African Rhythms


Jazz was a rich mixture of many types of musical influences. The black roots were traced back to Africa where music tended to be based on simple melodies and complex cross-rhythms, in contrast to European music which tended to use more complex harmonies and simpler rhythms. 

The slaves from Africa brought their music with them to America ... so many different rhythms, different tribes messing with rhythm in different ways, as they mixed and matched. Such polyrhythmic drumming, ring shouts and strange songs were not readily understood in the white population, and some feared rebellious communication or insidious Voo Doo rituals.

African influences were frequently outlawed and instead slaves were encouraged to convert to the regular church music. A blind eye was turned to the work songs for obvious reasons?

From the work songs into the churches authentic influences from Africa crept into public life in New Orleans around 1820. After the Louisiana purchase in 1803 the new authorities concurred with the old French colonial rule and accepted all the malarkey going on in Congo Square ... these shenanigans were harmless and even fascinating fun.

In 1865, unleashed at the end of the Civil War, there was a big influx into New Orleans of free blacks from the rural South and also from the West Indies & Caribbean ... inevitably the freed slaves brought with them their rhythms & their Blues ...

The BluesThe Rhythms of Life

 May be the slaves didn't start it all ... but, for sure they cashed in as the rhythms of mating & work were transplanted into innovative characteristic music ... there were eight 'black threads' of percussive influence that made jazz music interesting -

rhythmic singing, everybody sang, but with a distinctive 'African' melismatic sound from the work songs & the 'field hollers' on the plantations the developed as communications from the gang leader. In the churches the singing calls were led by the 'lining out' of the pastor as the Spirituals of the great awakening and the Baptist hymns were assimilated ...

rhythmic responses, after the calls came the responses of everyday social participation, communication & conversation ... the 'call & response' involvement and four square rhythms for compelling dancing became social functional music ...

rhythmic drums, the essential African instrument, the 'vocalisation' of talking drums generated complex cross rhythms & syncopations, where timing was the essence ... on time and in time ...

rhythmic parts where interacting complementary horizontal melodic lines or 'trajectories' produced synergistic effects in vertical harmonies and swinging rhythms ... athleticism, making it through harmony and rhythm on time and in time ...

rhythmic instrumental effects extended the scope of expression by 'dirty vocalisation', conversations with flexible pungent timbre - growls, slurs, vibrato, glissandi, bends, scoops ... particularly general irreverence, adding interest from the unexpected   

rhythmic scales involving pentatonic and 'blue' notes, the simple folk music scales were messed and produced excitement as the 'difficult' fourth & seventh half tone steps involved unfathomable notes, somewhere in between the half steps, neither B nor B flat 

rhythmic repetition building excitement as in the hypnotic hysteria of 'Voodoo' and 'ring shouts', repetitive 'riffs' then maybe repetitive 'choruses' building momentum to the 'ride out' ... building tension, pumping it up, catchy phrases and with 'breaks' releasing the pressure with virtuosity ...

and banjos ... the most percussive of all melody instruments!

and slowly on the stoops, and everywhere, the Blues emerged all over the rural south ... but what were the Blues?

Stomping the BluesThe Blues

'Stomping the Blues' by Albert Murray (1916-2013), Da Carpo 1976.

