Dixieland Jazz: Origins and Instruments

One of the great American innovations is the music form known as jazz. Many people who consider themselves fans of this genre know all about the era of “Satchmo” and Miles Davis, but Jazz actually has a very extensive history that pre-dates these musical giants by decades. It was born of many different types of music, such as early blues as well as early brass bands. But one of the firstborn styles of jazz is Dixieland.

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The history of Dixieland Jazz

Dixieland is a classic form of the genre, and its origins are steeped in many different influences, including:

  • Ragtime.
  • Patriotic big-band marches like “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Sound Off.”
  • Early blues, such as Wabash Blues and Basin Street Blues.
  • Gospel music.

This form of jazz originated along the Mississippi river during the last ten years of the 19th century and continued to evolve throughout World War I. Dixieland was centralized in New Orleans around this time period, and was marked by the sounds of the rag piano and the harmonies of those found in religious services. Players began mixing these influences during this time and began to utilize various horns and stringed instruments to make up the distinct sounds of Dixieland.

Instruments found in Dixieland jazz

A traditional Dixieland band was typically made up of six members. This included a “front line” of three members playing horn instruments. These instruments included, but where not limited to:Clarinet.

  • Trumpet.
  • Trombone.
  • Cornet or other compact brass instruments.

This group was backed up by a rhythm section whose instruments included:

  • Tuba
  • Banjo
  • Drums

These types of instruments could be adapted to play indoors or outdoors, hence the popularity of Dixieland jazz often being performed during parades. Each of the instrumentalists in the frontline had a specific role to play. For example:

The Trumpet and/or cornet player. Because the trumpet was oftentimes the loudest instrument in the group, this player’s function was to provide the melody. The trumpet or cornet player would often play with the melodies according to their own unique interpretations.

The clarinet player. The job of the clarinetist was to provide a harmony above the melody line performed by the trumpeter. But the clarinet player was also required to create a musical momentum, as this instrument is much more versatile than brass instruments.

The trombone player. The trombonist’s job was to play the root note in the chord progression, much like a bassist would.

The rhythm section – banjo, drums, tuba – were only required only to back up the front line and play rhythms similar to those found in a marching band. However, one misnomer about traditional Dixieland is that it’s always played in a 2/4 rhythm, but this isn’t always the case. Dixieland is often played in a “flat four” time signature with strong, even beats.

These are the basics of the instruments used in Dixieland jazz. But like jazz itself, improvisation is always welcome. Oftentimes various other instruments are used in Dixieland, including piano. But no matter the types of instruments being played, or the amount of players using them, Dixieland always has a signature sound indicative of America itself.

Justin Miller is a professional blogger who writes for Jamplay.com. JamPlay is a leading online music educator offering 2,000+ guitar lessons for beginners online in HD.

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