The evolution of music: Blues, jazz and the rise of popular music

BY Mandi Goodier

1st Jan 2015 Music

The evolution of music: Blues, jazz and the rise of popular music

At the turn of the 20th century, popular music existed in the form of light opera, or "operetta," and in the theatrical entertainment. Fifty years later, the Western world's teenagers bopped to rock'n'roll. Find out how the arrival of blues and jazz transformed popular music paving the way for modern music.

The beginnings of blues


Ragtime best seller "The Entertainer" by Scott Joplin


The new century opened in the heyday of music halls and vaudeville. In 1907, Viennese operetta reached a high point when Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow opened in London, and in New York, Florenz Ziegfeld staged the first of his revues, the Ziegfeld Follies.

The wealth of shows created a demand for new songs, and the popular music business began in New York's Tin Pan Alley, a street named for the constant pounding of pianos by songwriters demonstrating their work to publishers.

At the same time, a craze for ragtime gripped the US. The "ragged time" (meaning syncopated) tunes were influenced by folk tradition, minstrel shows and marching bands. Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (written in 1899) sold more than a million copies as sheet music. In 1911, songwriter Irving Berlin's long career began with the hit "Alexander's Ragtime Band".

While this popular style of music was taking off, there was a more organic style of music moving across the underground in America. 

Blues took its roots from the sometimes improvised call and response chorus that African slave labourers would sing, adapted from field shouts and hollers. Its evolution is often accredited to the emancipation of black slaves, who then moved away group performance to focus on individual performance.

We know very little about how this early style developed as most musicians would move trough communities leaving little or no record of what they performed. Similar to the female musicians of the classical era, blues musicians were considered low class and not worthy of documentation.

Ma Rainey, the first professional female blues singer claims to have coined the term.


First lady of the blues, Ma Rainey's "Deep Moaning Blues"


In the 1920s, technological advances meant that blues musicians were able to become recording artists and their music could be played on the radio across the country. Musicians like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had previously improvised their songs accompanied by a banjo or guitar, were now able to permanently record and share their works. 

Behind the scenes, rhythms originally brought to the US by African slaves could be heard in New Orleans' brothels, where black musicians entertained the clients. Early jazz pioneers such as Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden began their careers here.

Their improvised music, influenced by blues and ragtime, became known as jazz.

Jazz didn't remain behind closed doors, during an era when America was having huge issues with racism, a group of white southerners formed The Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1912 and entertained the rest of the city.

The jazz sound drifted north, played by bands on Mississippi riverboats, and when the New Orleans' red light district closed in 1917, the Dixieland band traveled to New York.

Soon, Dixieland jazz became known across the US. In 1922, the Cotton Club jazz venue opened in New York, making the new sound fashionable. US troops took jazz across the Atlantic to Europe during World War I.



The rise and rise of jazz


George Gershwin's marriage of classical and jazz, "Rhapsody in Blue"

Alongside the newly popular genre, musical comedy continued to develop. Broadway, Manhattan’s theatre district, enjoyed its heyday in the 1920s. Memorable songs caught the public imagination in light entertainment shows such as Lady Be Good (1924), George Gershwin's first major musical.

Gershwin's music fused classical music, popular music and jazz to create a new distinctively American sound. In the same year, US bandleader Paul Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write his most famous piece of music, "Rhapsody in Blue" (above).

By 1925, Broadway had 80 theatres, and between 1927 and 1928, 280 new productions opened, including Jerome Kern's Show Boat, with plotting and characterization that set new standards for the stage musical.


Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden perform "Jeepers Creepers" in 1958


In the 1920s, the centre of the jazz world had shifted from New Orleans to the speakeasies of Prohibition-era Chicago, where Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Jelly Roll Morton became the genre’s new giants.

A new style of solo improvisation earned trumpeter, cornet player and gravelly-voiced singer Armstrong worldwide acclaim.