And the Blues is ...
Start with the Blues. Always start with the Blues when you think about Jazz. Because you know the Blues. You may not know anything about anything else, but if you're a Jazz player, then you always know about the Blues. Because if you didn't know the Blues, you ain't be a Jazz player. Simple.
Well, then. The Blues start with a feelin'. You feel the Blues. Not necessarily sad, sometimes joy, but always steady and level ... ‘I’s bin thinkin’ ‘bout things’ an I thinks in rhythm ... like the 'Saturday night function' is close to the 'Sunday morning service' ... you's a feelin' it all the time ... them's rhythm songs ... 
Nothing is written out for you. There’s no user manual. No specification. Just a series of very familiar sounds and kinda loose and intimate. They go as a sort of sequence, a sort of progression of sounds ... some say chords. But we don't really know which away this thing’s gonna go yet, just hangin' loose and lettin’ it happen till you catch onto it. Till you hear me talkin’ to ya … don't make me think 'bout this music thing, I'm a comin' ...
The Blues don't have a melody supplied by some ‘composer’. Lyrics is sometimes. But the playing is all you and your thinkin’.
Oh, sure, ‘St Louis Blues’ or the ‘Memphis Blues’ were written out by the bard ... but that was him ... the Blues is you. So the Blues is not anybody’s Blues, it’s your very own Blues. Like I’m a talkin’ to ya … tellin' yer like it is.
Think, folks, think about how you ‘improvise’ to nobody's Blues. What do you invent? What exactly is ‘the Blues in Bb’?
If you're a Blues man, you’re tryin’ to create a feelin', tryin’ to entice a response from them others, some listening, most dancin’, some playing with you. You try to blow and talk to them, collectively helping by necessity, but really one on one, ‘me and you, here's what I'm thinkin', rightly feelin' right now, you hear this?’
Sometimes you whisper, other times you speak to them clearly. You may not even have thought of this yet, but you will. Yeah, you hear me now, hear what I'm sayin'! I’s a talking to you? Look at me ... entice a response!
Sometimes they hear and respond, other times not, but are they are deaf or are you mute? Why aren't they dancin'? Where's the groove? If they ain't dancin' you ain't swingin'!
I know one thing, if you am merely playin’ some variations on some old melody line, then you’re not sayin’ much worth listenin’ to. You must invent your own rhythm song from those there chord sounds, right out of the way you feel. And that rhythm must swing. That itself is ‘improvisin’ the Blues’. Relax and make sure yer foots tappin'. The greatest compliment you’re ever paid is when someone says, afterwards, ‘nice song Charlie, I hear ya', I'm swingin'' ... then you've won, you got a reaction, someone joined your conversation ... maybe they just start twitchin', maybe stompin', mostly dancin'... but best of all is when someone starts talkin' to ya with his horn!
‘Compositions’ are very different from ‘improvisin’ the Blues’. Beethoven was great; a giant. But Louis didn't play Beethoven, Louis played Louis. ‘Improvisin’ the Blues’ is instant demand, instant supply, no revision, no excuse, just the Blues spillin' out. A heroic exploration, an adventure. 'Tis or 'tain't. Cheers or tears. So difficult you gotta pay your dues, you gotta learn those pretty sounds so you can drum 'em out … no one said it was easy ... in fact jazz is very very difficult ... your foot's gotta tap and when your foot starts tappin' those harmonies start a comin' at ya ... you can't think ... you just gotta start playin' the Blues ... you gotta let the good times roll ... it’s not you, it’s you & him ... better still you an' them ... more to listen to, more to respond to ... fun.
Nobody really knows how this works; how it just happens, when it just happens, where it just happens, why it just happens. It's fun to speculate, but no one really knows. The music you invent comes from the ginormous sounds embedded in your head, never exactly the same, never sequenced the same. Only 12 notes but my, even if you could explain one chorus, every other chorus would be different. The Blues is things that never even existed before ... nor never again ... now that is interesting how did that happen?
Not sure that any of this makes sense, supposin’ it depends if you’re a Bluesman. It’s not easy. But it is interesting … I love it and it's fun!

In 2009 Greg Thomas also wrote about Albert Murray and his Blues ... and it chimed. Duke Ellington, 'The blues ain’t nothin’ but a black crepe veil, ready to wear' but it was never ever all mental agony, Prozac 'proved' chemical imbalances flip flopped ... brain worms were often in a fog ... insomnia, withdrawal, rumination, agoraphobia ... we can't always see the light but we can tell our friends when it shines ... those in dark places always lose out as optimistic go getters lead to synergies and fun.

Steppin' on the BluesDancing to The Rhythms of Jazz ...

Jazz was first & foremost a rhythmic music for dancing. The musical rhythm was the most important distinguishing feature of jazz and its sub genres. And the rhythms of Africa manifested themselves in 'the groove', 'the lilt', 'the swing' of the music, this was not 'strict tempo' stuff.

Johann Sebastian Bach produced musical innovations which were then interpreted by a classical tradition of rich harmony and resolution; in contrast the jazz tradition took simplified harmonic structures of his bass lines and superimposed complex improvised rhythms which, when juxtaposed, produced the phenomena of 'swing' and compelling dancing which was largely absent in the classical tradition. Jazz bass lines 'walked' to the resolutions and the 'swing' demanded a physical response; the music 'motored' and was 'pumped up' by repetitive rhythms.

