An explanation for the emergence of Jazz (1956)

The following explanation of the emergence of jazz is a summary of ideas found in Bruno Nettl’s introduction to ethnomusicology, Music in Primitive Culture, first published in 1956.

I have mostly kept the terminology of the original.

My additions are in square brackets and I have added my own conclusion.

African and New World Negro music

Nettl accepts the assumption that jazz resulted from the interaction of European and African cultures in the New World. He argues that there are several ways in which musical styles migrate, one such being acculturation, where the culture of one society is superimposed on that of another. Colonisation is one way that this might take place, but it is not the only one. The movement is invariably from the advanced to the primitive group: few customs of primitive people found in modern Europe and the USA.

There are two basic types of musical acculturation:

1. two musical styles can become intertwined e.g. in one song
2. material in the new style can be added to the repertoire of the old style with both styles remaining distinct

African-American material (specifically South American, Middle American and West Indian) is the probably the largest body of music to come under Western influence. It is also the primitive style that has had more influence on western music than any other, affecting folk, jazz and cultivated music. “….in the Americas there is a group of Negro styles composed of African and European elements that have evidently been compatible, a group that is a unique combination of traits and whose impact on the musical world of the last several decades has been tremendous.” (Music in Primitive Culture, pp.120-121)

The background of African music and its relationship to European music

In order to identify what elements in African-American music are African and which are European Nettl outlines some important features of the history of African music.

African has not been musically isolated. It has imported musical material from several sources, e.g. the xylophone from Indonesia c. 500 AD, with African xylophone orchestras being like the gamelan orchestras of Java and Bali. The seventh-century Islamic invasion of North African brought Arabic elements to the music of both West and East Africa, e.g. monophonic chant-like singing with ornamentation, unclear rhythm, small intervals and harp accompaniment.

The following features are common to African music and European folk music:

diatonic and pentatonic scales
isometric organisation

The similarities are often rather vague, but African primitive and European folk music does represent a relatively homogenous block that contrasts with the primitive music in some other areas like that of the American Indians. The similar types of polyphony are based on parallel fourths and fifths and are found in Central Asian and East Africa. The connection between these two large areas is probably prehistoric and is certainly pre-Islamic, since they are separated by the broad belt of Arabic music that runs across North Africa and the Near East. Since a great deal of African Negro culture evidently was originally diffused from Egypt and the Near East, and since much of Western culture also originated there, this area may be the original home of those stylistic features that African and European folk music have in common. Another suggestion has been offered by Leo Frobenius, who postulates a prehistoric connection between southern Europe and Africa. His theory is based on the prehistoric European and more recent Bushman styles of rock painting. At any rate, the similarity of African and European styles may have assisted their assimilation the New World.

Music in Primitive Culture, p.122

Differences between East and West African music

East African music: stylistic features

polyphony using fourths and fifths
fourths and fifths used extensively in the melodic line
melodic movement usually undulating, gradually ascending or arc-shaped
complex rhythms that tend to be organised isometrically

West African music: stylistic features

polyphony using thirds
thirds used extensively in the melodic line
absence of minor seconds
melodic movement usually undulating, gradually ascending or arc-shaped
more complex rhythms than in East Africa that tend to be organised heterometrically

This demonstrates that East African music is closer than West African music to European folk material.

The main cause of the influence of African on Western music is the slave trade, with most of the slaves brought to the Americas coming from West Africa. Hence the special importance of West African music to the development of African-American music in the New World.

African music in the New World

The question of the African influence on West Indian and South American Negro music is straightforward since there is general agreement that this music retains its original African traits. West Indian music, for example, has more African traits that that of the USA. West Indian music has features such as:

heterometric rhythmic construction
use of melodic thirds
lack of semitones or half steps

The Negro music of Surinam is good example.

African influence on Negro music in the USA

There are four theories of African influences in Negro music in the USA:

1. Survivalism
2. Syncretism
3. Nonsurvivalism
4. The compromise theory

1. Survivalism

Music may be the most African aspect of New World Negro culture, one reason being that changes in musical culture are not essential to acculturation. Survivalists have pointed out individual tunes that have been brought from Africa, though there is no proof of this. One theory is that the chief African trait of American Negro music is the rhythmic structure, specifically syncopation and anticipation of the beat over a steady pulse usually provided by drums and that this can be attributed to the importance of rhythmic instruments in African culture.

2. Syncretism

Nettl defines syncretism as, “the presence of similar or analogous traits in two cultures that are becoming acculturated”. ( Music in Primitive Culture, p.127) For example, West African religious concepts are found more in Roman Catholic than Protestant areas . There are generally more African survivals in the music of Negro groups who have settled in Roman Catholic cultures where Romance languages are spoken than there are in English speaking protestant cultures.

