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Jazz and Blues Feedback to Jamaica
Alison Wadsworth


Music seems to mimic time in a way. As the human race passes through history, the music and its language acts in essence as a speculum of human culture and its path, lavish with its longings, its grief, but always stirring (Santoro, 2). In this paper, I will walk down this path, and show the significance music has played on the Jamaican and American cultures. This paper will illustrate the profound influence that American music, primarily jazz and blues, had on Jamaican reggae, and by breaking down each type of music to a simple rhythm, I will show the relationships between them.

If asked about the origins of Jamaican folk culture, some people might answer that it originated in Africa and remained undisturbed by other cultures (such as Europe). Even though Jamaicans are mostly of African descent, Jamaica’s only language in none other that English (Chang and Chen, 10).

Whether the race or language influenced Jamaica’s culture, has been a question of long debate. Professor Rex Nettleford, a noted social commentator, sees the language of a nation as ‘the primary bearer of social genes.’ Professor Nettleford answers the question by explaining the Jamaican experience:

Africa is indeed tolerated in spurts of sycretised or reinterpreted folk-lore — a little bit of dance, a little bit of music, a little bit of story telling, and a few words lacing the Anglo-Saxon tongue with exotic tones and colour. But our formal education system, our accepted belief system, our art, law and morals, the legitimate customs and so many of our habits and perceived capabilities — all indicate of a so-called cultural sense are dominated by the European heritage (Chang and Chen, 10).

The entire argument is conclusive and evident in most points, except the ‘little bit of [African] music,’ which is questionable. The roots of reggae music has been said to be fixed in slavery. The Rhythms, songs, and dances that survived well into the twentieth century in rural Jamaica are seen as solely African (Davis and Simon, 9).

During the middle of the seventeenth century, Jamaica was basically a giant agricultural factory, used by a few British planters. The plantations worked by slaves imported from Africa made tremendous amounts of money, but the planters gleaned all the profits. Over the next 250 years when slavery was active, about thirty million Africans were brought to the New World, and is known as the largest forced migration in all of human history (Davis and Simon, 9).

A style of music combining the rhythm of Africa and the melody of Europe (which must lead to the confusion of language or race influence debates) formed quadrille. An early connection between American and Jamaican music can be seen through quadrille which is said to have originated like ‘bluegrass music’ in America. Black country ensembles tried to reproduce the European dance music in the mid-nineteenth century such as the French polka, the Scottish reel, the waltz and the polka (Chang and Chen, 12).

Later in the nineteenth century and up to the 1930’s, a popular rural music was called mento that was a narration of the wild calypso of Trinidad. Compared to calypso, which was an ‘exact science, a sophisticated vehicle for social comment,’ mento was ‘often crude and dirty, so lewd in fact, that the church in Jamaica kept some of the best mento recordings from being sold except under the counter (Davis and Simon, 12).’ Mento is now seen as ‘country’ music with a churlish, unsophisticated, rustic innocence that heeded back to the days of lost. Mento was a blend of music and dance, mixing narrative and topical commentary. The clear, strong fourth beat (as if appearing in a bar of four beats) was customary to mento, and the beats closely resembled the local speech patterns of rural Jamaica (Chang and Chen, 14).

With industrialization, the island changed from an agriculturally oriented culture to a roaring urbanized society (Davis and Simon, 14). Mento lingered as a rural significance in Jamaica until the 1950’s when the declining interest of mento followed the population shifts from the villages to the city. Another correlation between American and Jamaican music is seen by the view of mento by the young migrants that shifted to the cities, like Kingston, and perceived mento as a reminder of the brutal hardships of farm life. A similarity can be seen by the feeling towards the delta blues among American blacks that ‘migrated’ from the rural South to northern cities, like Chicago in the 1950’s (Chang and Chen, 14).

With the dissatisfaction of mento, the urban populace of Jamaica turned to the Black-American rhythm and blues, big band swing and jazz. Although many people enjoyed the big band music, most dance halls and performances were closed off to the upper and upper middle class citizens. The rest of the inhabitants (which made up most of the population) were excluded from such events. Out of all the other types of music, Big Band music had the least effect on the development of reggae, except as practice for the musicians (Chang and Chen, 15-16).