All the genres of jazz typically depended on a four beat measure and a backbeat, the off beat, the accentuation of beats two and four ... and 'the swing of the thing'. The specific 'swing of the thing', or the approach to the expression of the musical time, 'the groove', was the primary way to differentiate between one sub genre and another.

Perhaps at the start the rhythms of jazz moved from the work songs into the church songs and then into minstrelsy and the start of a black dance tradition of the walkaround and tap dancing ...

The early parade bands and Dixieland ragtime groups initially had a two beat, 1 - 2, left - right, two to the bar, march feel of the tuba and banjo of minstrelsy.

There was the strict syncopation of ragtime melody where note durations across the beat provided the syncopation.

And the 'boom chuck' of Country & Western where the back beat was achieved by emphasising beats 2 and 4 in 4/4 time.

Dixie DancingHowever, jazz was soon to mess with with beat something rotten! Every body was compelled to dance to the rhythms of life ...

Rhythmic sophistication came into the Blues within the simple structures & scales of the work songs and guitar accompaniments to the expressive human voice. And it was the addition of rhythm to church music that produced Gospel.

First the 2/4 time of ragtime was smoothed out to the four to the bar feel that Jelly Roll explained in The Library of Congress.

Then Buddy Bolden's initiative was 'the big 4' as Wynton Marsalis has suggested; emphasising the 4th beat of the bar ... this was the big 'kicking quaver' ...

This was not simply 'playing in the pocket' or 'pushing the beat' or 'playing behind the beat' it was 'as if' rhythm itself was given a rhythm ... not synchronised but a rhythmic rhythm ... where the beat itself had a rhythm! Sometimes a feeling of being bang on the beat, sometimes a feeling of lagging, sometimes a feeling of pushing as the rhythm itself ebbed and flowed in an instinctively exciting manner which forced toes to twitch ...

The development of innate African rhythmic sophistication came through the flexibility of the piano, the guitar and the double bass. And everything culminated in Louis Armstrong's sophistication and 'swing eighths' floated around the beat. Louis was all over the beat ... this was the more subtle 'kicking quavers' but smoothed out so it didn't sound like syncopated Ragtime ... Louis was, perhaps, behind the beat more often inducing a relaxed feel, but he knew when to push ahead and create excitement ... but the dancers always felt where the beat was ... but they had to find it!

Perhaps when bebop 'pushed' the beat to hard, the dancers couldn't find it and stopped dancing and just listened in awe?

Clearly tempo had an effect on the feel; slow songs tended to lag, fast songs tended to push ... but it was never any good talkin' about the rhythms of life you had to feel them ...

The groove of R&B was essentially the swinging, shuffle rhythm, the driving danceable, syncopated rhythm with regular infectious repetitions and the introduction of the blue notes, the flattened 7th, 3rd and 5th. Boogifying the beat ... .

The rhythms of the 'boom chuck', back beat, of country music and a straight eighths feel of the 'bang bang' intensity of Rock 'n' Roll, stripped the beat down to its blood thirsty fundamentals which developed into Rock ... here there was a feeling of being 'bang on the beat' or 'bang on the back beat' ... but jazz smoothed things out ... the jazz beat was 'laid back' ... relaxed ...

And the spirit of the Blues was always there ... a continuity throughout the evolution of American popular music ...

Fascinating RhythmSwing the Juxtaposition of Rhythms ...

Words could no never ever describe a rhythmic 'feel'. This 'feel' was very subjective and was the one overwhelming characteristic that distinguished jazz genres and particularly distinguished jazz from classical music ... for many classical music just didn't 'swing', and often folk didn't dance to classical music ... there was no 'compulsion', they enjoyed listening to the music! Think swing, think juxtaposition of rhythms.

Juxtaposition was the arrangement of two or more rhythmic ideas which, when side by side or superimposed, produced a swing effect through comparison, contrast, suspense or development. Listeners sense patterns, establish connections and seek meaning.

There was a rhythmic 'swing' in the way jazz musicians juxtapose several rhythmic time frames which produced 'the groove'. It was compelling not jarring. Unsettlingly fearful when moving away from the beat and reassuringly satisfying when hitting the first beat of bar five. The neurological effect was the creation of compelling movement.

