Category Archives: Dixieland Series

The Trombone and Its Performers in Early Dixieland and Swing Jazz

Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band
Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band

Since the inception of instrumental jazz in the 1890s the trombone has been an integral part of the ensemble. The instrumentation of these early bands was varied until 1900 when a standard instrumentation began to appear, and the trombone was included in almost every form with the exception of the string bands and jug bands. The trombone was introduced to the jazz band along the same lines as the cornet and clarinet, from the military and brass band traditions that were prevalent in New Orleans after the Civil War. The trombone’s early role in these ensembles was as a source of counter-melodies and rhythmic accents; it eventually would be considered a soloing instrument along with the cornet and trumpet, but this role was not realized until the mid to late 1920s.

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Attempts at defining the word jazz have had varying degrees of success or failure depending on any given reader’s point of view. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians gives the following as an opening to the article on Jazz:

Attempts at a concise – even a coherent- definition of jazz have invariably failed. Initial efforts to separate it from related forms of music resulted in a false primacy of certain aspects such as improvisation, which is neither unique nor essential to jazz, or swing (the quality of rhythmic momentum resulting from small departures from the regular pulse), which is absent from much authentic jazz, early and late.1

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  1. Max Harrison,“Jazz,” New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians , 9:561-579.

New Orleans


Basin Street
Basin Street Circa 1910

New Orleans was established by real estate entrepreneur John Law, a Scotsman, and the French Regent Louis Phillipe, the duc d’Orleans.1 Land was sold to people in France, Spain, and Germany under the pretense that it was an area of immense beauty, rich in minerals, and full of monetary potential.2 What these unsuspecting people received in reality was a land of swamp, mosquitoes, and alligators. During its existence before finally being purchased by the United States in 1803, New Orleans found itself under both French and Spanish rule, changing hands three times in less than sixty years.

Prior to being owned by the United States, the cultural atmosphere of New Orleans could be described as tolerant. New social castes such as the Creoles and Mulattos evolved from the offspring of slaves and their owners. These fairer skinned children were often raised with the same stature as legitimate children; they were released from the bondage of slavery and given formal education. Many of the Creoles and Mulattos that pursued musical careers were trained in Europe and returned to New Orleans, bringing back the latest in musical tastes. At least two opera houses were in New Orleans during this time, and classical music enjoyed a popular status among the wealthy. This cultural acceptance and attitude towards music created an environment that was amicable to the arts. The cultural climate found here was considerably more tolerant than other cities North America at the time. It was this tolerance that led to the continuation of African traditions which were later important in the formation of jazz.

  1. Otto Werner, The Origin and Development of Jazz, (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1984) 67.
  2. Ibid.

African Influences

The Bamboula and Calinda Slave Dance

The African-American influences on jazz have been taken more seriously during the 1990s than any preceding it. Influences from elements such as work songs, field hollers, and traditional dances have been examined closely; elements such as melodic shape, the use of “blue” notes, and rhythmic structure have been traced to early and modern jazz. The “blue” notes in jazz—the flatted third, fifth and seventh scale degrees—are a direct attempt by the earliest jazz musicians to reconcile the western diatonic scale to a more traditional African pentatonic scale. Rhythmic qualities of African music, especially those related to dance, were preserved in New Orleans due to cultural tolerance. This tolerance helped to keep quasi-African rituals and traditions alive. Where South Carolina and Georgia had banned the use of drums by slaves, an after effect of the Stono Rebellion of 1739, New Orleans in 1817 established an official site for the Sunday slave dances.1 The music that was performed at these dances, which continued up until the 1870s (with a brief hiatus during the Civil war), helped to preserve and develop an element that would become a key component to jazz.

  1. Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997) 7.


Ragtime Band

While the Delta Blues and Country Blues where important to the melodic development of jazz and introduced the “blue” notes discussed earlier, ragtime music is probably the most significant influence on the Dixieland jazz band tradition in New Orleans. Ragtime and early jazz have so much in common, that it is difficult to differentiate between the two. Ragtime is often defined in terms of its compositional style, and the fact that it is usually a work for piano, while early jazz is associated with instrumental ensembles playing in an improvisatory ragtime-like manner. Ragtime rhythmic structure can be defined by its use of a syncopated melodic line with a bass line that emphasizes octave bass notes on beats one and three, and upper chord tones in a higher register on beats two and four of a four beat measure. This use of rhythmic structure led to phrases such as “ragged” or “ragged time” which may have developed into the term used today, “ragtime.” The ragtime feel, popularized by Scott Joplin in Springfield, Missouri, employed the use of emphasized syncopated rhythms on traditionally metrically weak beats, a style that can be traced to an African origin.

It was the combination of ragtime music with the musical ensembles of New Orleans, the brass bands and military style bands that led to the creation of Dixieland style jazz and the introduction of the trombone into the musical genre.