jazz: music Derived from african ancestry Bruce Lanier Stephenson

The aim of this presentation is to persuade one to believe that the true roots of jazz music lie in Africa; therefore, I will be answering the question, "Is jazz music derived from Africa?". Blues, and ragtime will help aid the discussion as to why I believe that the centric point from which jazz originates from lies in Africa rather than New Orleans. A thorough examination of articles written by people such as Burton Peretti, Rudi Blesh, Gunther Schuller, and Kofi Agawu, will provide adequate reasoning as to why it is that jazz music is directly derived from Africa. Through close examinations of musical retentions such as rhythmic harmonic, groupings, cross rhythms, and overlapping call-and-response devices; one should believe Africa to be the true origin of jazz music; or all music for that matter.

Rex Nettleford, scholar, founder and choreographer of the Dance Theater of Jamaica, and former Chancellor of the University of the West Indies once said, "It's time the United States realized that it's apart of the Americas too" (National Conference on Black Music Scholarship 1997).

What to know

I am interested in thinking more closely about the ways in which jazz music is derived from musical retentions distinct to Africa prior to 1619. By looking at the nature of jazz music, we can begin to form some tentative conclusions about who or what is to credit for jazz's upbringing and success. I would argue that Africa is to credit for the composition of jazz music because similar musical retentions can be found in both African spirituals and jazz music- both of which, effectively compliment each other.


Whether one may believe it or not, music is a part of one's everyday life. From ringtones on one's cellular device, to rock n' roll on the radio; all aspects of music are derived from Africa. Close examinations of musical retentions such as rhythmic harmonic, groupings, cross rhythms, and overlapping call-and-response devices have been thoroughly analyzed by many leading to a promising revelation. Correlations amongst these musical retentions have been traced back to African tribes, and they first impacted the Americas in 1619 when the first Africans were sold into slavery in America. These musical retentions laid the foundation for jazz music which has led to the creation of historic pieces from Nat King Cole's Unforgettable to Michael Jackson's Thriller; however, this presentation will aid one in understanding that jazz music is derived from Africa.

Below you will find videos of Nat King Cole's Unforgettable and Michael Jackson's Thriller; two songs that share musical retentions with that of jazz despite falling under different genres.

Blues, ragtime, & Jazz

Throughout this presentation, three musical forms will be discussed; two forms of which will help aid the understanding and development of the third.

  1. Blues is an African-American form of music that tells a story. This type of music speaks to audiences using a range of emotions and musical styles whose verses lament injustice or express longing for a better life and lost loves, jobs, and money. Aside from style and emotion, blues is also a raucous dance music that celebrates pleasure and success.
  2. Ragtime is a type of music that was made famous in America by African-American musicians in the 1890’s. This type of music was a prominent form of entertainment in the early 20th century due to it’s strict two-four time and the melody which was played especially on the piano.
  3. Jazz is a form of music that originated in New Orleans around the beginning of the 20th century. It’s complex style, generally marked by intricate, propulsive rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, improvisatory, virtuosic solos, and melodic freedom became a popular style for one to dance to. It is safe to say that the emergence of jazz can be credited to blues and ragtime.

The true origins of jazz

As stated above, "Jazz is a form of music[...]that originated in New Orleans". This exact definition can be found in majority of textbooks regarding the origins of the inspiring form; however, I believe that this is a form of banalization. Allow me to explain a few key concepts before diving into the main discussion:


Banalization is what one is educated to believe in. Whether one is banalized to believe in a god, or that there is life on Mars; children are taught to believe that jazz originates from New Orleans, Louisiana, United States.


The term erasure is used to describe something or someone who has in a sense, "been erased" from the knowledge of today's society. Events such as the Haitian Revolution of 1791 and people such as Maymie Leona Turpeau de Mena Aiken are both victims of this erasive sense of communication amongst people. The true origins of jazz music are too, victims of erasure.