Juxtaposition was everywhere in music -

melodies in counterpoint

harmonies in Bach's gallant music

rhythms in dancing 'grooves', jazz 'swing', or R&B 'shuffle', or Hip Hop 'flow'.

The 'groove', 'swing', 'shuffle' or 'flow' was a 'sensing of rhythmic patterning' or 'an intuitive feel' of a cyclical motion that emerged from juxtaposed concurrent rhythmic patterns that set in motion dancing or foot-tapping. A sense of propulsive rhythm, a 'feel' much more than a sound created by the interaction of the band's rhythm section. The music 'motors', 'ramps up', by 'pumping' ...

Ubiquitous in popular music, the groove described the aspect of music that makes one want to move, dance, or 'groove'.

The first key point, agreed by all thinking jazzmen is that the feel of jazz swing only emerges after hours & hours of practice. Pay your dues in the woodshed ... nobody has found a short cut. Jazz musicians improvise and create their music in the context of the Blues song framework AND the groove.

The second key point, only recently explored by scientists, is that the whole phenomenon of 'emergence' results from interactions at a lower level, the individual instruments within the band, and their responses to the sounds they hear.

Jazz DancingThe Groove ...

Musicologists and Neurologists have only recently begun to study the concept of swing and the groove. The fruits of the research and the proof of the pudding was in the advances of electronic music and the realistic production of groovy grooves by computer software.

 The concept of groove has long been familiar to musicians. The groove involved understanding the rhythmic patterns which underlay the characteristic 'feel' of the music. The 'feel' was created by a repeating framework which was modified with subtle variation.

Jazz 'swing' - 'the rhythm section was locked into one perception of rhythm', a result of inspired deviation from more exact strict tempo dance steps.        

R&B 'shuffle' - 'the basic idea of funk was to create as intense a groove as possible'

Hip Hop 'flow' - 'funking with one's expectations of time'.

'Sensorimotor coupling in music and the psychology of the groove' by P Janata, S T Tomic, J M Haberman - Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol 141(1), 2012 -

'The urge to move in response to music, combined with the positive affect associated with the coupling of sensory and motor processes while engaging with music (referred to as sensorimotor coupling) in a seemingly effortless way, is commonly described as the feeling of being in the groove. Here, we systematically explore this compelling phenomenon in a population of young adults. We utilize multiple levels of analysis, comprising phenomenological, behavioural, and computational techniques. Specifically, we show (a) that the concept of the groove is widely appreciated and understood in terms of a pleasurable drive toward action, (b) that a broad range of musical excerpts can be appraised reliably for the degree of perceived groove, (c) that the degree of experienced groove is inversely related to experienced difficulty of bimanual sensorimotor coupling under tapping regimes with varying levels of expressive constraint, (d) that high-groove stimuli elicit spontaneous rhythmic movements, and (e) that quantifiable measures of the quality of sensorimotor coupling predict the degree of experienced groove. Our results complement traditional discourse regarding the groove, which has tended to take the psychological phenomenon for granted and has focused instead on the musical and especially the rhythmic qualities of particular genres of music that lead to the perception of groove. We conclude that groove can be treated as a psychological construct and model system that allows for experimental exploration of the relationship between sensorimotor coupling with music and emotion'.

Results from The MARCS Institute, University of Western Sydney, Australia, tend to confirm sensiomotor coupling and indicate that high groove music increasingly engages the motor system, and the temporal modulation of corticospinal excitability with the beat could stem from tight auditory motor links in musicians. Investigations indicate that the spontaneous music & dance creation and the psychological, communicative & social interactions entailed in improvisation involve a highly expert process realized within performance.

