Debussy – The Father of Jazz

So, as y’all know, this year Sforzando is celebrating the life and work of the great Achille-Claude Debussy, who was born, near Paris, 150 years ago. 

We all know Debussy as the genius behind musical Impressionism (though he loathed that particular tag), with its foggy musical imagery, but his influence on jazz and his relationship with its precursors are less well known.  So we give you the (potted) story of how Debussy created jazz.   

As a definable musical genre jazz was born in around 1917 just before Debussy’s death.  In essence it’s a musical language that emerged from west African dance music – with its syncopated rhythms and European popular music  of the early 1900s, amongst other things.

 One of its precursors was ragtime, so-called for its ragged, syncopated rhythms, was invented by Ernest Hogan in the late 19th century and fused African dance music with the marches of John Philip Sousa. 

The cake-walk – a dance parody in which black slaves would mimic the fancy mannerisms of their owners, with the best being awarded a cake – became set to ragtime.  For a decade, from around 1896, America danced the cake-walk.  And exported it.  Black performers, crossed the Atlantic and introduced the cake-walk to high society in London and Paris.  It hardly needs to be said, but this was all, of course, laced with racism as the joke on white slave owners was played back with the white upper classes mimicking the slaves.  I know, I’ve just wet myself too. 

Debussy came across ragtime (probably in around 1900) and was the first classical composer to incorporate it in his music, in the Golliwog’s Cake Walk (1906-1908), which was written for his daughter, Claude-Emma, also called Chou Chou. 

The Golliwog’s Cake Walk is, at one level, a straightforward representation of a golliwog doll (such as the one owned by Chou Chou) clumsily doing and exaggerated dance routine.  But Debussy adds a bit of spice by cleverly parodying the theme from the Prelude to Wagner’s opera, Tristan and Isolde.  

As tensions in Europe emerge before World war I, Debussy is sneering at the stuffy, overbearing Romanticism of Richard Wagner and German culture more broadly.

 Here’s the Golliwog’s Cake Walk and Scott Joplin’s, The Entertainer so you can hear how closely Debussy simulates the ragtime style. 

Debussy repeated the success of the Cake Walk in 1909 with Le Petit Negre and, in 1910, in his piano caricature, General Lavine – Eccentric (from his second book of Preludes) and the Minstrels from his first book of Preludes (which also incorporates fragments of negro spiritual).  Take a butcher’s here. 

Ragtime has a “blue” tinge to it – and this comes across in these piano works, but it isn’t just used in Debussy’s pastiche piano works.  Check the 3rd movement of La Mer, where Debussy anticipates jazz all over the place.  If nowhere else, you’ll hear it at 4.33 and 7.15.

Debussy’s impressionistic idiom was to have a profound influence on the development of jazz, long after he was dead.

 In the same year Debussy published his second book of Preludes, Jean-Baptiste “Django” Rheinhardt was born.  Rheinhardt was brought up in a gypsy settlement just outside Paris and he is credited with inventing “gypsy jazz”, which combines a chromatic, moody flavour with swing.  Much of the repertoire is in minor keys or modal.

 In 1940, Rheinhardt recoded a piece called “Nuages” (“Clouds”) which is regarded as the zenith of gypsy jazz.  Nuages is also a direct nod to Debussy who wrote an orchestral piece of the same name.  Rheinhardt builds on Debussy’s extensive use of whole tone scales and modal harmonies to create a moody, dark atmosphere.

 Here’s Rheinhardt’s Nuages played by the great man himself.

Modern jazz emerged in the 1940s in reaction to the think big-band textures of pre-war swing.  Modern jazz (or bebop) was based on a much more streamlined style and modern jazz musicians began to affiliate themselves with classical music.  Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk embraced dissonance and ambiguous chord structures, building out of earlier strains adopted by Rhenhardt and the like.

 Miles Davis and the classically trained pianist, Bill Evans were part of this trend form the 1940s. 

Just as Debussy had developed a unique French style of musical impressionism as a reaction to heavy-handed German Romanticism, partly by returning to pre-Romantic modal harmonies, Davis wanted to strip back jazz to it essentials.                     

 To his modal techniques, Evans added oblique harmonies based on Debussyian whole tone scales, the extensive use of 6th and 9th chords and the elimination of functional harmony.

 This is Debussy’s bequest to jazz.

 Davis had experimented with modal techniques in his 1957 album, Milestones, but Evans’s addition to Miles’s ensemble led to a new sound in Kind of Blue, released in 1957.  This is the apogee of what is known as impressionistic jazz.

 Kind of Blue has itself had an immense influence, not just on jazz, but on rock and classical music alike .

 Here’s Bill Evans playing Blue in Green from Kind of Blue.  Check the very beginning and very end for pure Debussyian mystique.

Dude, that rocks.

 And that’s the story of how Debussy created jazz.

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One thought on “Debussy – The Father of Jazz

  1. Anarchasis says:

    The father of jazz. Come on, now. Get a hold of yourself, sforzandosalon!

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