Stemming from the late-1800’s, dwindling on into the 30s and 40s, and ending with the gospel period, the quartet marked the evolution of black music from stagnant and long tunes to upbeat melodic hits. A Capella groups, comprised of 4 to 6 people introduced bass and a riveting tone that shifted the sound of music for years to come. Quartets during the jubilee period incorporated a number of musical ornamentations such as Blue notes, blended rhythms, and flat 3rds.
Conceptually, quartet and music represented a freedom of expression, expansion of African American collective culture, as well as a shift away from respectability politics.
During the era of quartet genre, several subsections of the genre which marked its evolution into new genres. University quartets consisted of groups of college men and emerged after the American Civil war. Clark Atlanta, Hampton, and Southern University are a few of the many universities which ushered in the beginning of the quartet genre. Groups like the American Missionary Association, founded at Fisk University, played a pivotal role in the framing of the genres renown sound.
Quartet style music was a delineation from the strophic spiritual arrangement style of music with a single melody and different verses. This being said, the Spiritual arrangement still stood. The spiritual arrangement was performed with harmonized ensembles that carried the essence of the spiritual with an innovative twist.
An additional defining feature of the quartet and ragtime musical era were minstrel shows. Though the spearheading of this new genre brought about a new social standing for black Americans by way of commodification, the quartet and ragtime music style being new and unique in its complexities was seen as an anomaly and was thus used as a form of entertainment or white people. This marked the beginning of minstrel shows, cake walks, along with a plethora of other demeaning expressions of black music. This being stated, ragtime music, with its jazzy notes and uniquely rhythmic sound, created a new appreciation for the new sound, branching out int unfortunately improper and racist representations of the genre due to its newness and foreign nature to white society.
Community-based and barbershop quartets display, better than any other subsect of quartet music, the social implications of the genre. The genre brought people together in a way that was not seen before. In this seemingly improvisational style of music, there was freedom in collectivism and the beginning of the celebration of differences. These quartet groups were culturally defined and set apart in their uniqueness. This divide created between white music and black music highlighted its ingenuity even more bringing popular groups such as the Golden Gate Quartet and singers like Jelly Roll Martin, Louis Armstrong, and W.C Handy to the forefront of the musical conversation. This led to the rise of white quartet singers gaining inspiration and creating their own renditions of the sound.
The influence of the spread of this genre is undoubtedly recognizable. Black music stemmed from the church into the secular world and took root -establishing a base for the beginnings of harmonic gospel choirs, RnB beats, and even hip-hop. Quartet style music’s influence absent from the musical realm strips us of the polyrhythmic sounds that we know and love today.
Historically, the quartet has been used for the promotion of war efforts, commercialized products, and radio shows. In doing this the use of the quartet was normalize and effectively integrated into the fabric of American musical culture.
I have a particular appreciation for this genre simply due to the fact that it allowed for both the nuances of black expression and the collective and innate qualities of black people to shine. In doing this, we made our mark on the style of music for