JivingIn more simple language -

The groove was a rhythmic property, ubiquitous in popular music, which emerged when deviations from the precise timings of notated strict tempo produced fascinating rhythmic rivalries against a basic framework. Spontaneous, seamless interactions between different instruments in a group unintentionally induced responsive movement in listeners ... a distinctive feel in music that makes one want to dance -

there existed consensus descriptive phrases for a groove - propulsive, flowing, pleasing, irresistible, compelling, moving, motoring, driving, effortless ...

the groove was a mental state which was always coupled to and inseparable from a physical response ... a higher groove led to more movement ...

the response was spontaneous ... any instruction, thought or restriction on movement dampened the effect which was not associated with introspection but emotion ... 

subjective judgments were consistent & universal ... a higher groove experience tended to be associated with more pleasure & was enhanced at higher tempos & with more familiarity ... a genre groove ranking was - folk < rock < jazz < R&B

 quantified responses and analysis of timings confirmed that melody & harmony helped rhythmic sensitivity to a groove, making it easier to 'find the beat' ... any perceived difficulty messed up the the feel of the groove ...

increased fluency & regular repetition got the groove going which led to more enjoyment ... irregular unintentional dissonace and clams messed up the groove ...

The power of the ostinato in Ravel's Bolero was well known but in Afro American rhythms it was ubiquitous ... but far more of a subtle feel which had to be discovered ... there was no strict tempo ... there was no rubato ... the groove was produced by highly disciplined discovered deviations from the beat ... as Baby Dodds knew you've got to get that groove going ... !

Baby DoddsBaby Dodds (1898-1959), 'there's more to drumming than beating, and you gotta find the rhythm, you gotta feel it, so you can help the others. You tell 'em, them's talkin' drums really. You have to give 'em all the groove. If they don't take it, give 'em something else, keep giving it to them, and always give him something to come in on. Then there's the changes, the drummer makes the changes as well. It was all 2 beat to start with but on the Streckfus steam boats they preferred 4 beat for dancing, 'toodle time', it smoothed things out for them. You gotta work the rhythm up so after you hit the intro hard you start soft and work things up and a blast for the ride out. The drums don't play melody but they sure play the phrases. But start to finish keep the tempo, the drummer's got the time, stick with it as the others push and lag their lines. Playing 3 with 4 is arithmetic but you gotta get back to 4 easily. The after beat, the back beat, in New Orleans it was called 'the Boston'. Sometimes the band gets off the beat and the drummer must bring them back with a roll and hitting the beat on the bass drum. Kind a tellin' 'em like it is'.

The man said, 'I'm tellin' ya where the groove is, listen to me, an' play pretty, 'cos nothing messes up the groove more than playin' out of toon'.

And all jazzers were drumming on their instruments ... especially the banjo ...

Banjo FunThe Banjo ...

The banjo was a drum with a vibrating string. The banjo could drum, syncopate and play ragtime ... with percussive punch and great volume. Singing was often accompanied by the banjo and the evolution of jazz was illuminated by following the banjo and its half barbaric twang.

The Banjo or banjar or banza (or bonjour if you were French) appears to have been an African instrument introduced into America by the slaves. The first banjos we know of had bodies made of gourds with three or four strings. The modern banjo was perfected by a white minstrel performer in the 1840's. The drone string was introduced with the 5 string banjo, carrying on an ancient African tradition shared with the bagpipes! The banjo was introduced to Scotch Irish Appalachian music around 1860 where it shared popularity with the fiddle and after 1880 the guitar. White jazz bands were using he banjo by around 1915, perhaps earlier. Early black jazz bands (1897-1917) used the banjo but by the 1930s the softer Spanish guitar became the rhythm instrument of choice. Why? Buddy Bolden used the guitar in noisy dance halls ... but Buddy's cornet was playing the loud lead. And Jelly Roll used a guitar sometimes, was it the Spanish influence? The guitar was quiet, low tension gut strung mellow sound for accompaniment ... the banjo was a statement instrument! In the 1930s the punchy 2/4 rhythms of the 1920s gave way to the smoother 4/4 of swing.

Tuning Reality Check ... 

Harmonics are naturally related by the laws of physics to the brain … harmony, as harmonics, is 'easy' to get on a vibrating string - 1/2 you get the octave - 1/3 you get the 5th - 1/5 you get the 3rd

the 5th                  G = G – D – B - (F )

tonic                      C = C – G – E  - (Bb)

the ‘mirror’ 4th     F = F – C – A  -  (Eb)       root & natural harmonics … 

Sooooo … sitting on the stoop on the plantation humming to myself and tuning my banjo the only thing I know is what sounds good - a vibrating string sounds good because of natural harmonics, much better than a tuning fork without harmonics!

To hear the harmonics more clearly touch the string at a third of the length for the 5th and a fifth of the length for the 3rd, it is physically impossible for a string fixed at both ends to vibrate in other than simple ratios !

