THE AMERICAN RAG/”TEXAS SHOUT” REPRINTS
By Tex Wyndham
Set forth below is the twenty-third “Texas Shout” column. The initial installment of a two-part essay, it first appeared in the November 1991 issue of the West Coast Rag, (now Syncopated Times.) The following note was added when the column was reprinted in the late 90s.
In its third paragraph, as I am laying the groundwork for the subsequent discussion, you will read the following: “Both [ragtime and Dixieland jazz] have four beats in each measure (disregarding, for this purpose, questions as to whether those four beats are played with a two-beat feeling or a four-beat feeling).” At least one reader was apparently confused by this sentence — or maybe he didn’t read the rest of the article. Anyway, he fired off a somewhat overheated letter accusing me of all sorts of deficiencies, including being unable to count to two.
Personally, I think the main body of the article makes unmistakably clear my belief, shared by a majority of the informed ragtime community, that, in order for a passage to qualify as ragtime, it must leave the listener with the feeling that it was rendered predominately with a two-beat rhythm (also known as oom-pah, boom-chick, duple rhythm or march time). However, I want to restate this point at the outset in order to ensure that none of you will suffer an attack of apoplexy from reading this reprint.
I not only love both ragtime and Dixieland jazz, but I love both of them equally. Thus, although I’ve followed both for decades, I never saw much need to focus closely on the precise differences between them.
That situation changed when Dick Zimmerman and I were invited to conduct a seminar on ragtime and Dixieland jazz as part of the 1990 West Coast Ragtime Festival in Fresno. I realized that, if I was supposed to be an expert on these musics, at the very least I ought to be able to articulate the unique properties of each.
Both have a number of fairly obvious similarities. Both, for example, use the same kind of basic circle-of-fifths harmonies. Both have four beats in each measure (disregarding, for this purpose, questions as to whether those four beats are played with a two-beat feeling or a four-beat feeling). Both typically use melodic phrases that are either two or four bars long.
Actually, it is not surprising that ragtime and Dixieland use essentially the same musical vocabulary. Both developed during the 1890s out of the same musical sources. Both developed in response to a need, in the saloons, dance halls, gambling rooms and sporting houses of large cities, for functional, outgoing, accessible, danceable music that would put patrons in a mood to spend money on the products offered by the establishment.
In fact, because ragtime and Dixieland have so many similarities, an unsophisticated listener might conclude, on a superficial listening, that they sound the same (if the same instrumentation was used for the comparison). Nevertheless, each is a distinct style of playing. My task was to figure out what is the definitive characteristic (or characteristics) of each style so that I could discuss them intelligently at the seminar.
I started out examining some of the more common generalizations I’ve seen over the years in the literature of ragtime and early jazz. It turned out that a number of them did not stand up to rigorous analysis.
To illustrate: I’ve heard it said that ragtime is supposed to be played as written while Dixieland is supposed to be improvised. While it may be true that ragtime often is played as written while Dixieland often is improvised, this rule of thumb is not sufficient to distinguish the two.
Hot-dance Dixieland, for example, is heavily scored, yet its jazz content is not diminished thereby. Similarly, transcriptions of famous Dixieland performances, if played with the right attack and feeling, are effective and jazzy re-creations of their sources.
By contrast, ragtime is a style of playing that can be applied not just to rags, but to popular songs, classical themes, marches, etc. The early ragtimers freely improvised on such material using the then-new ragtime licks. Indeed, Scott Joplin himself improvised on his own scores, as demonstrated by his surviving hand-played piano rolls. Many ragtimers (including myself) still regularly improvise in the style.
It has often been said that ragtime is primarily a vehicle for solo piano, while Dixieland is oriented toward group playing. Certainly much of ragtime is rendered as piano solos, while Dixieland is most commonly found in band performances. However, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that this generalization doesn’t hold up either.
During the ragtime years, ragtime was played by every conceivable combination of instruments, including military bands, hotel orchestras, and saxophone ensembles. By contrast, any intelligently-compiled list of great Dixieland performances would include quite a few solo recordings, mostly on piano, but probably also including solos by guitar or banjo.
So the written/improvised distinction doesn’t answer the question. Neither does the solo-group distinction. Nor did any of the other common generalizations I explored. I could always find exceptions to them.
By this time in my thought process, I had seemingly covered everything – instrumentation, examination of the published music, whatever. All of the concrete components, and of elements capable of being notated musically, of ragtime could also be found in Dixieland. Nothing that I could lay my hands on told me how to distinguish between them. Yet, the two musics are different. What was left? Having eliminated everything else, I was able to focus more clearly on an elusive and intangible notion that, after reflection, does explain to me the difference between ragtime and Dixieland. Moreover, as the idea began to take shape in my mind, it explained a few other things too, as I’ll set forth below.
