The musical link between 20th Century Jazz and works of Claude Debussy and how they influenced each other

The 20th century introduced many forms of experimental and innovative styles and genres of music because of the change in times and culture that musicians experienced over the course of time. One of the relatively new styles that was introduced is known as Jazz ragtime, a syncopated form of jazz which grew in popularity immensely during the early 1900s, originating in America.  Ragtime was mainly composed for the piano usually in the form of 2/4 beats per bar with the treble acting as the lead and the bass standing as the rhythm. It is usually presented in 3 to 4 sections which are very different from each other. Although its origins are in the Americas, it instantly became popularized in Europe as well.

Some of the most famous Jazz artists of this kind are Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Bill Evans. During this time in Europe, countries such as Austria, France and Germany were still highly involved in the arts of classical music with composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Claude Debussy basing a majority of their compositions on inspirations from classical composers such as Wagnar and Mozart.

Because of its time being in the 20th century yet still being majorly inspired by the classical period, this form of classical music is now known today as ‘Neoclassicism’. Considering how it is largely based on the classical period, it would only be natural to include the same usual elements in compositions such as 4 movement symphonies as well as usually being in 4/4 time in the first movement, 2/4 in the 2nd, ¾ in the 3rd and 4/4 in the fourth. Although these do not define all compositions of this genre, this is just in traditional standards.

While early Jazz mainly consisted of following the chord progression and keeping a steady rhythm, ragtime changed things up by creating a modal type of Jazz. Constantly changing the mode or key of the music and not following any sort of chord progression and rather the melody which was usually played through improvisation. Neoclassical on the other hand is very traditional and follows a very planned out structure of chord progression and keeps everything steady at all times. Therefore, when considering this, it does not seem likely that Neoclassical and Jazz would influence each other in anyway whatsoever. However, that changed when Claude Debussy decided to stray from his usual attempts of Wagner-inspired compositions and attempt something much more experimental.

The influence of Ragtime on Debussy

Claude Debussy most likely grew fond of the ragtime style when the famous ragtime artist known as John Philip Sousa came to France along with his band to perform in an exhibition taking place in Paris During 1900. Although, this would not be justifiable until eight years later in 1908 when Debussy released his first composition based on a unique kind of musical impressionism, known as ‘Golliwogs Cakewalk’. A ‘golliwog’ is a ragdoll based on a black person which became very popular around that time while a ‘cakewalk’ is a form of competitive dance where the person who performed the most elaborated steps won the prize or ‘took the cake’. This music can definitely be considered to be ragtime as well as being possible to compare to other well known ragtime pieces.

Analysis of Debussy’s ‘Golliwog Cakewalk’ compared to a similar ragtime piece

Golliwog’s cakewalk is a musical ragtime piece which was compiled in an album called ‘Children’s corner’ which consisted of a series of songs dedicated to children and especially Debussy’s daughter. Created to mainly be played on the piano, it is meant to portray the joyful and happy feeling of the act of a child playing with toys or dolls. It is Debussy’s earliest work that changed his status from mainly a neoclassical composer to a musical impressionist.

Golliwog’s Cakewalk By Claude Debussy

The Entertainer By Scott Joplin

The structure of Golliwog Cakewalk is simplistic with only 3 sections of A B A which is also known as ternary form. While many ragtime pieces were structured in a similar format to this which range from A B A to A B A C and even at times A B C D, Golliwog keeps it simple which can be compared to the famous ragtime piece known as ‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin which is structured in A B A with an added concluding section of C. This section can be considered to be in definitive ragtime because of its syncopated flow in 2/4 that suits a dance quite well. This can be justified by the similar 2/4 time signature in ‘The Entertainer’ as well as both being syncopated (Hemiola). What is also noteworthy is how the speed of both pieces are moderately fast (Allegro Giuisto), and both have a homophonic texture.

The tonality of the Debussy’s piece is almost indistinguishable due to its ragtime similarities through harmony, mainly being modal in it’s key. This is of course, one of the fundamentals in common ragtime pieces where the harmony follows the melody rather than vice-versa. In ‘The Entertainer’ it can at first be easy to mistaken the harmony of the piece because of its first 2 bars following a certain structure of harmony, although this definitely changes when it reaches it’s second section where some model elements can be heard, therefore a clear similarity of this can be heard in both.

