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
 |  Average 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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  • 39-page printed course guidebook
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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 4.4 out of 5 by 135.
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Too Little That jazz can be reflected in 8-30 minute courses is absurd. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but I certainly didn't get anything out of it. I was fortunate that I could listen to "Jazz with OT" on public radio, and learned SO MUCH from him. Oscar Treadwell was extremely knowledgeable, and TTC would do everyone a service if they could put together a course of some of his shows. One knows one is respected when friends (Monk, Charlie Parker and Wardell Gray) write a song for you.
Date published: 2020-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from History of Jazz is a great beginning. This is a thoroughly enjoyable quick history of jazz. The discussion of the earliest years is especially helpful in understanding the roots and evolution of this amazing genre of music. There is just enough info to satisfy the novice and it is sufficiently detailed to encourage deeper study. The accompanying written material coupled with the audio lecture makes this a great introduction to jazz. Serious aficionados may find the course too elementary and the coverage of some artists insufficient to detailed but it is still a good basic course. The lecturer’s delivery was very good and he paced himself well.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not what I expected As an audio course, it was just okay, but I didn't realize that this was just the audio track from what had been designed as a video lecture. There were a few illustrations in the accompanying study guide, but not all were included.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Mixed This is an 8-part course on a large subject, and some of the "lectures" are interviews and performances. That means that many topics are ignored or given inadequate treatment. The instructor focuses a lot -- too much, all things considered -- on the origins of jazz. He treats it as a historical phenomenon and a set of musical techniques, and so he gives short shrift to some of jazz's greatest practitioners. He has a lot to say about ragtime, for example, but he does not say enough about Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, or Dizzy Gillespie. (He may assume that you already know about them and enjoy their music.) The instructor's historical analysis of jazz rightly traces it to Black American experience and African/African-American musical heritage, but he talks too much about white artists and doesn't address the complications of that. I don't think he ever refers to Jones's "Blues People." Also, unfortunately, he sometimes imitates "black" speech and singing. He is charming and knowledgeable, but he sometimes made me cringe. He ends the course with an attempt do a jazz improvisation of medieval European music. A particular strength of the instructor is that he is a performer, not just a scholar, and so he brings in music theory when it is useful and explains it in ways that people can understand.
Date published: 2020-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informtive I learned a lot that I did not know about the history of Jazz.
Date published: 2020-05-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Enjoyable This is a good course for someone who enjoys how jazz sounds but who doesn’t know much about it. I doubt that it would be of any value to someone who knows a lot about jazz, particularly a jazz musician. Mr. Messenger (he does not have a Ph.D.) presents jazz in a very good framework. Not only does he trace the historical development of jazz chronologically from plantations to coffee houses but he also analyzes the major categories of jazz such as Dixieland, swing, bop, etc. The novice will learn how to identify the kind of jazz being played and will also learn how to interpret the music. Mr. Messenger is a very good speaker. He illustrates his points very well with live performances including jazz improvisation. However, the several interviews are not nearly as effective. I made a serious mistake by getting the audio version. The video version would have been much better not only with the visual aids but also with the many interviews that Mr. Messenger conducts and also with the live performances. I may go back and get the video version as well.
Date published: 2020-04-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very informative 8 classes I have a new friend who loves jazz. This class helped me understand the history of jazz. I wish it was offered in video format because the audio refers to things that should be seen. Very informative about the history and development of the musical form.
Date published: 2020-02-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This Course is a Masterpiece Both this instructor's comprehensive knowledge of this subject and his ability to illustratrate his points with his own extraordinary piano playing skills, as well as incorporating many other musical examples, make this course stand out as one of the very best of the 50-plus Great Courses I have purchased. I loaned it to the conductor of a local jazz band, and at their next concert he thanked me publicly and shared some relevant jazz history with the audience. Bravo, and thank you, Bill Messenger.
Date published: 2020-01-31
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