The difference, I decided, is entirely in the rhythmic feeling generated by the music. Ragtime gets its excitement in a vertical way, via the interplay of its oom-pah bass line with its constantly syncopated melody. Dixieland gets its rhythmic excitement in a horizontal way, via its distinctive forward-thrusting momentum — the quality referred to when jazzmen say a band is “swinging.”
Once you have this thought in focus, you can fairly easily test the part related to ragtime. If you play a ragtime passage but straighten out the syncopations so that the melody is unsyncopated, it quickly and obviously loses its special rag flavor.
The same thing is true of ragtime’s oom-pah (or two-beat) bass rhythm. Many rags have short passages of suspended rhythm, or of four-beat block chords in the bass line. However, when such devices are employed for more than a few consecutive bars, the music (to my ears at least) starts to sound a lot less raggy. You need the interplay of the syncopated melody and the oom-pah bass to generate the giddy, jingling rhythmic effect that gives ragtime its special excitement.
(Syncopation, for the uninitiated, is the setting of a rhythmic accent in an unexpected place. Doing so elevates the rhythmic excitement of the passage. In ragtime, the effect is most commonly achieved by putting strong melodic emphasis on a normally weak beat or between the beats, or by creating a melody line in which strong accents regularly occur in a manner that is out of phase with the rhythm, e.g., successive figures of three eighth notes against a 4/4 beat.)
There is no single comparable test for “swinging.” You won’t find “swing” in printed scores available to any skilled sight-reader.
Thus, the ragtime-Dixieland difference is not in the construction of the music. The difference results entirely from the way the musician articulates the notes. The jazzman articulates them with that special forward motion described above, while the ragtimer does not.
Wait a minute, one might say. Tex, you’re oversimplifying the situation, because all cohesive music will have a certain forward movement — ragtime, Viennese waltzes, marches, hoedowns, etc. That’s what makes it hang together.
The point is well taken. However, other types of music do not have, as a part of their forward movement, a particular type of urgency in feeling, one that seems almost to grab you and drag you forward. I hear that urgency only in jazz, and believe it is the unique quality that makes jazz “hot.”
Note that I am not saying that jazz needs to be fast or loud to be “hot.” I am saying that it needs to communicate an urgency, a sense of passionate commitment, that is reflected in its rhythmic feeling, and that this element has, for better or worse, come to be referred to by many branches of jazz (especially the older ones) as “hot” playing.
The nature of “hot, swinging” rhythm is not easily captured in words (as anyone who has waded through the above paragraphs will already have discerned). In fact, many better jazz writers than I have wrestled with describing the concept, usually emerging with mixed results at best.
(I have sometimes seen the notion referred to as use of dotted-eighth phrasing or playing with “swing eighths.” While both characterizations are on the right track, neither — for me, at least — fully captures “swinging” in words.)
This difficulty in describing jazz rhythm reflects and explains the fact, one which most jazz fans instinctively understand, that jazz must be heard for its unique qualities to be appreciated. A trained pianist can, without any previous exposure to ragtime, sight-read a ragtime manuscript and achieve a ragged effect. However, even though the first jazzmen must have evolved their music in some spontaneous way from non-jazz sources, it is virtually impossible today for anyone to learn to play jazz without first being able to hear it.
To underscore this point, note that the jazz age did not begin until jazz found its way onto records in 1917. Jazz had been played in New Orleans for some twenty years prior to that time, and a few jazz combos had toured the country. Nevertheless, the boom did not get underway until jazz reached an aural mass medium. Ragtime, on the other hand, had taken the U.S. by storm simply by reaching a written mass medium (published sheet music) in the late 1890s.
In short, having thought my way through the ragtime-Dixieland difference, I wound up essentially where Duke Ellington was decades ago. That is, when you’re talking about jazz, it doesn’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.
Part 2 of this essay may be read here: Texas Shout #24 Dixieland vs. Ragtime Part 2
The full run of “Texas Shout” has been collected into a lavishly illustrated trade paperback entitled Texas Shout: How Dixieland Jazz Works. This book is available @ $20.00 plus $2.95 shipping from Tex Wyndham, P.O. Box 831, Mendenhall, PA 19357, phone (610) 388-6330. On request, Tex will autograph the book and add a personalized note (be sure to tell him to whom the note should be addressed).
Note: All links, pictures, videos or graphics accompanying the Shouts were added at the discretion of the Syncopated Times editorial staff. They did not accompany the original columns and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Tex Wyndham.