Historicity I & Historicity II

While the term Historicity I is used to describe "what happened", a more commonly evasive term unknowingly inherited by most intellectuals is known as Historicity II, or "what is said to have happened". Historicity I and Historicity II play a large part within every society around the globe, big and small; these two terms differentiate the true and untrue. These terms can be used to access the true origins of Jazz. While textbooks educate minds to believe jazz originated in New Orleans, the true centric point from which the musical form is derived, is Africa.

what many are taught

In today's world, education is more important than ever before, so textbooks are said to be a necessity when it comes to making sure everyone receives an education; however, what if there were two sides to every story? As mentioned above, there is a difference between "what happened", and "what is said to have happened". These two definitions are described by words, Historicity I and Historicity II, but they can also be described as "history" and "History".

Do you notice a difference between "history" and "History"? Perhaps the intentional capitalization of the second term caught your eye? Well understand that these two terms classify historical events into two categories. "History" is known as the big, or important historical events that we string together to make our versions of history, while "history" downplays events no matter the significance as "events unfolding over time and space".

Connecting the pieces

Understanding these key terms will aid your understanding of the dense discussion ahead. In reference to "what is said to be" the origination of jazz, it's true origination is Africa, despite the teaching of "History" throughout most of the world. While "History" is important, most people have never heard of "history". We live in a world that has been banalized for centuries, only to create these false beliefs that spread like wildfire through the minds of those who could possibly be the next Valerie Thomas or George Washington Carver; I wonder how many children have ever heard of them? People such as Valerie Thomas, well-known for her involvement with NASA, have been victims of erasure. In musical terms, the true origins of jazz have been misinterpreted through false readings of textbooks spread throughout the world; another form of erasure. In this presentation, I hope to spark one's interest in understanding the true "history" behind the centric point of jazz.

The discussion

The origins of jazz music has been debated for decades; many with hopes of swaying conservative minds to believe that Africa is to credit for America's success and it's so called "creation" of jazz. 1619 marks an important year; the year that Africans were first sold into slavery in America. This piece of "History" is one for the books, and is read about in schools around the world; however, there is a piece of "history" not mentioned in most texts: While the deep entanglement of slavery is rarely mentioned in textbooks; something not mentioned nearly enough happens to be the culture that was brought from African soil and transplanted in America. African spirituals brought over by boat in the 15th century laid the foundation for jazz music.

African influence

After African spirituals were transplanted in America they were soon developed into field songs, or songs that were sung while slaves worked in fields. An example of a popular field song known as "I Be So Glad" can be found below. Give it a listen to understand what music sounded like at the turn of the 16th century:

Musical development in america

In the year 1817, New Orleans city council established "Congo Square" as an official site for slave music and dance. Congo Square allowed blacks, both enslaved and free, to use this space to market goods, socialize, and participate in drumming, music making, and dance. One can only imagine the types of collaborations that occured during this great moment in American "history". Congo Square was a hopeful place in which African-Americans could revive traditions from their African past and create something new for all to enjoy.

Pictured above is what Congo Square looks like today.

Slavery abolished

In 1865 slavery was abolished in the U.S. thanks to the passing of the 13th Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. The abolishment of slavery allowed people of color to expand their boundaries and travel to new cities. This new found freedom allowed people of color from places like New Orleans to move to blossoming cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago, and Harlem; therefore, allowing them to take their "Congo Square culture" with them. This is a prime example of a time in which a group moved away from their centric point, and as a result, led to the musical diversification around America.

Pictured above is one's typical day in the street during the Harlem Renaissance.

Cultural explosion

The abolishment of slavery led to a cultural movement around America, particularly in Harlem, New York, a movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. At the time, Harlem was referred to as the Mecca to which black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets, and scholars traveled. The Harlem Renaissance was a time in which African-Americans took advantage of the opprotunity to flee the Jim Crow south and freely express their many talents; talents they were once repressed from using, however, carried with them through the toughest of circumstances. The Harlem Renaissance brought together groups of individuals with a wide range of talents--talents that they would share with each other, and create powerful pieces of "history" that would influence generations to come.

The Savoy Ballroom: perhaps the most famous gathering spot during the Harlem Renaissance.

What & who?

