Even as it was being rejected by the American populace, the unique energy and syncopated rhythms of ragtime was influencing classical composers in Europe. In the early 1900’s, French composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie, both known for their progressive compositional ideas at the piano, used ragtime elements in piano works such as Golliwog’s Cakewalk (Debussy, 1908) and Parade (Satie, 1917). Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, known for his innovative orchestral works, gave a ragtime flavor to significant compositions such as The Soldier’s Tale (L’histoire du Soldat, 1918)
Debussy’s “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” (1908) shows the influence of American ragtime.
In the early 1910’s, ragtime piano was being absorbed in two directions. A more sanitized form of the rhythms and sounds were given lyrics and incorporated into pop music. Songwriters in Tin Pan Alley such as Irving Berlin pushed pop music in a new direction with the ragtime song.
But a truer descendant of ragtime was the rhythmic style of piano playing called “stride piano”. Stride was similar to ragtime in that it contrasted even left-hand octaves and chords with a syncopated melody in the right hand. Its difference was in the fact that it abandoned the “strains” structure for a more flexible format and increased the tempo of the performance. Stride piano, as played by early jazzmen like Eubie Blake, Fats Waller and Earl Hines was an essential foundation for early jazz.
Scott Bradlee performs The Beatles’ “Hey, Jude” in a stride piano style.
Although most of jazz’s ancestors were instrumental in nature, at least three forms of vocal music helped shape its beginnings.
The spiritual, that 19th century vehicle for religious expression, and the field-hollars or work songs were source points for passion and vocal improvisation for early jazz singers. These song forms, neither of which was limited by written transcriptions, allowed the singers to perform with significant melodic and rhythmic improvisation.
The third vocal form which helped to shape early jazz music was the blues. Not only was the simple “twelve bar blues” structure (AAB with I, IV & V chords) a common form for early jazz, but the bent note (a sliding into the pitch), which was a characteristic of blues as well as spiritual singers became a key characteristic of the jazz language for both singers and instrumentalists.
This, then, was the starting place and time for the style known as jazz. It was influenced by the rhythms of Congo Square and the syncopation of ragtime. It was played on instruments borrowed from military bands, on those made by street corner musicians and on the piano – that versatile staple of middle class parlors and bordello front rooms.
Its bent notes and improvisation was borrowed from blues and spirituals alike. Its structure was part blues, part ragtime, part spontaneity. Its musicians were both “schooled” and self-taught. Its nature was lively and energetic and at least subliminally sexual. It was incubated on the street corners, grown in the brothels of Storyville, popularized in parades, dances and more respectable events, and finally made ready for the world outside the confines of New Orleans, Louisiana by 1917.