Along with Big Band, jazz events were excluded to higher-class citizens. Even though not many people could enjoy such happenings, the few who could had the largest impact on the music scene, such as Coxsone Dodd and most of the studio musicians who played on the early Jamaican records. Even though the jazz musicians and their fans were limited, jazz had an extremely large impact on ska. For example, ‘Music is my Occupation’ and ‘Eastern Standard Time’ by the Skatalites is even considered to be ‘danceable jazz (Chang and Chen, 17).’

After industrialization and the migration to the cities, the transistor radio was introduced to Jamaica. Many Jamaicans had been paying close attention to the broadcasts that came out of New Orleans and Miami (Davis and Simon, 13). Radio changed the overall music of Jamaica. The shortwave radio station ZQI started playing BBC relays, unfortunately the station only broadcasted for a few hours a day and the signals could not be heard after dark. But the first commercial broadcasting company in 1950, Radio Jamaica and Rediffusion attracted an audience of about fifty percent of the population over nine years old (Chang and Chen, 17).

With the arrival of the sounds of Fats Domino, James Brown, Otis Redding, Brook Benton and Ray Charles, the music was analyzed, taken apart, joked about and put together again. When jazz, blues, and R&B was played, it was usually speeded up by local musicians, who grew up with a scattered pace of mento. Over time American R&B and soul music became the leading music of the Caribbean (Davis and Simon, 13).

The rise of American music in Jamaica helped to bring about the notorious "sound systems." The Jamaican radio was controlled by the government and was then seen as far too conservative for the people and the black blues that the Jamaicans wanted to hear (Davis and Simon, 13-14). Programming did not reflect the preferences of the population, and people continued to complain that the radio stations did not play what the public really wanted (Chang and Chen, 18). R&B records were hard to come by, led alone good records, and far too expensive for most Jamaicans (Davis and Simon, 14). So, the "sound systems" came into play.

Sound systems were a crucial development for Jamaican music. Some Jamaican musicians used the American music as an example by turning rocks back beat around to fit the way Jamaicans heard and using Fats Domino’s shuffles as a model. Jamaicans reinvented the sound because they didn’t know or ignored the rules about mixing it. In Jamaican music the heavy bass bottoms mimic certain ceremonial rasta drums is partly due to the way American music boomed over the Jamaican sound systems (Santoro, 154).

Mysteriously, by the early 1960’s, the major R&B and pop movement in America ‘fizzled and died.’ The sound systems in Jamaica had been dependent on these American dance records for jobs and in order to keep the Jamaicans dancing. This drop in American music led directly to the beginnings of Reggae (Davis and Simon, 14).

At this time, Rock and Roll was starting to emerge from R&B. The local Jamaican musicians had come up with something new. As a result listening to and trying to play R&B on records broadcasted from radio stations in Miami and New Orleans a new music was developed (Shaw, 266-267). The sound system men grew frustrated with the lack of American music and were forced to turn to local Jamaican music (Davis and Simon, 14). Using fast R&B as their music’s basis they cut out half the shuffle leaving an abrupt series of off beats. They called it ska and quickly took off in the dance halls of Jamaica (Salter, 525).

The word ska is said to have come from skat, ‘an onomatopoetic simulation of the scratching guitar sound made on the Ska disks. Ska bands adapted Jazz riffs and played in a chug-a-lug tempo (Shaw, 266-267). The bands used some of the same line-up as R&B groups with a piano, electric guitar, drums and a couple brass instruments. Most of these musicians came from a jazz background, when swing bands were popular during wartime, helping them to solo and improvise at will (Salter, 525).

Jamaica became an independent nation in 1962 and everyone was filled with extreme hope and optimism as it is heard in the bright up-tempo ska tunes. People fled to the cities to seek work, money, and better life. Though some may have found it, thousands never did. These people settled in fast growing ghettos like Trenchtown which were filled with the unemployed and the abused who became known as the notorious rude boys. The rude boys proclaimed their discontentment and earned a reputation for relentlessly defending their side of town (Salter, 525).

The last years of ska reflected the dismal and drab mood of the rude boys. But what followed ska was the style known as rock steady, which became the rude boys sound. With the rock steady beat, the rude boys sang about their problems, fears and their ‘rude’ attitude (Salter, 525).

Rock steady was rooted in American Soul music like ska was derived from American R&B. With the influence of James Brown, ska’s chug-a-lug tempo became more upbeat. The jazzy horn lines found in ska became less important while the bass grew more prominent and the rhythm guitar played a steady offbeat rhythm (Shaw, 267). Rock steady became a perfect opportunity to express some tender emotions as well. Large number of love songs came about, using sensuous American soul tunes as their inspiration (Salter, 526).

