly Creoles who had indeed received a formal musical education. Differences in music-reading abilities led several New Orleans performers to describe themselves in two different ways: those who could read music were nicknamed ‘musicianers’ and those who could not – who ‘ragged’ or ‘jazz’ it – were of course ‘jazzmen’.




Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989

I was doing all right – Lerning to improvise: ear training
New Orleans Online – Second Liners


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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.

6 Comments on "Musicianers vs. Jazzmen (AtoZ Challenge 2016 – Jazz Age Jazz)"

  1. I think it’s a shame they had to differentiate, but at least they did it themselves. If the professionally trained conservatory people are anything like me, the idea of improvisation scared the hell out of them 🙂 All the rest is grandstanding 🙂
    Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
    Tasha recently posted…M – Dr Malcolm Crowe & Anne and Melissa-Anne Montgomery – Fictional Phantoms #AtoZChallenge 2016My Profile

    • I think they are two very different ways of doing the same thing. I mean, it’s abit like planners and pantsers in writing. We go differetn way, but we all want to achive the same thing: a good story that will move readers 🙂

  2. This is interesting! I didn’t realize there was such a history behind marching bands!
    Megan Morgan recently posted…M – MetaphorMy Profile

  3. There was a caste system for musicians as well? That’s too bad, but either way, the music was great. Loving your historical posts!
    Debbie D recently posted…LETTER M is for MINIATURE POODLE | #AtoZChallengeMy Profile

    • Sadly, it appears there was.
      Though I also think they needed to know whetehr someone read music or played by head, because they might have operated in different ways and so a musicians had to know whether he could fit in an ensamble or not.

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