Music

‘Music of Black Americans’: Honoring Black history through jazz music

SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Not long after Black Americans found themselves freed from the shackles of slavery in the late 19th century, the work songs that echoed among the fields worked by enslaved people morphed into what we now know as jazz and blues.

The history of jazz is long and complex but its impact on modern music and culture can still be felt today according to jazz historians. a new three-part series from Augustana University and the Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues Society is hoping to educate people on the history of jazz music and shine a light on the African American musicians who were essential to shaping the genre.

dr. Peter Folliard, the Dean of the Augustana School of Music, says that the opportunity for the series presented itself after Alex Gilbert-Schrag, Executive Director of Sioux Falls Jazz & Blues (SFJB), brought the idea forward to create a project in partnership with the university’s multimedia entrepreneurship program. Folliard said it made sense to partner together as both the university and SFJB both share a passion for jazz education and performance.

“Augustana is super committed to jazz education both in the classroom and in the rehearsal hall,” Dr. Folliard said.

Jazz and the African-American experience

While it can be difficult to pin the creation of jazz to a specific time and place, Augustana Assistant Professor of Music Dr. Brian Hanegan says that it’s clear that jazz can be traced back to the Mississippi Delta region between 1895 and 1915. Hanegan says that being a port city, New Orleans, Louisiana brought in people from all over the world and that combined with the surplus of brass and percussion instruments left over from the Civil War, made for the perfect ingredients to create jazz.

Part one of the series “Origins of Jazz” focuses on the idea that jazz music is uniquely American. That’s because the music itself is born out of the work songs and field hollers that enslaved people used to sing as they worked plantations and fields. The call and response nature and use of pentatonic scale that was present in the field songs became the base of jazz music as a whole.

Those songs turned into blues and eventually jazz, Hanegan explained.

“The music was expressive and told the stories of the troubles, pain, and everyday life these African Americans were experiencing. The music provided a platform and a voice for African Americans in mainstream society.”

dr. Brian Hanegan, Associate Professor of Music

While jazz originated in the Mississippi Delta, the Great Migration of the mid-20th century saw millions of Black Americans leave the south and settle in northern cities, bringing jazz and blues with them. With the migration, jazz music evolved in style and form while also reaching beyond black audiences.

As big bands become more popular, jazz music reached white audiences, Hanegan said. While segregation was still prevalent at that time, the dance halls allowed for black musicians to gain prominence and upward mobility in the industry.

“There were also white band leaders at the time, like Benny Goodman, who were employing black musicians, because they were the top talent, and speaking out in promotion of ending the color barrier and racial divides in the United States,” Hanegan said.

The video series focuses heavily on the impact Black artists such as Louis Armstrong had on the genre. It even includes a story of Duke Ellington performing in Dell Rapids, South Dakota and the unique connection one local jazz musician has to that historic visit.

While musicians of all races have contributed to jazz music, the genre is uniquely African American according to Dr. folliard.

“Jazz music is a music of Black Americans,” Folliard said.

At a time when Black Americans were facing lynching, segregation, and a deprival of rights granted to other Americans, jazz music provided artists with a place to express themselves. Both Folliard and Hanegan spoke of jazz as being an individualistic expression as part of a composition and for Black Americans, they were able to connect with other people through that art form.

For non-black artists, it extends the invitation to express oneself through jazz music.

“There’s an opportunity within that to take historical context and perform it with that awareness but then also, gosh I can’t help myself, being a creator, to have my own influence and voice in that,” Folliard said.

Being a collaborative art form, Folliard said that you can see black and white artists working with and learning from each other as they push the genre forward and even into new areas of music like rock-and-roll, soul, and pop.

“This is also when we start to see integration instead of segregation, is first on the stage. Oh if it can exist with music, maybe it can exist in the dance halls…. That’s where the beautiful blending of culture starts to happen.”

dr. Peter Folliard, Dean of Augustana School of Music

While jazz music remains its own genre of music that is still evolving today, the fundamentals of jazz music have informed the music we listen to today, according to Folliard. From electric instruments to harmony, Folliard says that influenced music as far back as the 1920s.

“Jazz extended our harmonic palette. That influenced rock and pop music, that influenced classical music,” Folliard said.

when dr. Folliard moved to Sioux Falls in 2017, he said there wasn’t much of a live jazz music scene beyond college and high school performances. But in the 5 years since he arrived, he’s seen that scene grow tremendously.

From live jazz performances at the Levitt in the summer, to weekly jazz nights at R Wine Bar & Kitchen, Folliard and Hanegan are happy to see local businesses provide jazz musicians the opportunity to perform, and audiences the chance to experience that music live.

“There’s clearly a support and love of jazz here and I think it will continue to grow as long as we have people to curate it and people to come listen,” Folliard said. “Without jazz music, I don’t wanna be here.”

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