Jazz is a physical and aural expression of the complexity and exuberance of American culture and history,
as Jill Flanders Crosby and Michele Moss state.
Jazz dance and music emerged primarily from African-American folk and vernacular music and dance, lending creative inspiration to each other's development. These early dances incorporated improvisation and reflected the power of the community supporting the individual creative voice in a non-literal expression of storytelling and connection to the human experience. The movements were characterized by a weighted release into gravity, a dynamic spine, propulsive rhythms, and a conversational approach to musical accompaniment.
From the 1850s into the twentieth century, the presentational performance opportunities and venues for African-American musicians and dancers increased and such dance troupes like the Whitman Sisters (1900-1943) became incubators of dancing talent. In medicine shows, tent shows, minstrelsy, vaudeville, gillies, and eventually the musical theater stage, movement details of African-American folk and vernacular dances were reemerging in new dances. The Cakewalk, performed to the syncopated rhythms of the emerging ragtime music in the 1890s, was one of the earlier dances that served as an incubator for inventive new steps. In July 1898, Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk opened on Broadway featuring the Cakewalk performed to ragtime music.
Sand dances and early tap dances followed, where the dancer used sand on the floor and metal implements on shoes to create musical sounds and rhythms. African-American vernacular dance became more syncopated, heading toward the swinging dance forms such as the Charleston and Lindy, which would be called early jazz dance.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, professional African American dancers were employed primarily in vaudeville, an idiom that combined the theatrical traditions of variety, minstrelsy, and traveling road shows (that played the role of the "television of that times" as traveling from town to town they performed the same program), and served as a proving ground for young talent. With a few notable exceptions, these performers were prohibited from touring on white vaudeville circuits. Therefore, black vaudeville circuits like the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) developed and promoted black talent and catered to black audiences.
MUSICALLY, in the mid- to late 1800s, two evolutions were occurring that are considered the direct precursors of jazz: the blues and the ragtime. THE BLUES used devices such as blue notes (notes said to fall "somewhere between the cracks of the piano"), slurring, growls, call-and-response, and a loosening of the rhythmic structure of the melody line from direct correspondence with the basic downbeat, the strongest beat fell inside a musical bar. RAGTIME began to deliberately throw syncopations against downbeats as a kind of counterpoint in equal standing with the downbeat.
(materials by Jill Flanders Crosby and Michele Moss; Nadine A. George)