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Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion

Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion

Professor Bill Messenger M.A.
The Peabody Institute
Course No.  728
Course No.  728
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Course Overview

About This Course

8 lectures  |  37 minutes per lecture

The uniquely American music and art form, jazz, is one of America's great contributions to world culture. Now you can learn the basics of jazz and its history in a course as free-flowing and original as jazz itself. Taught by Professor Bill Messenger of the Peabody Institute, the lectures in this course are a must for music lovers. They will have you reaching deep into your own music collection and going straight out to a music store to add to it.

Professor Messenger has spent his life in music as student, teacher, and professional musician. He has studied and lectured at the famed Peabody Institute and written an acclaimed book on music activities aimed at older adults.

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The uniquely American music and art form, jazz, is one of America's great contributions to world culture. Now you can learn the basics of jazz and its history in a course as free-flowing and original as jazz itself. Taught by Professor Bill Messenger of the Peabody Institute, the lectures in this course are a must for music lovers. They will have you reaching deep into your own music collection and going straight out to a music store to add to it.

Professor Messenger has spent his life in music as student, teacher, and professional musician. He has studied and lectured at the famed Peabody Institute and written an acclaimed book on music activities aimed at older adults.

And as a pianist, he has:

  • Played in ragtime ensembles, swing bands, Dixieland bands, and modern jazz groups
  • Been a successful studio musician in the early days of rock 'n' roll
  • Accompanied performers as renowned as Lou Rawls and Mama Cass Elliot
  • Opened for Bill Haley and the Comets.

So it is no wonder that the course he has created is so thorough and enjoyable.

Lectures, Piano, and Guest Performers

It's a rich mix of jazz, its elements, era, and practitioners. Professor Messenger frequently turns to his piano to illustrate his musical points, often with the help of guest performance artists and lots of original music.

The lectures follow the story of jazz in its many shapes, including:

  • Ragtime
  • The blues
  • The swing music of the big band era
  • Boogie-woogie
  • Big band blues
  • The rise of modern jazz forms: bebop, cool, modal, free, and fusion.

Cakewalks, Vaudeville, and Swing

Beginning with the music and dance of the antebellum plantation, Professor Messenger reveals how the "cakewalks" of slave culture gave birth to a dance craze at the 19th century's end that was ignorant of its own humble roots.

He considers how minstrel shows, deriving from Southern beliefs that held black culture to be decidedly inferior, eventually created a musical industry that African American musicians would dominate for decades to come. You will learn how and why jazz, a difficult genre to define, was central to the music they created.

Roots in Ragtime

Professor Messenger explains how jazz was born—or conceived—in the ragtime piano tunes of turn-of-the-century America. Together with the Dixieland funeral music of New Orleans, this new, "syncopated" music popularized a sound that took America's vaudeville establishments by storm.

Professor Messenger notes that ragtime's most popular composer, Scott Joplin, at first resisted the new craze. But after becoming intrigued by that "ragged" sound at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, he became the writer of the most memorable rags ever, including "Maple Leaf Rag" and "The Entertainer."

Drawing on the blues, an emotional but harmonically simple music, jazz was ensconced as a popular genre in the American psyche by the 1920s.

The Surprising Origin of the "St. Louis Blues"

One interesting story about the blues covered in the course concerns W. C. Handy, a man often referred to as the "father of the blues." As Professor Messenger reveals that, in truth, Handy didn't like the blues very much and wasn't convinced the public would buy it.

It was only after he saw a band of blues players literally showered with money after a performance that he began writing the music in earnest. Handy was at the same World's Fair Joplin attended, and he heard a song he later arranged into what became the famous "St. Louis Blues."

Professor Messenger points out, nothing about the song was original; it was a melting pot of many influences. The blues is, in his words, the "emotional germ of jazz." It is the place jazz always returns to when it veers too far into the abstract or academic.