During the Harlem Renaissance racial pride was restored amongst African-Americans, something that was repressed years prior to the abolishment of slavery. This restoration of pride allowed for people like Langston Hughes and Claud McKay, Countee Cullen and Arna Botemps, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, Walter White and James Weldon Johnson to change the way people of color were viewed during the time period. Jazz and blues were explored by many during the Harlem Renaissance, but one man prominently known as Louis Armstrong influenced whites and blacks relieving tensions amongst cultures. Jazz was an outlet for many during this time period, in which speakeasies became a popular place for interracial couples to meet and mingle.

Pictured above is jazz extraordinaire Louis Armstrong. Below is a famous song of his, accompanied by other musicians.

Where are we today?

In today's society, we live amongst each other, segregated by de facto. While the segregation of blacks and whites is not a law, people of opposite race tend to shy away from intermingling with each other. An example of this could apply to a cafeteria, or a gym. Other than society, the world in which we currently live is affected by social media, television, and music. Jazz is a form of music that is still popular today, and it has been known to bring people of opposing races together; for instance, Harry Connick Jr. and John Legend, two men of today's society who have revolutionized and re-stylized our understanding of jazz. However, in recent years, many have proposed arguments, written books, and analyzed publications about the true origins of Jazz.

Segregation de facto depicted on a beach in South Carolina circa 1970.

the emergence

The emergence of jazz in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century was a historic and cultural phenomenon that has affected more than just music. Since the beginning, historians have been trying to define the true origins of Jazz, and there has been some question about its origins. While many believe Jazz was derived from New Orleans - I along with many other historians beg to differ. If closely examined, racial interrelations, African influence, and ragtime and blues can be used to clearly define it's true origins. Now whether you agree or not with the preceding sentence, I advise you to keep reading because you may learn a thing or two...


In New Orleans circa 1900, many gathered - both black and white - to hear an emerging type of music called jazz. Gathered in what James Lincoln Collier calls "black-and-tan dance halls" African-Americans preformed the new musical style in front of "hundreds per week[...]influencing many". While the "parents" of jazz are referred to as blues and ragtime, most believe jazz to be one in the same; with no outside influences other than the creative minds of the artists at work. I understand cultural diversity, and that ideas come together like legos to create something awesome, but to be honest, look at the facts; they are all here, and that's why many accounts should be examined to determine the true origins of jazz rather than taking your mom or dad's word for it. Below, one should find multiple stances on the topic at hand, beginning with the famous, Eileen Southern.

Eileen Southern

Eileen Southern, the first black woman to be appointed a tenured full professor at Harvard University, describes ragtime as having roots in black folk music, and she also takes a look at blues, citing the impact of mournful songs, spirituals, and call-and-response styles. Southern explains that as brass bands and orchestras began to incorporate the ragtime and blues styles into their music, jazz started to take on a more distinct shape in America leading up to its boom in popularity; however, did jazz originate in New Orleans, or can it be said that it was derived strictly from Africa? While pre-cursors of blues and ragtime, are believed to have been brought across the Atlantic during the slave trade, many theorize that the true centric point of jazz is New Orleans - or is it?

ted Gioia

Ted Gioia's The History of Jazz argue the similarities between African dance and jazz in the late 19th century. Gioia uses Congo Square as an example; the land mark in New Orleans that brought people together to share their artistic abilities. Gioia draws conclusions between the beats of dances preformed in West-African countries and the rhythm of jazz music correlating to the time period in which he studied. He also goes into detail describing that at one point in time, the term "music" referred to both song and dance; this term is still used interchangeably today in some African communities. As of the early 20th century, many people also began to interchangeably use the terms ragtime and jazz before jazz began to take on its own persona, if you will. This represents the connectives that the two share with each other in terms of cross-rhythm and groupings. Comparing Ted Gioia and Eileen Southern's accounts; doesn't it appear that many form their own opinion based on factual evidence? It's all out there, but you have just got to look in the right spots to find the right pieces of "history" rather than the stuff found in the standard issue copy of "I Wanna Know More About the "History" of Jazz". Catch what i'm putting out? If not, I got you.

