From Subversive Sounds: Race and the Birth of Jazz in New Orleans by Charles B. Hersch (University of Chicago Press, 2008, pages 180-182):

The small group transformation of ragtime through the blues tradition, hauling it onto the streets where it marched, can be seen in a performance of High Society Rag by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, featuring a young Louis Armstrong. This tune defined New Orleans jazz, for as Lee Collins put it, ‘at that time when you heard a clarinet play High Society you didn’t ask him where he was from. You knew he was from New Orleans …’

The performance begins with a military-style fanfare in unison, heralding the origins of jazz in the street parade. The band then breaks into eight measures of polyphony, the clarinet playing the melody and cornets interjecting syncopated figures while the trombone plays walking bass lines. Four measures of a minor-key marchlike melody follows, with somewhat fewer comments by the cornets. The band then repeats the previous sixteen measures, though of course not exactly given the improvisatory nature of the music. Thirty-two bars of highly polyphonic music follows, with the cornets taking the melody and clarinet paraphrasing the solo that is to follow.

A brief (four-measure) fanfare signals a shift in the performance. What follows is a melody with a kind of national anthem feel to it, performed in unison. Elements of jazz enter in by means of a clarinet break after sixteen measures; the melody begins to repeat, but after eight measures, Armstrong’s cornet improvisations take over, supplanting the theme. What follows is eight measures of a severe-sounding march-type melody, played in unison. The exaggerated nature of the playing, with frills for filigree, suggests a kind of parody of ‘serious’ music. Finally, the clarinet plays the famous Picou solo with polyphony and smearing trombone breaks.

In this remarkable performance, African elements burst through the European march form. Throughout, the rendition incorporates elements of the blues, most notably in Oliver’s raspy, ‘dirty’ cornet sound and his bent notes and smears. His throaty tone exemplifies a key element of blues-influenced music: its invocation of the human voice, even through musical instruments. Musicians like Oliver used instruments designed for the orchestral and marching band traditions to Africanize American culture …

Oliver and his band conjure up the European American military march tradition, with its joyous fanfares and serious, downbeat-oriented melodies, only to make that tradition their own by recasting the piece as a polyphonic jazz performance. The interaction between blues-oriented black music and Creoles’ more European sounds is embodied in the group itself, including as it does both blacks and Creoles. Yet despite the varieties of cultures with which the performance engages, it holds together as a unified work of jazz.

High Society, then, is a classic example of signifying: Oliver integrates himself into, comments upon, and alters mainstream culture, amplifying ragtime’s syncopation and polyphony and transforming it by means of the blues and improvisation. But the musicians also signify through their juxtaposition of sometimes disparate elements into a musical patchwork or collage. Many standard New Orleans jazz tunes were similarly patched together from a variety of sources and genres. Like spirituals, tunes at this time ‘were subject to various modifications, including disassembly, reassembly in different order, and insertion into other pieces as beginnings, middles, or endings. They sometimes crossed subcultures, where they were adapted to different words and stories and played in markedly different styles.

About the Author

Derek Bridges

Derek Bridges lives in New Orleans, trading in words and pictures. A carpetbagger of long standing, he grew up in the top right corner of IL and later went to college in the middle cornfield part. He has also lived in MS and FL, for educational purposes only, and was diasporized for a time in TX.

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