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:
The swing music of the big band era
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 fasion
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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