3. Nonsurvivalism

The theory of non-survivalism is put forward by George Pullen Jackson, whose main interest is American white folk music. Jackson traced the history of the Negro spiritual and concluded that it originated in the Scotch-Irish and English hymnody of the south. He argues that all religious Negro music in the USA is borrowed white material. Jackson’s method is to identify specific tunes using historical sources.

4 The compromise theory

The argument of the compromise theory is that the difference between survivalists and nonsurvivalists is not a fundamental one, but one of emphasis. Survivalists are concerned with tracing stylistic elements which are not normally observed in the source materials used by historians. The non survivalists are concerned with tracing the origins of individual melodies, ignoring the manner of performance. George Pullen Jackson, for example, ignores methods used in ethnomusicology such as transcription of traditional material and the study of performance and stylistic technique. Jackson’s methods therefore do not deal with important stylistic features such as antiphonal technique, types of sound production and percussive accompaniment.

According to the compromise theory the melodies of the American Negroes have not originated in Africa. It is argued that the Negroes have taken over tunes of the whites and combined them with African stylistic traits.

Nettl favours the compromise theory. which he describes as a “middle-of-the-road school of thought”.

New World Negro Music in the mid-1950s

As African music travelled from Africa to the New World some traits have survived and some have not. The greatest degree of survival in those areas which are inhabited almost exclusively by Negroes, i.e. the West Indies and S America. There are also strong survivals in Roman Catholic countries where Romance languages are spoken.

The largest body of African survivals is found in Haiti. Various West African religions have combined in a group known as Vodun with each cult named after a West African tribe.

Vodun songs have these characteristics:

pentatonic scales with no semitones
extensive use of thirds and triads
harsh tense vocal technique
antiphonal and responsorial techniques
very little polyphony a difference with african styles
songs accompanied by three male drummers who use instruments of different size and pitch
each Vodun cult has a characteristic drum rhythmic pattern

That there is little polyphony is a departure from the norm for African styles.

The music of the Bahamas is more acculturated, with these characteristics:

no hot rhythm
polyphony in African form of deviations from the melodic line by individual singers within a chorus
harmonic progressions from European harmony
remnants only of antiphonal form
litany-type structures

Nettl puts forward a theory about why some traits survive and others do not. This is the theory of strong versus weak features in a musical style.

A trait that survives acculturation is strong; it will persist in the behavioral conditions of its original culture and is evidently essential to that culture. Without strong features, the music of the culture would disintegrate; the strong features [of African music] are antiphonal and responsorial technique and hot rhythm. Polyphony and scale types must be weaker features, since they seem to have been subject to modification.

Music in Primitive Culture, pp.132-133.

The USA – Jazz

Nettl points out that two theories are current in the mid-1950s:

1. Jazz is derived mainly from European art music.
2. Jazz is derived mainly from African music.

Rudi Blesh [Shining Trumpets, 1946] is the main proponent of the African derivation theory. He argues that New Orleans jazz was African and that African elements gradually fell away in Chicago and New York.

Blesh argues that the following traits of New Orleans jazz are particularly African:

microtonal flattening of the 3rd and 7th step of the scale
hot rhythm
individual improvisation
peculiar methods of tone production [ not specified]
antiphonal technique

[Nettl doesn’t give an account of the European art music derivation theory.]

Though not part of the sections on New World Negro music, Nettl outlines in Music in Primitive Culture a theory of how to classify world music into three broad groups, and this is relevant to the emergence of jazz.

Nettl argues that there are three very loosely delimited music areas in the world, each containing:

1. centres of cultivated music
2. related folk styles
3. primitive styles (found in low populations in large geographic areas)

There is great stylistic diversity within each area, but each nonprimitive style is related to at least one primitive style. The method of tonal organisation is the primary means of distinguishing between these areas.

area 1
Europe and Negro Africa, with the main characteristics being:

isometric rhythms
diatonic scales
polyphony based on parallel thirds, fourths and fifths

area 2
Across N Africa and including the Islamic world, India and Indonesia stretching into Oceania, with the main characteristics being:

small intervals in scales, melodies and polyphony

area 3

Inhabited primarily by Mongoloids and includes the American Indians, advanced cultures of the Far East, eastern and northern Siberia, the Finno-Ugric peoples of Russia, with the main characteristics being:

use of large steps in pentatonic and tetratonic scales

The world-wide development of music must have been a unified process in which all peoples participated. Hence we find today in scattered areas many similar traits….which could not have originated via any other process and which have been stumbling blocks for those who attempt deep-rooted psychological and physiological explanations of them………What does this interrelationship between primitive and non-primitive music imply for contemporary scholars, musicians and music-lovers? For the musicologist, it means that he cannot study the music of one culture, be it Western European, primitive, or Oriental, without considering the musical achievements of all the world and fitting his own particular interest into this framework.