An Innovation that Changed Jazz Forever

One of the most important events in the history of jazz, and all performance, was the invention of the microphone in 1924. Before the microphone, singers needed big voices to project their voices across large music halls, and the booming styles of performers such as Bessie Smith and Al Jolson met those requirements admirably.

After the microphone, though, things were very different. The new invention did more than simply allow for the use of quieter instruments like the guitar and string bass. It also brought smaller-voiced singers—Bing Crosby, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra, for instance—into the limelight.

Into the 1930s and 40s, popular music became heavily arranged for bigger and bigger bands. By the time the swing era of America's big bands took hold around World War II, jazz had reached new popular heights.

You will learn why swing became so popular—the syncopation and improvisation of early jazz, in the context of careful arrangements, combined planning and spontaneity in a unique way.

Though not to be confused with the sound of competing society bands, swing music gave talents like Benny Goodman a chance to improvise within the framework of Top 40 hits.

More than Swing

The development of jazz into swing electrified popular music. You learn:

  • How boogie-woogie, a precursor of rock 'n' roll that was primed with a heavy-handed, highly rhythmic style, found widespread success in the 1940s until its ubiquity forced it out of fashion
  • How big band blues, where the simplicity of the blues standard was overlaid on the pop song, fused the worlds of folk art and high art
  • How bebop—an austere, anxious music whose success was blazed by the genius of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker—worked against the commercial spread of swing
  • How modern jazz spans everything—from the cool jazz of the 1950s to the fusion jazz of the 1990s, with several stops in between.

Music for Today

In recent decades many forms of modern jazz—including cool, modal, free, and fusion—have had their devoted following. All serve to prove that jazz is a generic music that comprises many varieties.

True to its name, jazz has defied definition, category, and stagnation. And this course—in toe-tapping, finger-snapping ways—will feed your intellectual curiosity and appreciation.

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8 Lectures
  • 1
    Plantation Beginnings
    In this introductory lecture we discuss the birth of jazz: where and how it came into existence. This "distant" music has had profound effect on the music of today, and specifically on Mick Jagger. The lecture concludes with the origin of minstrel shows. x
  • 2
    The Rise and Fall of Ragtime
    The emergence of ragtime in the 1890s can be compared to the emergence of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s. Ragtime has many variations; it's not restricted to the piano. Are certain melodies prone to being "ragged"? America's greatest ragtime composer strenuously resisted the genre he would later come to love. x
  • 3
    The Jazz Age
    In general, jazz is syncopated music with more improvisation than there is in ragtime. Understand the difference between modern and traditional jazz. A technological advance made a huge impact on the development of jazz from its very beginnings. x
  • 4
    Blues
    We've all heard the blues, perhaps even hummed along. Ever wonder why it has such profound effect on its listeners? This vital style is at the core of all jazz performance. Whenever jazz becomes complex to the point of inaccessibility, jazz musicians inevitably return to the blues. x
  • 5
    The Swing Era
    Swing was for the youth of the Depression what jazz was for the previous generation and what ragtime was for the generation that preceded that one. In its time, swing seemed modern, rebellious, and tailored for a younger generation. In this genre, bands swing together as if they were one instrument, antiphonal section playing and arranged background riffs behind improvised solos. x
  • 6
    Boogie, Big Band Blues, and Bop
    We cover the distinctions between boogie-woogie and ragtime, and find out why each was commercialized to death. Also, see the relationship of early rock 'n' roll to boogie-woogie. Find out what effect electricity had on boogie-woogie. Following the chronological trend of this music, we look at 1940s modern jazz. With the emergence of bop, we see things get more complex. x
  • 7
    Modern Jazz
    During the 20th century, all the arts broke away from established rules to explore new territory. Modern jazz used extended chords and frequent chord changes, among other things. We discuss the "Cool School" of the early 1950s, modal jazz, free jazz, fusion, and funky jazz. Which of these schools was most influenced by rock? x
  • 8
    The ABC's of Jazz Improvisation
    How can 10 musicians get together, have no idea what any of the others will play, start at the same time, and make wonderful music? This lecture explains how this is done. And, with our explanation, we discover that the musicians are perhaps not as free as they appear. Bill Messenger and friends demonstrate jazz improvisation on our sound stage. x

Lecture Titles

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Bill Messenger
M.A. Bill Messenger
The Peabody Institute

Professor Bill Messenger studied musical composition, on scholarship, at The Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University under Louis Cheslock. He attended a master’s class in 1963 with Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, and Aaron Copland. Professor Messenger has two master’s degrees, both from Johns Hopkins University. He has done additional graduate work in musicology at the University of Maryland.

