The African Origins of Jazz

In his brilliant 1968 analytical book on jazz, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (Oxford University Press) author Gunther Schuller makes a very strong case for jazz’s African origins, writing that “the analytic study in this chapter [Chapter 1, pages 3-62] shows that every musical element – rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and the basic forms of jazz – is essentially African in background and derivation.” This article is an examination of those musical elements and of the rationale for that statement.

Schuller’s conclusions are based on the writings of ethnomusicologist Arthur Morris Jones in his 1956 two volume analysis of African music, called Studies in African Music, and on Winthrop Sargeant’s pioneering analytical study of jazz called Jazz: Hot and Hybrid, Da Capo Press, 1975, 3rd Edition, enlarged.


Polyrhythms, two or more different rhythms occurring at the same time, may be found in both European folk music and concert music, but the African polyrhythmic tradition is thought to be much stronger than that of the European as an influence in jazz.

Schuller writes that African music is not only contrapuntal (two or more lines sounded simultaneously), but is:

  1. polymetric – the occurrence of two or more meters simultaneously; and
  2. polyrhythmic – the sounding of two or more independent rhythms simultaneously.

By contrast, European music has primarily been:

  1. monometric – one meter at a time; and
  2. monorhythmic – one rhythm at a time.

An extraordinary number of examples of polyrhythms in jazz and jazz inflected music can be cited. For one, consider the cross rhythm (the overlaying of one rhythmic pattern over another) in a typical measure of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag:

In the right hand, the rhythmic accentuation of the melody is:

1   2   3   1   2   3   1   2

In the left hand, the basic pulse in each bar is:

1       &        2       &

Schuller also writes about Jones making the interesting point that African phrases “are built up of the numbers 2 and 3 or a combination of 2 and 3”, and that this ragtime rhythm again demonstrates the African American’s urge to combine two rhythms simultaneously within the European (i.e., white man’s) musical framework.

Schuller writes: “The African slave’s adjustment to the white man’s music consisted precisely of translating these polymetric and polyrhythmic points of emphasis into the monometric and monorhythmic structures of European music. Syncopation, preceding or following the main beats, was the American Negro’s only workable compromise. It left the Negro with a vestige of his love for cross-rhythms and cross-accentuation; at the same time it enabled him to carry on the tradition within the white man’s musical structures.”

The European rhythmic concept of polyrhythm generally involves two or more simultaneous rhythms that ordinarily feature vertical coincidence at phrase beginnings and endings, as well as at other focal points in the music; whereas the African rhythmic concept of polyrhythm does not ordinarily feature such vertical coincidence. Examine virtually any European orchestral score and you’ll notice that the bar lines are in vertical alignment on the page. Remember that one of the principal functions of the bar line is to let musicians know the location of beat one. In the example below, of the woodwind, brass and timpani parts alone of the orchestral score of Manuel da Falla’s El Amor Brujo, all orchestral parts experience beat one simultaneously.

By contrast, the African approach to rhythm may be seen and heard in African drumming, where drummers may play lengthy and extended cross rhythms whose downbeats seldom coincide. Try to score an African dance – say the Nyayito Dance, a Ghana funeral dance – and you’ll see that rarely does such a vertical coincidence of bar lines occur.

Example: Nyayito Dance, measures 38-39 – (from p. 12 of Early Jazz.)


Apart from the use of accents, syncopation was an effective way for early-jazz black musicians to emphasize weak beats within the European musical notational system. Syncopation allowed them to express their natural tendency for rhythmic democratization, and to accent against the beat. Schuller also points to their custom of clapping on a bar’s weak beats as an example of their affinity for polyrhythmic organization.

Call and Response

African music is essentially antiphonal – that is, responsorial – as in call and response, a musical pattern that characterizes much of African music, usually manifested by the group responding to the leader or soloist, as may be heard in the religious services of Baptist churches, as well as in vocal blues, where each two-bar line of sung text – the “call” – is followed by a two-bar instrumental “response”.

Mark Gridley in his outstanding jazz history textbook Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 9th Edition (Pearson Prentice Hall), makes the point that what distinguishes call and response as a strongly African based source, as opposed to music from elsewhere, is what he refers to as “overlapping call and response”, where the response begins before the call ends, thus creating rhythmic conflict.

