Jazz, Social Commentary, and the Harlem Renaissance


13 May 2020



The blues, a key ingredient in the complex, musical cauldron of the United States, would amalgamate with another popular musical form, ragtime, to create jazz. Like the blues, ragtime began as an oral tradition among the African American community of the nineteenth century.

In the last decade of the 19th century, what was labeled as “ragtime” was played much earlier in minstrel shows, disseminated by itinerant musicians (e.g. banjo players), and performed at the same time as dance and song. As whites became fascinated by this new music, they tried to imitate this Afro-American performance style and to notate the music. By the end of the 19th century, music was published as sheet music bearing the labels of “cakewalk,” “two-step,” or other synonyms of ragtime frequently used in the period.

While much of the music associated with the minstrelsy tradition was not syncopated, early, African American ragtime pianists arranged the songs in a jaunty, propulsive style whereby temporarily displacing the regular metrical accent by stressing a weak beat or weak part of a beat; this sense on unevenness in the rhythm was referred to “ragged time,” which led to the moniker for the style…ragtime. And, as declared by Henry Martin and Keith Waters, “For the first time, a specifically black musical genre entered and dominated the U.S. mainstream.”

The solo piano rags of Scott Joplin, which often used a modified march form standardized by John Philip Sousa, became the apex of the ragtime canon and the archetypal rag was his 1899 composition, “Maple Leaf Rag.” The figure below shows the first edition of the sheet music as published by John Stark.


Fig. Maple Leaf Rag by Scott Joplin. John Stark & Son publisher.1899.


Fig. Maple Leaf Rag cover from the third edition. 1904.

The stark disparity of the sheet music cover illustrations should not be lost on the reader. The first edition, which was published as Joplin intended—a solo piano composition—underscores the pedantic and puritanical airs of white American society of the Victorian era.  This would be juxtaposed to the zealous, syncopated rhythms that would await the intrepid pianist inside the cover, many of whom were young women who pursued ragtime as a rebellion against the pretensions of their prosaic parents. As Max Morath affirms, “The great majority of pianists were unquestionably middle-class women, keyboard trained in the European manner, participating in America’s booming quest for culture…succumbing to ragtime’s lure, often as not in the face of stormy parental objection.” Moreover, the women would serve as a catalyst to expiate the white population’s denigration of black, American culture.

The third printed edition displays the heinous, racist caricatures associated with the minstrelsy tradition—the “Old Negro.” This version of Joplin’s classic includes lyrics by Sydney Brown, which uses a hackneyed “Negro” dialect. This amalgam of image, words, and music is emblematic of the knotty racial history of the United States: the illustration and lyrics perpetuate the need of white America to subjugate the African American people through maintaining the precepts of minstrelsy, while Joplin is clearly repudiating those stereotypes with a defiantly demanding work of art.

Musically, “Maple Leaf Rag,” named after the Maple Leaf Club, a black social organization in Sedalia, Missouri, employs what came to be a codified musical form. Effectively, all rag sections, referred to as strains, contain sixteen bars that are divided into four equal parts; each rag consists of four discrete strains. A typical rag is a statement of the AABBACCDD form. The A strain establishes the tonic harmony, while the B centers around the dominant. The latter provides a lighter, contrasting quality. After the second B strain, there is a recapitulation of the A theme, and then a statement of the trio, or C strain, follows. The trio generally modulates to the subdominant and, as is exhibited in the marches of Sousa, for example, “Stars and Stripes Forever,” tends to have a more subdued sensibility; this precipitates the climax of the final section, or D strain.

The rhythmic aspect of ragtime is its most paramount feature. Composed for the piano, the left hand maintains a regular, steady pulse with a march-like, “oom-pah,” ostinato based on eighth note values. The right hand propels the rhythm forward with the use of syncopated figures. The figure below illustrates two common musical tropes:


Fig. Syncopated Figures

Fig. Maple Leaf Rag, mm. 3-4. Syncopated figures.

Measures three and four of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag,” Figure 1.12., typify this orthodoxy.

America’s fascination with ragtime would wane in the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century. However, the synthesis of the blues with ragtime would bring about the country’s greatest cultural contribution to the world—jazz. America’s preeminent jazz composer, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington explained:

You see, there were two lines of jazz at this time. One was the New Orleans line that came up through Chicago, Saint Louis. Then there was the Eastern that came up through Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston and New York. And the Eastern of course concentrated more on tunes and piano, et cetera. And the Western came out clarinets, trumpets, trombones, that sort of thing.

Beginning this examination in 1919, just two years after the first example of recorded jazz by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and with the return of the 369th Regiment, establishes a nascent period where African Americans, willing to fight for freedom abroad with hopes of fomenting social change at home, coincides with the incipient, black, musical leaders such as James P. Johnson (and later Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Thomas Wright “Fats” Waller) and their ambition of expressing the worth of the African American people to this nation—as Baraka declares, “Black people did not drop out of the sky, although, ‘fo’ sho’,’ they continue to be, despite the wildest of ironies, the most American of Americans.”

In the next installment, we begin our exploration of James P. Johnson, the “Father of Harlem Stride.”

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