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Early New Orleans Jazz Piano Styles

Basic Overview of New Orleans Jazz

New Orleans is considered the birthplace of traditional jazz music. It dates back to the 20s of the past century, right after the end of the World War I. This popular music style is usually performed by small group of 5-8 people that is composed of “a standard “front line” of trumpet/cornet, clarinet, and trombone with a rhythm section composed of piano, bass…and drums”i. There were bands that used to add a guitar of banjo.

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A traditional New Orleans Jazz Piece was performed by means of collective improvisation with three following components introduced simultaneously: trumpet and cornet playing the song melody, clarinet playing countermelodies, and trombone introducing chord roots and supporting harmonies. Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Bix Beidberbeck were among the founders of the traditional New Orleans jazz style.

Musical Elements

Rhythm: Tempo, Beat and Meter Analysis

In a traditional jazz style, the tempo ranged from low BPM (andante) to moderate tempo (moderato and Marcia moderato). However, the musical composition represented by Jelly Roll Morton exceeds the moderate BPM and can amount to much quicker tempo. For instance, Morton’s composition “Black Bottom Stomp” introduces Chicago-style tempo and “two-beats-to-the-bar stomp rhythm”ii. Louis Armstrong’s “Weather Bird” is based on a three-part ragtime sample ensuring syncopated rhythmiii.

Jazz rhythm is also characterized by use of accented short off beats at the end of music phrases. In a traditional 4 beats per measure template, the first and the third beats are emphasis and are stronger than the second and fourth beativ. These features are especially characteristic of the early jazz music, including New Orleans style as well.

Melody: Tones, Contour, Climax

Jazz melody characteristics are closely connected with the blue scale development, as well as with the balance between melodic shapes and speech patterns. In particular, blue scale used in jazz music often splits into two similar tetrachords that are kept disjoint. In early jazz, the performer often adhered to “the four-not limits of one of the tetrachords”v. In African jazz rhythm, the emphasis is also placed on pentatonism, but the use of the leading tone and the sub-dominant one is not identical.

For instance, Jelly Roll Morton was also much concerned with melody, pitch level, and ragtime rhythms. In particular, the jazz musician “contract the tempo of the right hand in such a way as to be roughly 1/10…ahead of the left hand”vi. The purity of tone and improvisation is brightly represented by the musical composition “Singin’ the Blues” performed by Bix Beiderbecke. In particular, the jazz player “…was true to the limits of his style and truly creative within them”vii

Harmony: Chords, Consonance, Dissonance, and Progression

Being the underpinning of blues structure, harmony performs many other functions in New Orleans jazz. The “5-4” tradition focused on pentatonic elements that assimilated into diatonic harmonies. The blues chord progression presented “a horizontalized form of the primary intervals used by these fourths- and fifth-tribes”viii.

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Consonance in harmony is explicitly represented in Bechet’s “Blue Horizon”. One can also observe loose rhythmic language, being more relevant of swing jazz. Best known as clarinet player and soprano saxophonist, Bechet manages to create progression by agreeable sound, using no tension. Bix Beiderbecke was also concerned with exploring the harmony and, unlike Armstrong who was more interested in the blues, deeply engaged personality and emotion into playing.

In addition, “Singin’ the Blues” was a bright example of ballad style in jazz, a medium-tempo piece with slow tempo that is placed sweetly, but with certain tension. In the pursuit of harmony, Bix Beiderbecke was focused on improvisations. More importantly, the outstanding jazz player had an exceptional sense of resolution and discord.


Though this musical element is the least discussed in this genre, timbre is still considered the most tangible feature of jazz. Specifically, having an African background, “early jazz must have produced a rather raw, brassy and harmonically thin type of music”ix.

The majority of players of this period explored the sonority conception of the music style. More importantly, singing, playing, and speech are characterized by open natural and tone quality. For instance, Morton’s musical compositions provoke the radiant timbre of Jazz in New Orleans.

Pitch Range

Pitch tempo can be achieved by using such instruments as trombone and trumpet that shape the song melody and support chord roots and harmonies. In this respect, the control of pitch range in jazz music identified the musicians’ exceptional skills and in-depth understanding of the essence of the music genre. In particular, “Riverboat Shuffle” by Bix Beiderbecke reveals his rare feeling of the rhythm and tone control.

Extensive pitch ranges are observed in Morton’s musical compositions. At the same time, the jazz player focused on a single pitch to construct nonchordal musical structures. As a result, simple undertones with low pitches were layers by much higher pitch ranges to create a sophisticated music texture. As an outstanding jazz pianist, Morton also managed to work in accord with pitch, rhythm, and harmony.

Analysis of Dynamic Levels

Jazz music is characteristic of the high dynamics and ranges from very low, smooth, and soft to extremely high. Nevertheless, jazz musicians attached little importance to dynamics and articulation to reach contrasting sounds and achieve any decorative purposes. Disregard of this musical element is explained by insufficient technical instrumental control.

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However, further explorations allowed New Orleans jazz players to combine dynamic with textures, harmonies, and densities to create varieties of pitches and introduce different chord variations. In particular, Morton and His Hot Red Peppers resorted to the structural components of dynamics and articulation. In particular, their performance is quite striking in terms of “harmonically shifting introduction, which reappears later in diminution”x.

