Four Case Studies on the Spread of Early Jazz

by Elijah Culp, Sam Harris, Zane Ross, and Lauren Vilendrer


One of the most heavily debated topics in modern music history is the origins of jazz in the United States. With jazz being a quintessential example of American art, scholars have extensively researched and debated its origins in order to understand both how jazz began and the great impact it has had on American culture. Early roots of jazz are firmly embedded in ragtime and blues music, but today the genre is defined as a broad style of music, encapsulating complex harmonies, syncopated rhythms, and an emphasis on improvisation. Most music historians agree that the spread of jazz took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and credit New Orleans, Louisiana, as a key location in its early development. Jazz then spread from New Orleans to various locations across the United States, most predominantly to New York City and Chicago as a part of The Great Migration. This spread of jazz from New Orleans to other locations across the United States is large in part due to The Great Migration The specialization of race in the early twentieth-century United States focuses a lot on this: jazz emerged from New Orleans and spread quickly elsewhere because the Black Americans who invented it were in the process of moving all over.

The emergence of jazz indisputably challenged the conventions of American music and the norms of Western classical music. These challenges came in the form of various social factors at the core of jazz—including race, ethnicity, and the reflection and celebration of African and African American culture. Meanwhile, the conventions of Western classical music dictated a more exclusive and formal role for musical performers and their audiences alike. Instruction in music was reserved for members of Western classical musical society, many times excluding women, people of color, and indigenous peoples. The appeal of jazz to black and white audiences brought backlash, and with the backlash came the spread of generalized misconceptions. These misconceptions, rooted in the belief of white racial superiority, included labeling jazz “merely as a product of noble savages – music produced by untutored, unbuttoned semi literates”1. Racist myths like this perpetuate racial prejudice and complicate the process of comprehending the origin story of jazz. The story of jazz must acknowledge the unfortunate reality of the Jim Crow Era and the legal (and often violent) segregation of daily life that denied musicians of color access to equal quality educational opportunities as white people, let alone the chance to learn and read music. 

Our team utilized an online mapping program, ArcGIS StoryMaps, as a method to depict the emergence of early jazz in New Orleans and its spread to other locations across the United States. With the help of ArcGIS, our maps display plotted points accompanied by dates, textual evidence, and recordings. Our motivation for this project is to ground the origins and spread of early jazz through the lives of the musicians who made it. We chose to highlight four of the most prominent early jazz musicians in this project not only because of their central roles in the development of jazz but because they represent jazz as a phenomenon at once local, national, and global, right from the start. We have identified Buddy Bolden, Joseph “King” Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton as four jazz pioneers, and these musicians will serve as our vehicles for understanding the spread of early jazz.

Jelly Roll Morton

In search of the historic origins of jazz, one must pay special attention to Jelly Roll Morton, the self-professed inventor of the genre itself. Morton was born as Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe, his name as multicultural as the city from which he hailed…

Buddy Bolden

Buddy Bolden is widely regarded as the first musician to partake in the practice of spontaneous improvisation within the jazz tradition, and therefore many scholars claim that Bolden…

Sidney Bechet

Perhaps no other jazz musician worked with as many of the genre’s early greats as Sidney Bechet. Sidney Bechet was a famous jazz clarinetist and soprano saxophone player born on May 14, 1897 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Bechet family…

King Oliver

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band has been reported as a “live sensation” and one of the first Black New Orleans jazz ensembles to gain recognition in the recording industry. For these reasons…

Our Findings

Some general trends emerge in our research that reframe our thinking about the spread of jazz. The geographical travel of these musicians throughout their careers was most likely highly motivated by the economy. Jazz musicians had to seek out where jobs existed in the form of residencies, gigs, tours, and other performance opportunities. In this sense, the mythos of “jazz spreading from New Orleans to up North” is proven and disproven; while many did make their way to Chicago and New York, it was only when a job opportunity presented itself. Pretending that the North was the final destination for these musicians diminishes their expansive geographical impact, as many of the musicians left the North and found work in areas such as Europe or on the West Coast of the United States. 

Although early jazz seems to have been studied extensively, we believe there is still room for further research. We must start by acknowledging the lack of female musicians involved in the spread of early jazz, as seen in our data. This trend is partly due to the individuals we chose to focus on, as they were all African American men. We chose to focus on Morton, Bechet, Bolden, and Oliver because they had been cited as key figures in the history of early jazz, a history that notably tends to overlook female musicians. This could be because of societal practices in musician circles, the ability for women to be employed as musicians at bars and brothels where longer-term employment existed, bias among music historians (themselves mostly men until the last few decades), or a genuine lack of documentation in primary and secondary sources. We cannot attempt to answer the questions surrounding women in early jazz as our data on it is virtually non-existent; this provides an opportunity for continued study for another research group. The prominent impact of artists’ monetary needs reframes our thinking, as we are no longer just looking at the musicians, but also the economics that shaped the spread of early jazz. This calls for further investigation into the money musicians were paid, and where their revenue came from. In grounding the early spread of jazz through mapping, our eyes are opened to see the truths and lies in the mythos of the spread of Jazz. Through this, we start to move past accepting this narrative towards understanding why it took over the nation the way it did.

Our Team

Get to know our four team members who put this project together!

Our Methodology

 This research group chose to study Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, and Joe “King” Oliver because they were cited in prior academic writing…

Our Sources

To better understand our research and follow our own learning, head to our bibliography below!