Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion

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

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
 |  37 minutes each
  • 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

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Video DVD
Audio Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 8 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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CD Includes:
  • 8 lectures on 8 CDs
  • 64-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 64-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider

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Your professor

Bill Messenger

About Your Professor

Bill Messenger, M.A.
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...
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Reviews

Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 121.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative well done We really enjoy format, information, a d lecture delivery. Well done
Date published: 2018-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from What fun! This lecture series has it all...lots of good information, great music examples played by the lecturer. This man knows it all and knows how to deliver.
Date published: 2018-04-30
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Starts strong, ends weaker I learned a great deal about Jazz history and development from this short series, and anyone interested in Jazz might also enjoy the lectures. The educational value is particularly strong with the early lectures. The later lectures do not as rigorously explore and explain more modern jazz developments, however. The interviews by the lecturer with some Jazz performers adds little information and seemed intended to kill time.
Date published: 2018-03-04
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not specifically designed for audio This is tremendously frustrating. Just a few sentences in, the instructor says, "I'm going to show you a picture. . . " There is no photo in the accompanying text that corresponds to this. He talks too fast, throws out a dozen references to things he does not explain and cultural references which no one who is not either 90 years old or already a serious, educated jazz fan will understand--and doesn't explain them either. The tracks are huge--one per lesson. So if you don't understand something or wish to re-listen to part of a lesson for any reason, it is extremely difficult to do so. It tends to revert to the beginning of the track no matter what you do (which may be a reflection of my aging equipment). I can't tell you how many times I had to re-start the first track just to hear a few words again, or even when I took a break and tried to pick up where I left off. I doubt that I will attempt to finish the course, as it promises only hours more of the same level of frustration. What I wish is that I had my money back. I have a bachelor's, two masters' degrees, a doctorate, and I am a college instructor--so, in case you were wondering, it is not because I am not a good student. And I have had two courses from this company before and loved both of them intensely--so, in case you were wondering, I am not just an old crank. In fact, I have a little background in music, having taken classical piano for about six years as a teen, and I have enjoyed listening to jazz for years, just to give you an idea of the level of experience with which I came into this. I would not recommend it for anyone who has not had some introductory college-level courses in music appreciation.
Date published: 2018-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great, short, introduction to Jazz I listened to this course straight through in a few days and very much enjoyed the course. My music literacy is minimal. My historical knowledge of jazz is minimal. It felt like the professor was right beside me. At just the right moment he would stop and use his piano to demonstrate what he was trying to communicate. I am sure I will revisit this class again.
Date published: 2018-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course I am thoroughly enjoying the course (I've completed 6 of 8 lectures so far). The lecturer has a wonderful style of conversation and does a terrific job of performing excerpts/examples/improvisations on the piano (and vocally) to illustrate and enhance the material. I would highly recommend the course to anyone with an interest in knowing more about the foundations and development of jazz.
Date published: 2017-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Surpised by the Negative Comments. OK I can understand aficionados getting annoyed by what they see as inaccuracies in Professor Messenger's characterisation of Thelonious Monk as a part of the Cool Jazz movement if he is not (though he always seemed pretty 'cool' to me); or describing Art Blakey's musical number "free for all" as "free jazz" when it is not (though on hearing it you'd have to wonder why). Such perpetuations of "the Wynton Marsalis school of neoconservatives" (as put by reviewer 'thisbringsusto') are certainly grounds for having Professor Messenger tarred and feathered. But really there is only one major problem with this course and that is that it is too short. This inevitably means that Messenger provides only the broadest of outlines of what is an extraordinarily rich and complex history. It is also too short because - being sooo entertaining - it leaves you disappointed when it ends so soon. Having bought this several years ago I had forgotten that it was only available in audio and thought - having listened to it in one sitting on a very long return car trip - I really had to buy the lectures on video to watch Messenger's playing and see the other wonderful musicians (including in particular the young blues singer Ursula Ricks - wow!) only to be disappointed to find that audio is the only option. I agree with all those who have said that a longer course - really, it needs a 72+ lecture course at least - should be a priority for The Great Courses. In the meantime, I'm just going to have to keep replaying Messenger's wonderful short course and enjoy it for the excellent introductory fun that it is.
Date published: 2017-10-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Helps to have a music background After listening to this series, I definitely have a better understanding and appreciation for jazz, particularly for its origins and early development. A few comments: It may be better to have the video since there are times when there are (apparently) visuals -- although I could picture most of them in my head, so that is not critical. It does help to have some familiarity with musical vocabulary. Many things are explained clearly, but he does slip into using nomenclature and concepts that are better grasped if you have a knowledge of musical terms. On the VERY positive side, he demonstrates many concepts with examples (much of which he is playing) that illustrate and clarify the subject. The music is fantastic to hear (I listened while working out and my pace certainly picked up!). His explanations of what constitutes jazz and what the various types of jazz are are, generally, clear. I did feel that another lecture (or two) on modern jazz would have afforded a better understanding of that genre, much as his full lectures on ragtime, Dixieland jazz and blues did.
Date published: 2017-10-22
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