Around 1968 the dance that replaced rock steady was called reggae (Davis and Simon, 17). The origin of the word reggae is like the word jazz, is almost a complete mystery. Hux Brown, a Jamaican guitarist, once said "it is a description of the beat itself, it is just a fun joke kinda word that means the ragged rhythm and the body feeling. (Shaw, 266)"

Toots Hibbert, lead singer of the Maytals, was asked what he felt ‘reggae’ meant and his answer is as satisfactory a definition of reggae you are likely to get, "Reggae means comin’ from the people, y’know? Like a everyday thing. Like from the ghetto. From majority. Everyday thing that people use like food, we just put music to it and make a dance out of it. Reggae mean regular people who are suffering, and don’t have what they want (Davis and Simon, 17)."

The reggae sound was slower than rock steady but even more powerful due to the importance of the bass and the prevailing melodic drive of most songs. The lyrics incorporated social, political and spiritual concepts and the reggae musicians became Jamaica’s profits, social commentators, and shamans (Davis and Simon, 17).

Robert Nesta Marley, who became the king of reggae and a mythical figure in his short lived life time, recorded his first disc, a solo version of his song "Judge Not (Unless You Judge Yourself)" in 1961 (Shaw, 267). He was the son of a white Englishman and a black Jamaican, therefore, personified a cross cultural energy that began in the 1950’s (Santoro, 151). Marley was raised in a ghetto slum in the section of Kingston called Trenchtown which was substantial to his early hits, and the time he spent in the ghettos are immortalized in his rude boy songs (Salter, 529).

Like many of the other teen islanders, Marley was also transfixed by the R&B sounds wafted over the radio. In 1962 he formed his first band, the Wailing Rudeboys which later became the Wailing Wailers, which he formed with neighbors, Neville Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer) and Peter McIntosh (Peter Tosh). The group was a sweet voiced harmony group that followed the doowop and soul music of American greats like The Impressions (Santoro, 151).

"Marley’s voice was broad-reaching in it’s possibilities, evoking both sentimental nostalgia and bitter rage, often in the same song (Davis and Simon, 33)." Bob Marley has come to symbolize reggae more than any other reggae artist in most people’s minds. "His international presence is huge. The Wailers are the preeminent reggae group and yet–or perhaps precisely because–they are unlike any other group. They were in fact the melding of three groups (Foster, 61)."

Not only did Bob Marley reach out and inspire the people of Jamaica; he had a tremendous impact on the world. "Politics is what we do to one another; culture is how we talk to one another. Whenever the two rub is the frission of hope. Marley articulated hopes that reached from Jamaica to the U.S. and Europe, from Africa to the Pacific Rim (Santoro, 156)."

To be able to compare jazz, blues, and reggae, one must first consider the fundamental backbone of music. It is the technique, the dynamics, the sound tones, the texture, and the rhythmic variations of each different style of music that help to identify their ‘essential rhythmic characters’ (Johnson and Chernoff, 55). The rhythm is actually a single line, but the ‘beat’ is the combination of several rhythms and dynamics combined together. Therefore, in order to determine a certain style, the rhythm must contain other supporting rhythms (Johnson and Chernoff, 56).

Fundamentally, all these styles are related, which can act as a sign of unity between all cultures and societies. In most cases, many different styles seem to form together to create the new style. A style of music may vary from song to song, but still manage to remain in the given style. It is this that can show the constant change and evolution of styles. Advanced communication has led to influences from other nations that contribute to each style, changing beats and the initial sounds (Johnson and Chernoff, 56).

Jazz, blues, and reggae music all follow a basic music pattern that can be played in either duple or triple meter (Johnson and Chernoff, 67). Beats tend to be grouped into patterns that are consistent throughout a passage, which is otherwise known as a measure, and this pattern is called the meter. It is the number of beats in the measure that are referred to as duple and triple meter (Kostka and Payne, 29). Therefore, reggae, jazz and blues can be found using a duple meter with a two-beat measure, or a triple meter with a three-beat measure.

Reggae has many forms of rhythms. The most well known and basic reggae beat can be described as an offbeat guitar scratching that drops around the third beat of a measure (or the second or fourth depending on the meter). In reggae rhythms, the downbeat is very well defined (Johnson and Chernoff, 70). One influence on reggae is seen through a Rastafarian drumming style, known as ‘nyabingi.’ Nyabingi can be determined by doubled eighth notes on the first and third beats, and has been said to sound as if the drum is saying, "Jah-Jah" (Johnson and Chernoff, 71).