A second string sounds great when added if it is a 5th up, not only the root but also the harmonics are in harmony !

A third string a 5th down 'mirrors' the nice sounds and gives added flexibility when played with the first string

On the 3 strings I can now hear and play all the nice harmonics as individual notes and if I play them close I find - C D E F G A B C - the major scale !

Everything sounds fine as long as I play either up or down, to and from the first string, trouble starts if I play the second and third strings together, not only the G and F sound bad but the harmonics are bad as well. So I don't play the G and F together I play in a sequence, either way, from and to the tonic and I get 'European' functional harmony !

Furthermore the B and the F are particularly excruciating ...

Better avoid those and just play - C D E G A C - the pentatonic scale!!

Or experiment and deliberately play the excruciating sound to 'force' a nice resolution back to the tonic - 7th chords and added harmonic movement !!

All this is natural harmonics, with no frets and strings stopped to give the harmonic notes I hear !

Then the fun starts when folk want to be clever and add more strings and more notes and more instruments and the physics and the maths can't cope and we are forced into compromises … and 'tempered scales'.

Being an adaptable beast, the ear and brain can recognise new patterns and work with them … nevertheless the tempered scale … remains an unnatural fudge !

But all folk music is natural and all folk music at some distant time in the past discovered the exciting realities of vibrating stings ... the banjo was the way the American slaves discovered this exciting complement to their drumming ...

'Studying Popular Music' by Richard Middleton, The Open University, 1990 -

'That Half Barbaric Twang' by Karen Linn, University of Illinois, 1994.

'Steppin' on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance' by Jacqui Malone, University of Illinois, 1996. 

Jazz emerged from an ongoing fusion of African rhythmic and European harmonic influences ... specifically associated with New Orleans ...

The BluesTeaching The Blues as by the late & great Slim Read ... and the leader of the pack Humph ...

European classical music was very different from the Blues. To learn and feel the blues a method had to be concocted ... and learning was hard hard ... from Slim Read, Humph & my mate The Banjo Player 'six of the best' were discovered and learned -

lots of leg slappin' - there was a right and a wrong way to play an instrument, the basics had to be taught by someone who knew how to 'pitch me a big nice round G' ... otherwise practice made perfect mistakes ... it was all about sounds ... and cloth ears had to be coaxed to listen ... Wynton said, 'check out Miles' sound ... check out Louis' sound ... now blow me a G and listen'!

get the toon stuck in yer 'ead - the song had to be really really learned inside out & upside down, 'cos when you were playing you had no time to think in fact thinkin' was the quickest way to lose it ... and losing it was serious destruction of relaxed swing ... Wynton said, 'your foot starts tappin' and those changes keep on comin' at yer'! 

throw away the dots - you don't 'play' the Blues, you must 'feel' the Blues, you can't be distracted with reading, no one can feel sounds and read instructions at the same time? ... anyways the Blues can't be wrote ... most folk don't know that ... Wynton said, 'play your own thing and improvise ... play with others and swing ... and feel the Blues'!

find your own line through the toon - it's up to you to contribute, create, build, motor, pump, decorate, tailgate ... something of your own ... Mozart didn't write out no Blues lines for you, you yourself up made something 'pretty' and exciting by 'singing' on that bass line and 'drumming' out those lyrics in your head ... Bach got the idea of 'building' those thirds on that bass line ... all we can do is try and remember & repeat what works ... Wynton said, 'there's no right and wrong, just some notes sound better than others'!

hear me talkin' to ya - listen, listen to the sounds of the others ... don't shout, call & respond, you're having a conversation with other folk it's not a soliloquy, it's no exhibition ...  it takes at least two to tango ... you can't feel the Blues on your own ... Wynton said, 'you gotta share the grief and share the joy'!

sound relaxed & swing or you're better off growing tomatoes - you make the others sound good, help them, give them a nice 'groove' and respond ... Baby said, 'if they don't like your groove give them another until ... folk start dancing'! Dixieland Jazz was always a social dance music ...

But learning to play was never easy ... some said these 'six of the best' would likely take 10,000 hours ... and some teachers of the classical dots have been known to suggest it was all guesswork?

Louis' 'West End Blues' guesswork ????


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