To hear call and response in a purely instrumental jazz context, listen to the opening of Miles Davis’s recording of the dorian-mode song So What on his album Kind of Blue. After a brief introduction, one can hear each bass “call” answered by the “response” of piano chords playing the following rhythm:


Schuller states that repetition is an African based characteristic, and that an important aspect of African songs and dances is repetitiousness. This corresponds to the repetitiveness of the riff/ostinato (the constant repetition of a short musical phrase) in jazz performance, such as may be heard in pianists’ left hand boogie-woogie patterns, in drummers’ ride rhythms, and in riff-based songs such as Count Basie’s Jumpin’ At The Woodside, to name but a few examples.

Blue Notes

In Winthrop Sargeant’s book Jazz: Hot and Hybrid, in his chapters on the scalar structure of jazz and the derivation of the blues, he makes the case that the blues scale, with its blue notes (lowered 3rd and 7th of the major scale), are derived primarily from African sources; and, as author Schuller points out, “from the quartal and quintal harmonies of African singing and from the tendency of African melodies to shift around a central tone.” Notwithstanding the above, however, Gridley states that the decoration of tones, such as pitch bending, originated in European classical, operas and folk music as well as in West African musical practices.

Incidentally, the lowered 5th was a new blue note created later on, during the bebop era of jazz in the 1940’s. This note, with its tritone (three whole-steps) relationship to the tonic tone of the major scale – Fb in the key of Bb, for example – was just the touch of abstraction so eagerly sought after by bop musicians in their performances. (In fact, Dizzy Gillespie’s and Charlie Parker’s famous recording of Shaw ‘Nuff even ends with the tritone pitch, the most unstable pitch of all.)

Open Tone and  Natural Quality

Important characteristics of jazz vocal and instrumental performance, “traceable directly to African singing and indirectly to African speech and language” – according to Schuller – are an open tone and natural quality, compared to the cultivated and trained sound of singers and instrumentalists in the European classical music tradition. A good example of this open tone and natural quality in jazz may be heard in the singing of Louis Armstrong.


Have you ever noticed that players of the various string choirs in a symphony orchestra always move their bows in the same direction at the same time? The purpose is to achieve uniformity of phrasing and sound. By contrast, jazz musicians prize individuality. Other than in big band section playing, where blending in with the other section players is an important goal, it is one’s ability to stand out from the crowd, so to speak, that is the surer path to success and fame in jazz. What is the connection to African sources? Subjugation to the group or to a composer’s style is not a feature of African musical performance, while individuality is an African musical characteristic adopted by jazz musicians.

Collective Improvisation

Improvisation is an essential component of jazz.  There are precedents for solo improvisation in much folk and popular music and in the European classical tradition of Baroque figured bass and in concerto cadenzas, to cite only a few examples, but there are no known precedents for the collective improvisation of early small combo Dixieland jazz performance and its simultaneous improvisation of several musical lines, except for the fact that collective improvisation has long been a strong feature of African music.


Sliding into notes from above or below, called portamento, is a prominent jazz characteristic related to the natural quality heard in African singing, and may also be heard often in jazz performance. For excellent examples of portamento in jazz, listen to Bessie Smith singing St. Louis Blues (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz), and to soprano saxophonist/clarinetist Sidney Bechet’s recording of Blue Horizon (SCCJ).

End Note

Throughout jazz’s relatively short history, jazz musicians have adopted certain influences, forms, musical instruments, and the concept of chord progressions from the European musical tradition. However, the strongest musical traditions from which jazz emerged in America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s are believed by many jazz scholars and historians to be mostly of African origin. For a convincing and detailed analysis of jazz’s African origins, read Gunther Schuller’s essential volume, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development.

Lee Evans, Ed.D., is professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. In addition to his extensive list of Hal Leonard publications, his solo-piano books for The FJH Music Company include the late beginner/early intermediate level Color Me Jazz, Books 1 and 2; the intermediate/upper intermediate level Ole! Original Latin-American Dance Music and Fiesta! Original Latin-American Piano Solos. Also, along with four co-authors including Dr. James Lyke, Dr. Evans is author/composer/arranger of the just published Keyboard Fundamentals, 6th Edition (Stipes Publishing), formerly a two but now one-volume beginning level piano method for adult beginners of junior high age and older.

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