Blues Music, Ragtime & the Origins of Jazz

NDIM Jazz Guide: Part 1

Jazz music, heavily influenced by ragtime and blues music, first appeared sometime in the 1890s and is typically thought to have originated in New Orleans.

This is not strictly true; though most of the elements that combined to create jazz were present in the city around this time and the history of music in New Orleans is fairly well documented, it is very probable that much the same thing was taking place throughout the American south, southwest, midwest, and even in California. One reason to use New Orleans as a model is because of the documentation that exists about the music and its early practitioners.

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Some of the elements of jazz which originated in African music include the very vocal nature of the music, particularly the use of tonal coloration, sometimes called “blue notes”. These are notes which fall somewhere between two notes in the Western scale and therefore cannot be precisely notated.

African languages rely on the way in which phrases or words are said as much as on the word itself, something that is not as important in English and European languages. So, it was only natural for musicians to attempt to imitate the human voice with their instruments, something which can still be heard in jazz music today. Another element that African music bequeathed to jazz is that of polyrhythm, the superimposing of one pattern of beats on top of another with each having equal importance.

The European influence on jazz includes the very instruments that have typically been used to play it. Trumpets and trombones were, of course, well-established in the symphony orchestra by this time. The saxophone, invented by Adolphe Sax in 1840, was a mainstay of the marching and military bands that were heard at this time.

The Second Line–New Orleans history and culture

The harmonic structures used by European composers were also taken as a starting point for jazz, and many of the forms used in European music as well as dance rhythms were influential as well. It is important not to think that the European influences on jazz were all harmonic and the rhythmic influences were all African. The cross-pollination between these two influences was much more subtle than that.

Marching bands were very important in New Orleans and other cities for at least two reasons. The first was that many of the first jazz musicians learned how to play their instruments and, in some cases, read music while playing in such bands. The other reason for marching bands’ importance is the fact that the music they played helped inspire one of the important precursors to jazz, ragtime.


Ragtime was music composed for solo piano, but it took as its inspiration marches and other European musical forms such as the polka. It also derived from dance music of the 1890s, such as the cakewalk (so named because the best dancers would win a cake– go figure) and owed its structure and “oom-pah” bass figures to European music like the mazurka and polka.

Ragtime explained in 2 minutes

Ragtime later influenced the development of the stride and boogie piano styles, but ragtime itself was not yet jazz. It didn’t really swing and there was no room for improvisation since the composition was intended to be played as notated by the composer.

Even though the first instrumental ragtime, “Mississippi Rag” wasn’t published until 1897, the music developed well before that. Many black performers were earning good livings playing ragtime music in bars and on vaudeville stages where they received tips for their playing. Once the music became popular, music publishers became interested in it, but many of the leading players didn’t bother publishing their compositions because they didn’t need the money, so great were their tips.

Ragtime & Stride piano playlist

The best-known composer of ragtime music was Scott Joplin. Joplin was born in Linden, Texas on November 24, 1868, but his family moved to Texarkana when he was around 7 years old. He learned a great deal about musical harmony, style, and structure from his teacher, Julius Weiss. By his teens he was working as a pianist, traveling and playing in saloons and brothels across the midwest, settling in St. Louis around 1890.

He was already playing and composing ragtime, and three years later he relocated to Sedalia, Missouri. There he worked at the Maple Leaf Club, where he composed one of his best-known compositions, “Maple Leaf Rag”, which was published in 1899. Over the next fifteen years, he composed more than sixty rags and various other pieces as well, including his grand opera, Treemonisha. Though the opera failed in its first performance, it was highly successful when staged in the 1970s, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1976. Joplin died on April 1, 1917, in Manhattan State Hospital of syphilis which he had contracted many years earlier.


Blues is an American musical form that has no known direct ancestors in either African or European music. It is a unique blend of musical traditions that did not exist anywhere else before its emergence in this country. Alan Lomax has cited some examples of similar music found in Northwest Africa, but it is generally believed that they are not direct ancestors of the blues. Blues can be traced through the African-American oral tradition back to the 1860s. It is music that conveys the reality of human suffering but is filled with redemption and transcendence.

Listen to 35 great tracks of Delta blues

The influence of the blues on jazz cannot be overemphasized. Although many other influences have existed and continue to influence the development of jazz music, blues is the basis of jazz (and later, rock & roll). Blues was the first music to emphasize improvisation, and its unique tonal coloration became an integral part of the jazz vocabulary. Any attempt to trace the roots of jazz music must take into account the influence of the blues.

The first blues composer to gain recognition was W.C. Handy, composer of “Memphis Blues” (1912) and “St. Louis Blues” (1914). Interestingly, Jelly Roll Morton met Handy in Memphis in 1908, and he later stated that the music Handy was publishing was certainly around for many years before Handy got around to putting it down. He also took exception to the fact that, many years later, Ripley’s Believe it Or Not declared that Handy was the “originator of jazz, stomps, and blues”, writing a letter which declared:

“It was that year I met Handy in Memphis. I learned that he had just arrived from his home town, Henderson, Ken. He was introduced to me as Professor Handy. Whoever heard of anyone wearing the name of Professor advocate ragtime, jazz, stomps, blues, etc.? Of course, Handy could not play either of these types, and I can assure you he has never learned them as yet (meaning freak tunes, plenty of finger work in the groove of harmonies, great improvisations, accurate, exciting tempos with a kick). I know Mr. Handy’s ability, and it is the type of folk songs, hymns, anthems, etc. If you believe I am wrong, challenge his ability.”

Jelly ROll MOrton
Blues music history

Some feel that the use of blue notes (flatted thirds, fifths, and sevenths, for want of a better definition) is what defines music like blues, others argue that it is the form (traditional twelve-bar) that defines it, while still others feel it is simply a philosophy or feeling. Whatever definition you give it, blues informs a great deal (though not all) jazz and was an essential ingredient in the creation of this new hybrid music.

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