The dynamics in Golliwog generally alter at certain times from piano to fortissimo,  this can be heard at the time 1:40 in the video displayed above, dynamics change to piano and then later on at 1:45, they suddenly burst back into fortissimo. It is clearly evident between bars 14-26 especially during measure 16 where a crescendo is apparent.

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A similar frequent change in dynamics can also be heard in ‘The Entertainer’ particularly through bars 37 to 47 as visible in the image of the sheet music below.

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Golliwog’s entire first section consists of two themes played alternatively over the course of 8 bars, although both themes do change into different variations of the original themes the second time they are played. The last 6 bars of the section are used as a transition to section B. Alternating between two main themes is also a very similar trait to ‘The Entertainer’ as it does in fact employ this technique as well as variate them over time.

In the development section of Golliwog, the chord progression is altered into an almost unpredictable pattern as it introduces 2 new themes with the first one playing over 14 bars and the second one over the next 12 measures, the section is then concluded with 17 more bars which accompany a variation of the 2nd new melody. The influence of Wagner on Debussy is definitely present in the main theme during measure 61, in fact it is taken from Wagner’s piece known as ‘Tristran and Isolde’. It is interesting to see how Debussy experiments with this theme up to the 81st measure. Between the bars 85-86 as well as 88-89, the notes on the high end of the scale are played in staccato (notes must sound detached from each other).

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Section B of ‘The Entertainer’ on the other hand cannot be adequately compared to the corresponding section of Golliwog. This is because Scott Joplin chose to continue the same trend of the first section but rather through the use of different harmonies and melody that is on a higher scale. It is played twice through the section and the second time it is played, the melody is played even higher on the scale before it returns to a reprise of the first section.  The final section of Golliwog is also essentially a reprise of its first section with the same themes but in different variations. The final 8 bars then conclude the recapitulation altogether. Despite them having differences in their development sections, another important factor of ragtime music is to include a recapitulation phase, and both of these pieces include this. Another noteworthy factor of the recapitulation of ‘The Entertainer’ is that it becomes unpredictable in it’s chord progression just like section B of Golliwog, further justifying its connection to the ragtime genre.

Overall, these two pieces are extremely similar in almost every aspect and element of music. Even the timbre of both these pieces provoke a very strong sense of richness, warmth and brightening sensations and just seem like they are meant for soley for the piano, which is not surprising considering ragtime music is majorly and essentially written for pianos. Debussy recognized the early fundamentals of ragtime and further expanded upon it by creating more music that rely less on the progression of harmonization and more on following the melody itself. This is why the neoclassical composer has come to be known as a major influence in 20th century jazz by seeing the similarities of future artists ahead of his time such as Miles Davis and Bill Evans implementing Debussy’s expanded reliance of melody into their own pieces. These can particularly be heard in the albums ‘The way to play’ by Bill Evans and ‘Milestones’ by Miles Davis.


Upton, B., & Upton, F. K. (1895). The adventures of two Dutch dolls and a Golliwog. London: Longmans, Green & Co.

Blyton, E. (1951). The proud golliwog. Leicester, England: Brockhampton Press.

Mervyn Cooke (1997). The Chronicle of Jazz. United States: Abbeville. 256.

Allison. (2012). Critical Listening #3: Golliwog’s Cakewalk . Available: Last accessed 20th Nov 2013.

Dr. David Pilgrim. (2012). The Golliwog Caricature. Available: Last accessed 19th Nov 2013.

Fela Kuti. (2012). African American Music Viewed As Unique. Available: Last accessed 19th Nov 2013.

Unlisted. (2000-2013). Characteristics of Ragtime. Available: Last accessed 19th Nov 2013.


Sheet music for ‘The Entertainer’ by Scott Joplin – collected from

Sheet music for Golliwog’s Cakewalk – collected from

The Entertainer –

Golliwog’s Cakewalk –