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All that jazz: Just where did it come from?

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This is a photo taken in the 1880s of family at the site of the Stones River Battlefield during Reconstruction. Recovered and restored by Shacklett’s Photography

While a chilly spring rain spattered in time on the tin roof of his one-room shanty, a darkened, withered face strummed along stomping note for note rhythmically a staccato tempo with his feet. 

His mournful, yet syncopated lament, was an emotional response. As he sang, the nightmares from his past persisted — hounds on his trail and threatened with beatings.

Then there was the memory of being packed so tightly into a bale of cotton that the space his body occupied was scarcely three inches thick. For now after the war, his trouble and mental anguish was only released in the singing and playing of his music.

His musical cry as slave had been a great gift, a creative expression to heal the pain and share the story to the young hopefully that would continue through the years long after the Civil War.

Imbedded in our rich musical heritage are songs that have weathered hard times. It seems that no matter what happens mankind has always found a way to escape hardships through song. America’s musical styles exemplify traditions that are a pure and perfect fusion of all that has influenced our culture from the past until now. These musical hallmarks with their uncanny harmonies are tunes that seem to originate from a single source and have perfectly blended down through the decades into modern styles, a precursor to blues, rock and roll, and jazz.

Almost from the beginning America’s musical styles were rooted, evolved and thrived pealing across the decades through the generations. Some people say that jazz is America’s only true original art form.

In the fields hundreds of years ago, slaves worked and made up songs to pass time, to express themselves and to keep alive the culture and traditions of their African homelands. It wasn’t called jazz then, yet soon the unique way the slaves would play and sing their music would evolve into a different form of music known as “jazz.”

Before the Civil War, slave songs could be heard as “field hollers,” which were sung by a single voice with rhythmic clapping and stomping. Many of the first jazz and blues songs may have originated from a single word or phrase repeated again and again.

Early blues singers often would moan, shout and slide from one pitch to another emulating the field hollers. The conditions of slavery and being in a strange land, combined with being exposed to European influences, yielded new music as the cultures homogenized. “Spirituals,” “Hollers” and “Work Songs” became the basis for Gospel and storytelling blues.

After the Civil War, the slave songs and styles —laments and shouts of protest with coded meanings evolved. During this period after the freeing of the slaves, the awareness of this new style of music was coming into mainstream America from the cloistered world of the African-American culture. The well-spring of songs that emerged out of the Reconstruction era became the cultural voice of the African American. Later, these would eventually influence blues and jazz even affecting the development of early rock and roll.

While jazz is considered difficult to define, improvisation is consistently regarded as being one of its key elements. According to many musicologists, the centrality of improvisation in jazz is attributed to the influence of earlier forms from the work songs and field hollers of the slaves on the plantations.

These were commonly structured around a repetitive call-and-response. By the early 20th century in New Orleans, jazz in the form of “Dixieland” was born. In the beginning, jazz grew in popularity fusing with classical European influences later and evolved into Ragtime, swing and big band music crossing all ethnic and racial barriers.

The Main Street JazzFest last weekend lingers as a memory. In its 18th year, the event has become the premier occasion for Murfreesboro in May, drawing thousands from around the area. It is a real people watcher occasion — definitely one to see and be seen. 

Something enchanting happens when the smooth, silky sounds of the Main Street JazzFest fill beautiful downtown Murfreesboro. Last weekend for a moment under our stately courthouse, warmed by a spring sun, you and your family relaxed, strolled, enjoyed and were mesmerized by the sights and sounds, a truly authentic human experience. As each one mixed and mingled around the quaint shops and unique boutiques, Jazz Fest continued to give our community the chance to meets new friends, get reacquainted with old ones.

JazzFest has been a major player in Rutherford County with the development and education of jazz music among all ages. Since its conception, youth jazz bands have increased exponentially. Friday night’s jammed-packed event featured bands from the local high schools thrilling the crowd with some of the best youth talent.

Who knows, perhaps through the young, the Main Street JazzFest is giving them an opportunity to follow that dream and profoundly steer jazz and America’s musical styles by throwing a gauntlet down into the future by this experience.

Tagged under  gloria christy, jazzfest, stones river

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