Alyn shipton

Alyn Shipton's A New History of Jazz describes jazz's upbringing as a result of blending cultures; however, he does use the term "symbiotic relationship" referring to the colored people of New Orleans holding on to their African heritage. While Shipton claims that blues nor ragtime helped contribute to the formation of jazz, I do believe he makes a contradictory statement when he references the term"symbiotic relationship". He makes just claims that connect diverse cultures coming together to create music, but all music must have a beginning, and evidence shows that music has been around way before America was colonized. I will let you be the judge of Shipton's claim. Are ragtime and blues the "parents" of jazz or aren't they? Alyn Shipton deserves to be heard, I mean he did write a book about it so I am pretty sure he has a pretty good idea as to what he is addressing, but I am not in favor of his claim regarding ragtime and blues not contributing to the formation of jazz.

Rudi blesh

While most believe that ragtime, blues, and jazz are three distinct musical types; Rudi Blesh begs to differ. While he does mention that African-Americans holding onto their African heritage is a pre-cursor to the formation of jazz, he also believes that blues and ragtime are one in the same. Allow me to put a spin on Mr. Blesh's idea; music first started with a "seed", and then as it grew, so did its branches and roots; reaching more people, but also growing further apart in diversity. Blesh is attempting to say that over the years blues and ragtime formed from one type of music, a type of music not mentioned; however, he does believe African-Americans African heritage to be a pre-cursor to the formation of jazz.

Burton peretti

In Burton Peretti's The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America & Jazz in American Culture he believes that blues and ragtime are cousins due to their similarities in geographical distribution, origins, and harmonic patterns. While he is entitled to his opinion, I too believe the same. In fact, he and Blesh share a similar take on the relationship between the two forms. *You may want to reference my tree example in the last section if that was of any help. He also takes in to consideration a group of people not mentioned by many others; that group being European immigrants searching for jobs just as many newly freed slaves were doing in the later part of the 19th century. Their need for jobs allowed artists and musicians to some together to create a sense of connectedness that blended African heritage with that of European ties.

Gunther schuller

Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz: It’s Roots and Musical Development describes the emergence of jazz due to race relations, ragtime, blues, and African roots. Schuller claims that jazz is derived from Africa due to "syncopation, the layering of multiple rhythm patterns, feeling the music in eighth notes as opposed the European style of quarter notes, call-and-response forms, repeated refrains, and improvisation". The fact that Schuller aids his argument by using sheet music, first hand accounts, and interviews from those with African ties only strengthen his argument. In connecting he and Peretti's argument despite being published thirty years prior, Schuller claims ragtime and blues are a mix between African and European music; however, there are differences regarding each of their tempos and forms.

Kofi agawu

Kofi Agawu's The African Imagination In Music asks the question, “Does African music have a specifiable essence?”. While Agawu answers, and settles that "groove" is that specifiable essence, he supports his claim by drawing from other musical pieces. In referencing harmony and rhythm of African music, Agawu identifies several types of harmonic arrangements found in African music, including "singing in union and parallel octaves, singing under an anhemitonic pentatonic regime, singing in parallel thirds, modality, and triadic successions". While he does not boldly claim that music is derived strictly from Africa, he does however note a brief subsection titled "Western Harmony" in which the preceding quote is drawn from. Therefore, Agawu does find significant comparisons between African music and Western music, but leaves it up to the reader to connect the dots; however, Agawu fails to talk about specific types of music such as ragtime, blues, and jazz.

Samuel floyd

The legendary Samuel Floyd may have passed away in 2016, but his legacy of fueling the minds of young people around the globe carries on! In his work Black Music and Writing Black Music History, Samuel Floyd agrees that African spirituals did indeed fuel the creative minds of musicians at the turn of the 20th century. It can be read, " In the Caribbean, African and African-derived music was preserved through African-derived societies called nations (naciones)?associations such as tumba francesa in Haiti, the many maroon communities in Jamaica, and the Abakua society in Cuba. Many of these organizations passed along language, codes, music, dance, and other African cultural activities and artifacts[...] The musical retentions are mostly rhythmic and include an African form of hemiola, timelines in some cases have have been transformed in additive groupings, cross rhythms, and overlapping call-and-response devices". This all in conclusion that the "American" form of music known as jazz, identifies rather as an African form of music. I applaud you Samuel Floyd.

