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Ragtime and blues fused 'All That Jazz'

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By Laura Szepesi
Sunday, March 17, 2013, 7:09 p.m.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Thursday marks the 85th birthday of well-known Connellsville jazz trombonist Harold Betters. We salute him with this four-part series, starting today with a brief history of jazz music.

In 1979, actor Roy Scheider brought the life of Broadway dancer / director Bob Fosse to the big screen in the film “All That Jazz.”

“All” is the perfect way to describe jazz music.

Jazz was born around 1900 in New Orleans — about the same time as the earliest music recordings became available to the public. It grew out of ragtime, which many sources claim is the first true American music.

Like jazz, ragtime has Southern roots, but was also flavored by the southern Midwest. It was popular from the late 1800s to around 1920. It developed in African American communities, a mix of march music (from composers such as John Philip Sousa), black songs and dances including the cakewalk.

Ragtime: Dance on

Eventually, ragtime spread across the United States via printed sheet music, but its roots were as live dance music in the red light districts of large cities such as St. Louis and New Orleans. Ernest Hogan is considered ragtime's father. He named it ragtime because of the music's lively ragged syncopation.

Ragtime faded as jazz's following grew. However, composers enjoyed major success in ragtime's early years. Scott Joplin's 1899 “Maple Leaf Rag” was a hit, as was his “The Entertainer,” which was resurrected as a Top 5 hit when it was featured in the 1974 movie “The Sting” starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

Born of ragtime, jazz was also heavily influenced by the blues. Blues originated in the late 1800s, but in the deep South. It is an amalgam of Negro spirituals, work songs, shouts, chants and narrative lyrics.

Fused with blues

Like jazz, the blues comes in many forms: delta, piedmont, jump and Chicago blues. Its popularity grew after World War II when electric guitars — rather than acoustic guitars — became popular. By the early 1970s, blues had formed another hybrid: blues rock.

While ragtime is jangly and spirited, the blues takes after its name: blue, or melancholy. Its name is traced to 1912 when Hart Ward copyrighted the first blues song, “Dallas Blues.”

Jazz — as a mix of ragtime and blues — has fused into many styles since its emergence.

In the 1910s, New Orleans jazz was the first to take off. In the 1930s and 1940s, Big Band swing, Kansas City jazz and bebop prevailed. Other forms include cool jazz and jazz rock; today, there's even cyber jazz.

Jazz: Always changing

The late jazz trombone player J.J. Johnson summed jazz up as restless. “It won't stay put ... and never will,” he was quoted as saying, according to various sources.

Johnson's sentiment is heartily endorsed by Connellsville jazz trombonist Harold Betters. Betters turns 85 years old this week. He will share decades of his memories about music and growing up in Connellsville as his March 21 birthday approaches.

Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.

Tuesday: Just how did Harold Betters decide to play the trombone?



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