Ralph Ellison once described American culture as "jazz-shaped." He meant that African-Americans have provided the essence of the nation's cultural style: "the sudden turns, the shocks, the swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored, and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing." [David, 2003].
Jazz is said to be the fundamental rhythms of human life and man's contemporary reassessment of his traditional values. Volumes have been written on the origins of jazz based on black American life-styles. The early influences of tribal drums and the development of gospel, blues, and field hollers seems to point out that jazz has to do with human survival and the expression of life. It is a music of extreme intricacy and substance and the series of events that unraveled in order for jazz to become the music it is, are as remarkable as they are myriad. The history of jazz is more than just a record and progression of a musical style, it's also the history of people and of community. Jazz history is replete with contradictory values like racism and liberty, passion and sorrow, freedom of expression and unjust repression. However, in spite of these things, jazz has become the formidable musical form it is today and will continue to be. Duke Ellington put it well when he called jazz a "barometer of freedom.".
The African musical practices that remained a part of the slave culture were superimposed on the dominant white musical culture of Western Europe. The western tradition spanned music as diverse as the songs of Stephen Foster to the operas of Wagner. The popular music of the day had simple harmonies, simple rhythms. The black tradition depended more on oral transmission and was represented by spirituals, work songs, field hollers, and later the blues. At this same time, four million slaves became American citizens.