Where does jazz music come from?

Jazz music played by a group of musicians on foot.

5. Stylistic overview and musical characteristics

The style and characteristics of jazz music are very difficult to define due to the many subgenres that originated from jazz and the fact that improvisation is one of the key elements of jazz music. In jazz, improvisation gives musicians the freedom to express themselves as they can create their own interpretation of a predetermined tune. Improvisation allows jazz musicians to have a musical conversation and helps give each jazz musician their own personal and unique sound. Jazz music can be played on any instrument or using the human voice. The most common instruments for jazz music are the saxophone, trumpet, piano, trombone, bass, drums, and guitar. Most jazz styles also try to keep some sort of steady rhythm that can vary from a very fast tempo to a very low tempo.

4. Origins of Jazz

The origins of jazz music date back to the second half of the 19th century in New Orleans. New Orleans was the only place in America that allowed slaves to own drums, and the slaves who came from West Africa had a strong musical tradition that they wanted to keep alive. It ended up blending over the years with church hymns that black slaves incorporated, along with Afro-Cuban rhythms and European classical music to become what is known as jazz. After the abolition of slavery and the end of the American Civil War (1861-1865), many African Americans found work in the entertainment industry as musicians. This eventually led to the emergence of ragtime music in the 1890s, the best known of the ragtime musicians being Scott Joplin (c.1867/68-1917). Ragtime would be the immediate precursor to what would become jazz, as other bands and musicians attempted to emulate the style by adding improvisation. New Orleans has been key to the creation of jazz as many old and notable jazz artists have performed throughout the city, especially in the red-light district of Storyville. It was also during this time that George Vital Laine (1873-1966), also known as “the father of white jazz”, led an integrated marching band that produced many of the city’s finest jazzmen.

3. Dissemination and development

The Jazz Age was a period in the 1920s where jazz really took off, spreading and reaching its peak. It was during this time that the styles of music and dance associated with it became popular not only in the United States but also in Europe. Jazz has become as synonymous with the Roaring Twenties as speakeasies, flappers and prohibition. In 1918, just before the start of the Jazz Age, Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) and his orchestra became popular in San Francisco and in the years to come toured America and Europe. Whiteman is one of the major figures in the popularization of jazz among middle-class white Americans. After Whiteman’s success, a number of black jazz musicians like Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) found success, branching out into jazz music now that it was mainstream. The 1930s saw the end of the jazz age and the rise of the great swing bands, although people like Count Basie (1904-84) and the aforementioned Ellington were instrumental in the development of the great jazz band. Despite jazz’s dominance ending with the Great Depression, the music has continued to evolve with new styles and subgenres forming as its influence on pop culture continues to be felt through time.

2. Notable Jazz Musicians, Past and Present –

This section will briefly touch on two of the best known of these jazz musicians, Bille Holliday and Louis Armstrong. Billie Holiday (1915-59) had a career as a singer and composer of jazz music that spanned almost thirty years. Her unique vocal style was inspired by jazz instruments, and she was a major influence in the manipulation of vocal tempo and phrasing, as well as jazz and pop music. This unique vocal delivery and ability to improvise led her to become a mainstream star in the 1930s and most of the 1940s. From the late 1940s, legal troubles, drug addiction, and abusive relationships began to torment her, resulting in a tarnished reputation and less mainstream success. In 1959, Holiday died of liver cirrhosis caused by her drug problems.

Louis Armstrong has a fifty-year career spanning the 1920s through the 1960s as a jazz singer, songwriter and trumpeter. Armstrong is probably the best-known jazz musician and helped shift the focus of jazz to solo performance when he first came onto the scene in the 1920s. Over the course of his career, Armstrong not only known for his trumpet playing and vocals, but also for his impact as one of the first truly popular African-American artists. Armstrong died in 1971 of a heart attack in his sleep.

1. Cultural significance and artistic heritage

In the decades since the end of the Jazz Age, music has continued to grow, change and redefine itself. The 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of bebop, Afro-Cuban jazz, hard jazz, West Coast jazz, modal jazz, and free jazz. Jazz in the 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of Latin jazz, Afro-Brazilian, post-bop, jazz fusion, jazz-rock, and jazz-funk styles. In the 1980s, traditional jazz resurfaced alongside smooth jazz, acid jazz, nu jazz, rap jazz and punk jazz. Since the 1990s, there has been no dominant jazz style or styles, but a variety of styles that are currently used by individuals and groups.

Ada J. Kenney