International Society for Jazz Research

Syncopated Music: Frühgeschichte des Jazz

»Syncopated Music« played a role in American popular music from the time of minstrelsy into the 1920s. Its historical importance stems from its status as a forerunner for jazz: it familiarized audiences with a new kind of rhythm, termed »syncopated« by Western musicologists and foreign to New England society. The music also promoted black entertainers, who began in spite of the racist society to assume a relevant position in entertainment media.

Before the analytical section of the work, a discussion of relevant recordings will be present in order to give the reader an idea of the tone quality with which parties interested in this musical genre must contend. However, this is only the surface of the problem: the goal of the commercial recording industry since its formation around 1890 has been to make money, a proposition that can only be successful when it can sell its products. From this condition one can infer that the recording industry mirrors the musical taste of the society for which it produces. In the context of this work, the society in question is the white society of the northeastern United States, meaning that until the mid-1910s the greater part of African-American music was not recorded. Significant portions of American music from the beginning of the 20th century have been lost forever; Piano Rolls from a few great ragtime musicians are no substitute for that which would have to be known in order to shed light on the birth of jazz.

Syncopated music can be broken down into the categories »coon songs«, cakewalk and ragtime, categories which nonetheless blend into one another in musical practice – understandable, since these terms come from a lowly dialect, were spread by the recording industry and first became musicological terms when the music that they described was no longer modern. Any attempt to form an idea of African-American music before the advent of the recording industry from the scarce examples of printed music in the 19th century leads to the following conclusion: this music was a descendent of a mixture of Scottish, Irish and English music, differing only in nuances from music still made today by white inhabitants of the Appalachians. The reasons for this phenomenon lie in the English treatment of Scottish and Irish rebels, who – like the Africans – were sold into slavery and sent to America. As a result of the close association between these two slave populations the Africans, denied the practice of their own traditions by the Puritans, adopted the music of the Scottish and Irish.

Coon songs are not a genre in the musical sense; they are characterized mostly by their text. Their melodies contain a mixture of everything common to American popular music before and after 1900. The cakewalk began to supplant the »walkaround«, the finale of a minstrel show, around the end of the 1870s. It is considered »old« – i. e. from the slavery period – by all researchers who mention it; however, there seems to be not a shred of evidence to document this »age«. In the years after 1900 cakewalk metamorphosed into ragtime. Both styles show evidence of a Cuban influence at work in the United States in the latter part of the 19th century. The personality on which this influence can be proved is Louis Moreau Gottschalk, but he could hardly have been the only one involved in its transfer. Ragtime, on the other hand, appeared for the first time in the second half of the 1890s. The Cuban influence was even stronger here than in the other styles of syncopated music; it can be seen in the use of rhythmic figures known in Cuba as »tresillo«, »cinquillo« and »cinquillo cubano«. There is also evidence for use of the habanera, although this rhythm is more strongly associated with tango in the United States. They are not separated from »Scotch Snap« in the analysis and thus contribute to ragtime’s categorization under »syncopated music«.

The syncopated music craze had its foundations in a romantic longing for the »old South«, for Dixie. New York was in 1900 already the center of the American recording industry and in addition this condition was due to the nature of these longings as specifically cultivated in the Northeast. This trend went hand in hand with a general exoticism apparent in American popular music. Exotic titles are to be found throughout pop music to this day; in 1900 not only the titles but also the sounds were exotic – for the inhabitants of the New York at this time the music of the entire Mississippi valley, from St. Louis to New Orleans, was about as distant as flamenco or rebetiko for the average Middle European of today. All of these phenomena will be examined in light of recordings from the time between 1890 and 1940 and their contributions to the birth of jazz demonstrated. A study of the instruments of jazz will follow, resulting in a confirmation of the results found in the musical section of the work. The conclusion will consist of thoughts on the relationship of jazz to its audience from a modern perspective, showing the continuing influence of its formative conditions down to the present day.