Another common style played by reggae musicians is the mambo, and the percussionists steer away from the straight rhythmic lines, creating ‘frills and fills’ (Johnson and Chernoff, 70). The mambo also became popular among jazz musicians during the bop period, but compared to a reggae version, would be played a little faster (Johnson and Chernoff, 72). A mambo looks like a basic rumba beat (the emphasis is placed on the off-beat with two open tones, and often played in triple meter) that has been doubled with the addition of a sharp, high pitched tone, or a ‘slap.’ When this typical Latin rhythm is being played, one can mostly hear the two open tones and the slap. The mambo is very steady and played with a sharp staccato attack (Johnson and Chernoff, 69).

Jazz music is well known as a style that encompasses many rhythmic styles, and even though it is hard to generalize about rhythms in jazz music, it typically uses a triple-meter mambo rhythm within blues or rhythm and blues treatments (Johnson and Chernoff, 72).

A basic Afro-Cuban rhythm used frequently in jazz music, cabilto is an example of the basic triple meter rhythm, and in jazz is commonly referred to simply as "six-eight." The rhythm in blues music does not turn around like cabilto does, and generally has a consistent feeling of three-against-two (Johnson and Chernoff, 72).

With a look at the technical side of the music, it is safe to say that reggae, jazz, and blues are all inter-twined with one another. By breaking down a type of music to a simple beat, it becomes easier to see where blues is used in reggae or when a Latin beat is used in both a jazz and reggae song.

In writing this paper I have not only traced the roots of jazz and blues in reggae music, I have expanded my own knowledge of music and strangely enough, convinced myself to stay in school.

Music has been my passion for the first two decades on the great lifeline, and something tells me that it will remain so. I have imagined myself in several different professions throughout this time, from Broadway star to Opera singer to Rock Star to Country-Western singer to Concert pianist to Jazz singer. As a second semester music major at UVM, I seemed to have had a clear vision of myself belting my heart out in a red sequin dress, leaning back on a grand piano with a cloud of smoke hovering around me in a small village jazz club.

Last week I had my bags packed, a bus ticket to New York City, and a romantic vision that almost forced me to throw out an entire year’s work and potentially my whole future. A phone call to my mother and a few days of convincing helped me to change my mind.

Even though I still want to pursue this dream, it took my mother and several close friends to help me realize that college is exactly what I need right now, especially for my indecisive nature. There’s no guarantee that I will make it in the business or that I will still enjoy the crazy lifestyle in five years. With only three weeks left, I convinced myself to suck it up and deal with the consequences in my classes, as they would result from my untimely need to ‘grow up.’

I spent over a month researching for this paper, considering this wasn’t the easiest topic to find information confirming the influence of jazz and blues. Originally, I chose jazz and blues because of my love for the music. Even though I spent a good amount of time kicking myself for not picking an easier topic, I can honestly say that this paper was one inspiring factor that helped me to stay.

I am well aware of the fact that this is ‘just a paper,’ and maybe it wouldn’t have had an effect on me had I taken this class at a different time, perhaps it was because of the timing. All I know is that reading more than I ever had to about jazz helped me to formulate the crazy idea to drop everything and become a jazz singer. And coming back to reality and this paper showed me the incredible power that an education has on a person. Maybe I had been blind to all physical existence the past nineteen years, but I must say, "Better late than never."



Chang, Kevin O’Brien and Wayne Chen. Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers, 1998.

Chernoff, John M. and Hafiz Shabazz Farel Johnson. "Basic Conga Drum Rhythms in African-American Musical Styles." Black Music Research Journal. 11.1. (Spring 1991): 55-73.

Collins, Edmund John. "Jazz Feedback to Africa." American Music. 5.2. (Summer 1987): 176-189.

Davis, Stephen and Peter Simon. Reggae Bloodlines: In Search of the Music and Culture of Jamaica. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1992.

Foster, Chuck. Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall. New York: Billborad Book, 1999.

Kostka, Stefan and Dorothy Payne. Tonal Harmony: With and Introduction to Twentieth-Century Music. USA: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2000.

Salter, Greg. "The Loudest Island in the World." World Music: The Rough Guide. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1994.

Santoro, Gene. Stir it up: Musical Mixes from Roots to Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1997.

Shaw, Arnold. Black Popular Music in America. New York: Shirmer Books, 1986.

Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans; A History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1997.