Musical Texture

Despite the fact that rhythm and harmony are indispensible for jazz music at the beginning of the twentieth century, study of musical texture is important for shaping complex synergies of voices, speech, and instruments. Piano trio is among the most common features of musical texture.

Morton’s “Grandpa’s Spells” reflects a synergy of musical textures and overtones. Contrasting textures involve solo performance blended with full band playing. Solo breaks and sophisticated textures introduced in “Grandpa’s Spells” is considered one of the Morton’s most outstanding musical compositions. While presenting the musical piece “the band begins with a rising scale of parallel chords in quarter notes, which establishes a right tempo”xi.

The overall harmony of G7presents the C major key, which is asserted as soon as A section go on with the tonic harmony. The overall evaluation of musical textures in jazz shows that all New Orleans players were loyal to delivering polyphonic musical pieces. However, Becher supported monolithic textures as well, which was compensated by high tension and extreme fluctuation in pitch ranges.

Musical Form

Music form shaped within jazz style was premised on improvisation, syncopated rhythms, ragtime samples, and contrasting musical textures. All these features are peculiar for the performers of New Orleans jazz periods, as well as for later periods of the genre development. The complex synthesis of various music directions has given rise to blues and swing tendencies that had their peculiar music form.

Because the musical forms is defined as a “a series of strategies designed to find a successful mean between the opposite extremes of unrelieved repetition and unrelieved alteration”xii, blues is characterized by chord progressions aimed to increase density and expression in terms of pitch and scale. This musical form mirrors a call-and-response mechanism that can be noticed in the jazz rhythm of Sydney Bechet.

Jelly Roll Morton was also among the founders of New Orleans blues; creating “rambunctious spirit of the blues – with its expressiveness flatted melody notes and exquisite class between major and minor – was the essence of New Orleans music”xiii. On purpose or not, Morton recalled the Spanish tinge in blues music pieces, which become an essential attribute of the ragtime era. Specifically, blues of this period come to the forth with a range of flying octaves disregarding the sense of stead pulse and meter.

In addition, Morton also initiated the compositions fraught with dual themes played simultaneously, and followed by rich harmonies and passing dissonance. In such a manner, blues rhythms its sophistication and complexity.

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Swing rhythm as a musical form has also become a new music form in the period of New Orleans jazz formation. Louis Armstrong was among the pioneers galvanizing the development of swing music form. Swing was used as the premise of jazz musical context in 1930s. Armstrong’s understanding of swing rhythms was confined to “…ferocious right-hand syncopations and relentless left-hand rhythms”xiv. So, music form is closely associated syncopated accents.

Instruments and Voices

Creating musical textures, controlling pitch ranges, and working with richness of rhythm and melody is closely correlated with the choice of musical instruments, as well as how they synthesized with speech patterns and voices. At it has been mentioned previously, clarinet and trumpet are among the leading musical instruments constructing the basics of jazz melody. Therefore, these instruments are frequently used in solo performances.

Traditionally, the instruments are split into four types: brass, percussion, brass, and strings. Wind instruments are among the most frequently used musical instruments in jazz performance because they are most closely associated with the players’ personality. Besides, the instruments allow a play to achieve the quality of the produced tone. All the outstanding jazz performance of the New Orleans style applied to such wind instruments as saxophone and clarinet.


The New Orleans style of jazz music was focused on improvisation, high connection between speech patterns and the musical piece, and complex and sophisticated synthesis of musical textures. Despite common features that are typical of this period, the discussed jazz musicians – Jelly Roll Morton, Sydney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke, and Louis Armstrong – have their unique vision of how musical piece should render the spirit of the ragtime era. Therefore, they approached differently the above-described musical elements to perceive the main essence of jazz music.

Works Cited

Henry Marting, and Keith Waters. Jazz: the First 100 Years. US: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.

Jacobs, Thomas. Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with Men Who Make the Music. US: LSU Press, 2011. Print.

Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1993. Print.

Percy Sholes, Form, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Reich, Howard and William Gaines, Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton. US: Da Capo Press, 2004. Print.

Shuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

  1. Thomas Jacobs. Traditional New Orleans Jazz: Conversations with Men Who Make the Music. LSU Press, 2011. IX.
  2. Howard Reich and William Gaines, Jelly’s Blues: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton. US: Da Capo Press, 2004. 118
  3. Gunther Shuller. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. Oxford University Press, 1986. 125
  4. Ibid, 125.
  5. Ibid, 44.
  6. Ibid. 173.
  7. Martin Williams, The Jazz Tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. 47
  8. Gunther Shuller. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. Oxford University Press, 1986, 43.
  9. Ibid, 54.
  10. Gunther, Shculler. The History of Jazz, Oxford: Oxford University Press. 66
  11. Henry Marting, and Keith Waters. Jazz: the First 100 Years. US: Cengage Learning, 2011. 87
  12. Percy Sholes, Form, Oxford University Press, 1997, 45.
  13. Reich Howard and William Gaines, Jelly’s Blues”: The Life, Music, and Redemption of Jelly Roll Morton. US: Da Capo Press, 2004. 18
  14. Ibid., 38.

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