Jazz's Journey: From New Orleans to North Yorkshire


Ellen Morris (she/her) explains how Jazz has evolved from its roots and how it is relevant today

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Image by Herman Leonard Photography

By Ellen Morris

The music genre of Jazz was born out of cruel, inhuman oppression, and flourished into a sensational movement of joy and liberation. The journey of Jazz began within West African communities helping to somewhat raise their spirits whilst being held in captivity by Western powers when they were forced from Africa to be slaves in the United States. Conditions were unspeakable and their singing was a way to express and share their emotions with each other. After the American Civil War ended in 1875, and slaves were freed, many were able to move in surrounding cities. This caused African-American Jazz to hit the US as more of a national movement, most notably in New Orleans.

Jazz continued to evolve into the 1930s. This marked the rise of 'Swing Jazz', with big bands and orchestras. A horn section was developed to accommodate several artists and provide more music depth. Seen in the emerging use of the saxophone, there would typically be variations of alto, tenor, and Bari saxophones harmonising and interacting within one piece; this was revolutionary.

At this time, the Great Depression hit nationwide: alcohol prohibition legislation was in place from 1920 to 1933, so people seeking refuge from their everyday struggles needed an alternative escape: Jazz! Upbeat music became an escape from the real world of economic crises, which had given rise to mass unemployment and homelessness. Venues were heaving throughout the 1920s and 1930s with people turning their sorrows into art and entertainment, for the ever more ecstatic audiences who were fulfilled by the power of sound and dancing. Jazz spread out globally, as American artists travelled to perform. Iconic African-American musicians such as Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong made their way to the UK in 1932 and 1933 to inspire the public.

During World War II, the impact of Jazz continued to grow. In 1942, the American Federation of Music, which represented many professional musicians, went on strike against major record companies. This meant that Jazz could not be recorded to be sold commercially. Troops across the world did not have the morale boosts they could previously find in families, friends, and Jazz. So, it was proposed to the US government that albums be recorded solely to be sent to soldiers fighting in the war. This was successful and 'V-discs' were recorded, produced, and posted globally. Household names were involved in this process, including Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. The importance of Jazz was highlighted through the general knowledge that it would instil hope in the soldiers, and act as a means to assure them that they were recognised for their individual sacrifices.

Skipping forward to the 1990s, a crossover of hip-hop and Jazz was born, Jazz progressed further to be moulded into new inventions with the creative, adventurous minds of new artists. Many classic hip-hop albums of the era used Jazz instrumentals as a base to rap upon, with A Tribe Called Quest's album The Low End Theory (1991) being one of many to begin the movement. Following this, Was released the album Illmatic (1994), which each song containing looped samples from Jazz dating to the 1970s and 1980; 'The World Is Yours' used sampling from Ahmal Jamal Trio's album The Awakening (1970) from the song 'I Love Music'. The ethereal piano riffs within the song, whilst Nas repeats 'Who's world is this?' submerges the listener into the tranquil realisation that 'The World Is Yours'. Nas remains a hip-hop legend, and credit can be given to his predecessors of sound that supplied the harmonic melodies.

Currently, popular contemporary Jazz artists often take a spin on Jazz and create genre-bending tracks, for example, Ezra Collective. They combine new-Jazz with afro-Jazz and hip-hop vocals, which emulates the modern world of juggling components from different cultures to form new art. However, classic blues and funk Jazz can still be found, even in York!

Jazz lovers at the University of York can be found at Vanbrugh Jazz Night at 'V-Bar' on a Monday evening to release tension from a day's study. As trivial as that may be in comparison, a strong community can be found there, as people excitedly watch and dance to the student Jazz band house set. Followed by the 'Open Jam', which allows anyone that can handle an instrument to partake in the tunes, encouraging non-committal engagement from students around the university and the city.

Songs played at Vanbrugh Jazz Night vary between older blues, such as 'Blue Monk', first recorded by Thelonious Monk in 1954, to 'Strasbourg / St Denis' released in 2008. The contrast in eras constructs a well-rounded depiction of older and modern jazz to brighten up the start of the week.