Music in Primitive Culture,p.143


If we apply the idea from the above quotation to the emergence of jazz there are a number of points that are relevant. There is, for example, the possibility of a African-European “root style” which might have existed in Egypt and the Near East. East African music is closer than West African to European folk material and this may be because of a link to Egypt and the Near East in prehistoric times, where such a “root style” might have existed. The existence of a “root style” would help to explain the ease with which African and European styles were able to interact in jazz millennia later. A closely related point is that African music and European art music, which on a superficial hearing might appear to belong to completely different – and therefore perhaps incompatible – musical traditions, can both be classified in one of the “big three” musical areas. The deep level features they share are polyphony and diatonic scales.

It is not enough to point out similarities between styles in order to demonstrate that they might be able to interact successfully. Styles come into contact with each other all the time without generating anything like jazz in terms of variety, richness and significance. Nor can sociology alone provide an adequate explanation of how musical styles come to interact successfully: for this to happen the two styles have to be technically and aesthetically compatible. Nettl’s theory of three big areas for world music and three different types of music within each area provides a model for thinking about the types of interaction that are possible and the likelihood of their success.

If we imagine the three areas of world music and the three types of music within each area as a matrix we have a three- by-three matrix with 45 different combinations possible. But how many combinations are likely to be successful in the long term? I would argue that the most successful combination is likely to be a primitive style with a cultivated style within the same large area. It is difficult for a folk music style to interact with a cultivated style without the folk style losing its identity. The folk style is often too similar to the cultivated style. A primitive and a cultivated style from the same large area are likely to be similar at a deep level but also complementary at the level of relatively superficial but nevertheless important stylistic features: different but not too different, similar but not too similar. The emergence of jazz is an example of such a combination.


Nettl, Bruno, Music in Primitive Culture, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1969, SBN 674-59000-7

Jackson, George Pullen, “The Genesis of the Negro Spiritual”, American Mercury, 26: 243-248 (1932)

Blesh, Rudi, Shining Trumpets, New York, 1946

6 thoughts on “An explanation for the emergence of Jazz (1956)

  1. New Orleans News Ladder

    Well I really enjoyed this post and placed you onto today’s NO News Ladder. Currently the question of the “origins of jazz” has grown more salient after the levees failed and the flood nearly washed it all away in New Orleans. I was living there then. One of the three certifiable, knee-buckling, driveling nervous breakdowns that I experienced in that 6-day Kafka nightmare (before escaping over the bridge in a pick-up truck to Baton Rouge) occurred outside the flooded studios of the community radio station WWOZ.
    In a paradoxical way I find it difficult to describe the loss of such a sound under such circumstances. It was a truly deafening silence driven by catastrophic certainty. I actually could not hear. Gone hearing music played from behind open windows, gone seeing little boys play trumpets on the sidewalk steps, gone all the brass instruments ruined in the turgid, septic waters , gone-himself for a time lost in some evac camp-Fat’s Domino’s grand piano laying on its side in the water his memorabilia floating in the front yard, gone even the omnipresent church bells…
    I have traveled the country and never found a community so knitted heart and soul with its own music as New Orleans as evidenced and expressed by that radio station. EVERYONE in New Orleans listens to it all day long. You can even find it in some elevators.
    We are back now, which makes your post even more precious and valuable.

    Thank you,
    editor~NO News Ladder

  2. Justin Freed

    It is clear that for many people music is a necessity, not a luxury.
    I have been preparing to teach a jazz appreciation class, one of the central musics I find utterly essential to my life. In doing so
    I wonder what makes music so essential to our lives.
    If anyone can lead me to insight I would be grateful.

  3. Steve Church

    Hi Justin – Our sense of music, I realize, is almost like a sub-sense of our sense of hearing. Just as with heightened physical and emotional states, pleasure-wise if you will, seeming to have no limit – (Of course one must experience or at least imagine these sublime states to agree here) – our capacity for pleasure from music -though I see a limit here, if existentially – is gargantuan. Music just takes off within us in a grand sensation oft as practical.If ever anything would strike the sensate human as a “living thing” figuatively and yet experientially, it would be what we call MUSIC.

    Friend,Take Care
    God Bless,
    “Tappin’ Steve” Church

  4. Pingback: Chord (music) | blogsmartdotco

  5. popopopopo

    author did not mention middle eastern and egyptian music are derived from greek music such as scales, harmony, melodies..


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