Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion

Course No. 728
Professor Bill Messenger, M.A.
The Peabody Institute
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133 Reviews
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Course No. 728
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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
    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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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 39-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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Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion is rated 4.4 out of 5 by 133.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Overview The lecturer gave a well informed and very well presented overview of a rather complex aspect of music.
Date published: 2018-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great introduction to Jazz! As a lifelong lover of Jazz and Blues this was an excellent introduction to some of the history behind the music. Highly recommended for those who appreciate music history.
Date published: 2018-11-18
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Junk! This is a Joke! Messenger is unprofessional, unprepared, confusing, simplistic & erroneous. He is more interested in dazzling us with his piano playing than providing a coherent narrative! Junk!
Date published: 2018-10-25
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalk to Fusion. Perhaps I have not given the audio CD version a fair trial. However. the voice audio is essentially unintelligble (to me). I've changed the equalizer setting on the comptuer and the tone contols on my sound system, to no avail. Perhaps the DVD version is better. I cannot comment on the actual course content, except using the syllabus, so I rated as excellent.
Date published: 2018-09-08
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
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Elements of JAZZ... My husband is currently reviewing, and will be happy to give further feedback later; however, I did want to advise you of this: you included an EXPIRED catalog in the shipment! Hmmmm...
Date published: 2017-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Really Interesting I love music and jazz is one of my favorite categories. This material is very interesting as to how this genre got started.
Date published: 2017-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Now Here's a Music Course! I don't even like Jazz and I loved this course. Messenger delivers a fantastic history of Jazz with perfect skill---no melodrama or annoying jokes. And he gives numerous music examples from recording to his own playing of the piano---which by the way is very nicely done. Often music teachers are very mechanical in their own playing. Prof. Messenger is superb. This is a wonderful course. I took it because a friend of mine is a serious jazz fan and I wanted to be more conversant. After the course, I find myself interested in the genre and willing to put a toe in the water. Look, this is a great course that works perfectly in audio alone. If you have any interest in jazz, give this course a go. And leave me a comment. I'd love your thoughts on the subject.
Date published: 2017-05-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent mix of music and contemporary history I had ignored this course for decades, but when it went on sale during May 2017 I purchased it and was amazed how interesting it is.
Date published: 2017-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Musical History This course takes us down through history in the making of our music. I've enjoyed it very much and love the music. My understanding of it increased greatly.
Date published: 2017-04-18
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Poor Content This course was created early in the Great Courses series. Perhaps as a consequence, the production is rather amateurish - the instructor does not seem very well prepared and there are frequent sounds of music being shuffled, etc. These are minor distractions, however. Unfortunately, I think that there are more serious criticisms. The content of the course is poorly chosen: Professor Messenger seems to believe that the most important elements in the history of jazz are defined by their popularity with the general public rather than by their creative influence. The result is that, from this course, one would conclude that Benny Goodman or Glen Miller were the most important big bands in jazz (Duke Ellington has less coverage than Goodman and Miller while Fletcher Henderson and Count Basie are hardly mentioned). Similarly, according to this course, Frank Sinatra was the most important jazz singer while Ella Fitzgerald is not mentioned. Louis Armstrong rates only a minor passing mention: His superb Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of the 1920s and 1930s are ignored. Professor Messenger demonstrates a number of the musical elements of jazz on the piano. These are helpful and interesting. He also uses special recordings made by studio musicians. These are much less satisfactory because the musicians, although competent, do not measure up to the flair and brilliance of the jazz greats. The course would have been immeasurably improved by including some recordings by the great jazz pioneers: Jazz is individualistic, not formulaic. The Great Courses series certainly needs an excellent course on jazz. Unfortunately, this course does not fill that role.
Date published: 2017-04-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I learned so much Jazz was always a mystery to me, and this course helped me make sense of it. The teacher is very talented, and played great examples of the subject.
Date published: 2017-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I love the course! I recently moved to New Orleans and was wondering about jazz, its history and origin. This course helped me a lot to understand its nature. I was surprised to know that jazz has a big influence on all kind of contemporary music. I love the way the course is presented, as well as beautiful music and the stories behind it. Thank you very much!
Date published: 2017-03-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun! While the music in the course is mostly very familiar, we are hearing it a whole new way. Love the professor and the depth he gives to jazz.
Date published: 2017-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Overview of Jazz This is definitely a course where jazz is the professor's life. What a wonderful course. I bought my nephew, who is into jazz, a copy of the course as well.
Date published: 2016-12-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable I really liked this course . I enjoyed the musical parts (many of which the professor played himself) but I also learned the difference between ragtime and jazz, how they all got their names. Found out I liked some styles of jazz more than other- don't like Fusion at all (who knew?). I still go back and listen to some of the chapters over again. Just because they were so enjoyable.
Date published: 2016-10-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from New I'm a serious classical music buff but this course opened my eyes to a whole new musical adventure. Music has a new dimension now. I've already started collecting cds. As always Great Courses comes through. I've taken dozens of courses and not has a bad one yet..
Date published: 2016-10-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Overview If you want an excellent overview of the evolution of jazz, this is THE source. Bill Messenger brings both knowledge and enthusiasm to this study. I love how he illustrates everything by playing the piano. I only wish he'd have played more boogie woogie licks for me to imitate! The content is not voluminous, but the listener should now be able to explore an area of particular interest. I was surprised to discover that I really do like modern jazz--until it gets too atonal and weird. His tidbits are interesting and memorable. I love his account of a New Orleans funeral and its relationship to jazz. A great course. Don't miss out--get it.
Date published: 2016-09-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very enjoyable I completed the entire course Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion and I loved it. Professor Messenger was both humorous and insightful in his lectures that form a history of Jazz from its roots to the 1990s. I very much enjoyed both the music and the brief snippets of events of the time that added colour to the lectures. Although I found the content very interesting I wish it went on to explain how to appreciate Jazz, listen to it, or understand it. There seem to be numerous genres of Jazz at the moment (2016) from classical swing to fusion to smooth etc.. Some of the modern Jazz sounds, well... confusing to me. I would have liked to hear specific lectures on each modern genre and how they vary and what to listen for. I look look forward to a course on "understanding modern genres of Jazz." Over all, listening to the course was a very entertaining way to travel in my car. I'd recommend it to anyone who is new to Jazz to get a grounding in its history and development.
Date published: 2016-07-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fine course would be even better in DVD format The professor was knowledgable and affable, but it is a shame the course was available only in CD format.
Date published: 2016-06-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding course Purchased this course because I wanted a better understanding of jazz. Got more than I anticipated. Highly recommended for anyone who loves music.
Date published: 2016-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thoroughly enjoyed this course! Decades ago, for my high school senior paper, my topic was jazz. I loved delving into its rich history and evolution up to the sixties, when I graduated. This course took me back to the reasons why I was so drawn to jazz. Professor Bill Messenger's lectures are brilliant, fascinating, filled with musical examples from each period and, well, cool! I played piano years ago; Professor Messenger has inspired me to return to it. I have this course on CD to listen while driving and I'm tempted to purchase it in DVD form just to see his presentations and the several guest performers who have contributed to the richness of the course. I didn't want it to end!
Date published: 2016-04-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loved this Course I got the CD's and thoroughly loved this course. It had the right combination of historical information and delightful music. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys feel-good music.
Date published: 2016-01-23
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