Female singers became more prominent, vocalist Bessie Smith made a series of recordings with the top musicians of the decade, including Armstrong, which earned her the nickname "Empress of the Blues."

In 1927, Al Jolson starred in the first "talkie," The Jazz Singer, and Bix Beiderbecke recorded the jazz classic "Singin' the Blues." Standards of musicianship reached a pinnacle, and the decade as a whole became known as the "jazz age."

Musicals now moved onto the big screen in lavish Hollywood productions. Radio star Bing Crosby introduced his smooth looks and crooning voice in King of Jazz (1930). The Gay Divorcee (1934), based on a Broadway production, and Top Hat (1935) by Irving Berlin entertained with pure escapism.

The end of Prohibition in 1933 forced many musicians out of the illegal drinking clubs and into the open.

Jazz adapted its style for wider appeal, tailoring itself to the dance hall in the form of big bands and swing. Bandleaders Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Paul Whiteman led the change.


Billie Holiday sings the emotional "Strange Fruit"


Vocalist Billie Holiday dominated the decade with her jazz interpretations of popular songs, recording with saxophonist Lester Young, whose light tone influenced soloists such as Charlie Parker.

In 1934, Fats Waller (below) introduced his humorous vocal jazz style, and three years later, Glenn Miller began leading orchestras in his distinctive style of swing.

Meanwhile, Hollywood continued to create star vocalists—Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra among them. In 1942, Irving Berlin's genius for melody produced the song "White Christmas." Today, Bing Crosby's version has sold about 50 million copies, making it the best-selling single of all time.


Fats Waller can't stand you because "Your Feet's Too Big"


The smoothness of swing provoked a jazz rebellion in the form of bebop, or "hot jazz"—an experimental form with complex rhythms and harmonies, led by saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and guitarist Charlie Christian, the first to use electrical amplification.

At the same time, Woody Guthrie's songs, such as "This Land is Your Land," caused a quiet revolution in folk music, expressing popular sentiments about the Great Depression and the suffering of the poor. His writing was to influence Bob Dylan and a host of folk singers 20 years later.

The mixing of musical styles opened up new avenues. Under the influence of swing, country music (which itself was an adaptation of folk and blues) was transformed: Western swing emerged, with amplified guitars and strong dance rhythms, and honky tonk developed in the hands of singers like Hank Williams.





Rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll


B.B. King "Please Love Me"


In 1949, Billboard magazine christened a new fusion of blues, boogie-woogie, jazz and mainstream pop music: rhythm and blues (R&B).

R&B, characterised by the rolling guitar rhythms of Jackie Wilson and the laid-back style of B.B. King, became big business in the US in the early 1950s. Country music also became increasingly commercial. Johnny Cash began recording in 1955, and in 1957, Patsy Cline won the talent competition that launched her career.

A mixture of black rhythm and blues and white country music produced the dominant style of the new decade: rock'n'roll.

The regular beat and youth-targeted lyrics appealed to teenagers, and the first music charts, which appeared in the US in the late 1940s and in Britain in 1952, confirmed the genre’s popularity.



Little Richard performs "Long Tall Sally" and "Tutti Frutti"


In 1955, Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" hit number one; sales eventually topped 22 million. In the same year, the manic piano style and outrageous clothes of Little Richard made "Tutti Frutti" a hit, and Chuck Berry made his debut with "Maybellene."

The rock'n'roll of Berry and the rhythm and blues of B.B. King became two of the most important influences on the popular music of the 1960s.

In 1956, Elvis Presley released "Heartbreak Hotel." He captured the spirit of rock'n'roll and became the biggest-selling artist in the history of popular music.

In 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis released the classic rock'n'roll tracks "Whole Lotta Shakin’" and "Great Balls of Fire." In the same year, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, using a line-up of two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer, and studio techniques such as double-tracking, set trends that still persist in popular music with the release of "Peggy Sue."

Just one year after Buddy Holly's death in a plane crash in 1959, popular music began to take a new direction.

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