Jazz – An Imprecise Précis – Ragtime and Classic Jazz

Last month, I got carried away with the sounds of jazz, some early jazz history, and the various jazz eras and styles.  Now, I’d like to explore some of the early jazz musicians (or “jass” as it was first known).  It is this music that FineMusic Sydney broadcasts every Sunday at midday in Classic Jazz and Ragtime.

Ragtime and Classic Jazz are two somewhat overlapping periods at the beginning of jazz from the 1890s.  While Ragtime is thought to have originated in Missouri, Classic Jazz principally originated in New Orleans, although there was jazz in Kansas City and Chicago. These were transport hubs, bringing people, their employment, their entertainment and their music together. 

Ragtime is typified by tightly scored, formally structured piano pieces.  Some scholars consider that it was not intended for dancing. By contrast, Classic Jazz embraced the energy of West African, influenced by European light classics, often adapting popular melodies, hymns, work songs and the Blues. 

Ragtime emerged from marches, waltzes and traditional songs, with the key characteristic of syncopation, and was dominated by piano.  Classic Jazz grew from brass bands that performed for parties and dances, often based around instruments salvaged from the Confederate War, including clarinet, sax, trombone, tuba, banjo, drums and occasionally the piano.  

That term syncopation; what is it?  As humans, we normally look for regular patterns in life and music. Syncopation is when that beat is shifted mid-stream, with an unexpectedly changed emphasis, creating intrigue.

“Ragtime” may well come from the music being described as ragged. But certainly, the first Ragtime song was published in 1895 by Ben Harney. And in 1899, a classically trained young pianist from Missouri named Scott Joplin published the first of many Ragtime compositions.  Joplin was regarded as the King of Ragtime, but he was not alone with Joseph Lamb, and James Scott being notable.  Indeed, Igor Stravinsky composed ragtime. 

Classic Jazz followed in the 1900s and 1910s.  Classic Jazz musicians from New Orleans include King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong, Earl Hines, Jelly-Roll Morton, Henry Allen, Kid Ory, and Sidney Bechet.  While from Kansas City comes Bennie Moten’s Orchestra (later led by Count Basie), Paul Whiteman Orchestra, James P Johnson, Eddie Lang, Albert Ammons and Jabbo Smith.  Of these, it was King Oliver who taught Louis Armstrong, got him a job with Kid Ory, and then drew him to Kansas City.  Armstrong is credited with establishing the solo within a band’s performance, although not really till the mid 1920s.  And why is Fats Waller not in this list? For many, he is the cusp of Ragtime, Dixieland and Swing.  So more of him next time.

In the following graph, I have presented the life and music of these key musicians and composers.  This illustrates the overlap in their lives, and indeed the cross-influences of other emerging styles.

If you are looking for tracks that typify the period, check out

  • Ben Harney’s “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon But You Done Broke Down”
  • Jelly-Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers playing Black Bottom Stomp,
  • Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines playing Weather Bird, one of the most remarkable duets ever,
  • King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band playing Dipper Mouth Blues and
  • Sidney Bechet’s rendition of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag
  • Bennie Moten’s Orchestra with Moten Swing.

Why do people love these eras so much? I asked one of the FineMusic Sydney presenters of Classic Jazz and Ragtime. Her reply highlighted toe tapping rhythms, individual interpretations, fascinating harmonies and surprising changes and additions.  “… music that leaves me feeling better for having heard it and better for having it part of my day.””

Bibliography: “List of Ragtime composers” Wikipedia.  “Jazz Timeline” www.APassion4Jazz.net.  “History of Ragtime” Library of Congress.  “A Brief History of Ragtime” www.YouTube.com“Jazz Age” Wikipedia

Keith Pettigrew, presenter of Emergent Jazz


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