Professor Messenger has taught composition, music history, and music theory at Goucher College in Baltimore and a number of community colleges. He regularly lectures on American music at The Peabody Institute and Towson State University Elderhostels.

Professor Messenger is the author of several books, including The Power of Music: A Complete Music Activities Program for Older Adults, which has been called "a landmark in music activities."

His musical career includes studio work on many early rock 'n' roll recordings. He has accompanied many nationally known performers during his years in the music business, including Lou Rawls and Cass Elliot, and he worked as an opener for Bill Haley and the Comets. He was also a pianist with the acrobatic rock'n'roll group, The Rockin’ Maniacs. As a jazz pianist, he has played in ragtime ensembles, swing bands, Dixieland bands, and modern jazz groups. In 1983 he was voted Baltimore’s best piano player by Baltimore magazine.

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Reviews

Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 77 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Top-notch course--jazz from a jazzman I've heard many words used to describe jazz over the years, most of which I didn't even know referred to jazz. I haven't even liked jazz until recently and now I find it tolerable. But, this course is incredible, a concise walk through the history of jazz, with explanations of historical context and technical details that make each step in the evolution of jazz unique. I know a little about music, but this course would be great for people who know nothing about the technical side of music to those who are quite knowledgeable. Prof. Messenger is extremely engaging--his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. More importantly, the class moves at a great pace, with a mixture of talk, piano "demos" of different facets of jazz, and great samples of music from jazz greats. I finished this course with both an appreciation of and excitement for jazz, but also a desire to re-listen to the course with my lady friend, who I am sure will enjoy it also. July 30, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Knowledge, Clarity, Insight Bill Messenger covers Jazz from its roots to the present. (Realize that 'present' is a moving target!# The presentation is stepwise, unified/connected by common themes, and quite clear. There's a #hi#story in the this varying form we call jazz and Bill Messenger keeps the listener engaged through it all. Messenger loves his material, he's skilled in it, and he can present it well. If you're an afficionado, you may find some things missing, but the big things are here, and the story to go with them. Highly recommended! March 26, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by I'm listening to it a second time I purchased this as CDs and found myself fascinated. I learned so much. A year later I wanted to listen again but couldn't find my CDs. I wanted it so much that I purchased it again and this time downloaded it as MP3s. I'm already up to lecture 7 and know that sometime I'll go back and listen to it again. Of all of the Great Courses I've listened to, this one and the Early Middle Ages are the two best ones I've heard, IMHO. Great job Professor Bill Messenger! Wish I could listen to you in person but Baltimore is a long way from Tennessee. December 8, 2013
Rated 4 out of 5 by Short Survey Course This eight lecture course provides a broad overview of jazz from African plantation rhythms, ragtime, Dixieland Jazz, blues, swing, boogie, cool jazz, modal jazz, free jazz to fusion jazz. Each 45-minute lecture provides examples of each musical form. However, like most of the other music courses from The Teaching Company, access to the full musical works mentioned will add greatly to the appreciation of the topic. I enjoyed the teaching style of Professor Messenger. He was knowledgeable and had a voice and method easy to follow. The last lecture on jazz improvisation departed from the historical approach of the first seven and, for me, did not add much to the overall content. This short course highlights the need for additional individual courses on jazz greats – Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Scott Joplin, Thelonius Monk, and Charlie Parker, just to name a few. October 14, 2013
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