Ronald radano

Opposed to Samuel Floyd's Black Music and Writing Black Music History, Radano explains in a 2008 discussion why he and Floyd disagree on the centric point from which American music was derived. In reference to comments made by Floyd, Radano responded with this, "I place a far greater emphasis on social and cultural production in new sets of circumstances in colonial North America and across the history of the United States". This quote by Radano caught my attention mid-read because while it appears that he and Floyd are arguing about who is to credit for the formation of American music, Radano then dives into influences. While there is tension in this discussion between the two, I found that both men have the same take that musical retentions can be found in both African song and that of American; however, Radano puts a spin on his take when he explains cultural influences in North America. While this discussion provides adequate information as to what I believe, I think both men are correct in saying that music has been derived from Africa, and the society that has since formed in North America has indeed put a "spin" if you will, on what was once shipped across the Black Atlantic.


Gunther Schuller's detailed analysis of the relationship shared amongst African roots, blues, and ragtime presents the most convincing and well-founded argument as to why one should believe that jazz music is derived from Africa. By incorporating examples, such as the presentation of sheet music, and analyzing them with such detail, it is clear that Schuller’s arguement is founded on concrete examinations that lead to a real conclusion rather than theorizing possibilities. Samuel Floyd and Ronald Radano also provided excellence input as to the origins of music as a whole, along with the influences that came along once that music sailed across the Black Atlantic and was transplanted in the soil of North America.

My take

I am a firm believer in concrete evidence, and while most evidence from humanities past has deteriorated, I believe jazz is directly derived from Africa. Like parents, blues and ragtime helped raise a child; that child being jazz, who's "ancestry" can be found in spirituals of African communities. If that is not evidence then I do not know what is! Gunther Schuller uses sheet music and make absurd, but correct connections regarding its origin and musical connectiveness; however, he is not wrong! I am convinced that Africa is the true centric point of Jazz due to the fact that there is evidence that says so. While artists in America did in fact put their own spin on things during Congo Square gatherings, and the Harlem Renaissance, jazz correlates so effectively with music from a pre-american world, that there is no efficient evidence to argue that it's place of origin is anywhere else but Africa. I do indeed believe that the music that was once brought to North America via ship has been transformed by multiple artists; however, the original retentions that artists originally played off of were in fact derived from African soil.

Featured below is a list of scholars both mentioned and not mentioned in the information provided above. I would love to thank each and every one of them for inspiring me to pursue this project, and enlightening me with their dedicated works. It is because of them that I was able to put together the information provided to you.

works cited

  1. Kofi Agawu. The African Imagination In Music.
  2. Rudi Blesh. Shining Trumpets: A History of Jazz.
  3. James Lincoln Collier. The Reception of Jazz in America: A New View.
  4. Samuel A. Floyd. Black Music and Writing Black Music History.
  5. Samuel A. Floyd and Ronald Radano. Interpreting The African-American Musical Past: A Dialogue.
  6. Ted Gioia. The History of Jazz.
  7. Travis Jackson. Blowin’ The Blues Away.
  8. Burton W. Peretti. The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America & Jazz in American Culture
  9. Mark Lincoln. The Powerful Influence of African Culture on Modern Music.
  10. Ingrid Monsonn. Say Something.
  11. Ronald Radano. Lying Up a Nation.
  12. Guthrie Ramsey. Race Music.
  13. Gunther Schuller. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development
  14. Alyn Shipton. A New History of Jazz.
  15. Eileen Southern. The Music of Black Americans: A History.

teacher accreditation

Professor Garry Bertholf.

I would love to last think Professor Garry Bertholf for teaching me this semester at Clemson University, and inspiring me to inquire about things I did not dream of thinking about in the years prior. I appreciate the confidence that he bestowed in me to pursue his class and this project with such heart and determination. Garry Bertholf is by no means a professor, but rather a life coach; therefore, if you ever cross paths with him, be appreciative of the young minds that he has inspired thus far, and will continue to inspire as his life progresses. Thank you, Garry.

Thank you for taking the time to look over this presentation & please if you will, provide feedback. I would love to know how I could improve, and most importantly if you learned! Thank-you. -Bruce Lanier Stephenson-

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Bruce Stephenson

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