As a distinctive style, jazz as we know it today began in the early twentieth century. However, its roots can be traced back to the early 1800s in New Orleans when enslaved people were allowed to congregate freely on Sundays in the Congo Square area of the city (which is now part of the French Quarter). The Louisiana Creoles, descendants of the French, Spanish, and African people that originally colonized the city in the 1600s and 1700s, were much less stringent than the Protestant leaders of other cities around the country. They allowed the enslaved people to sell handmade goods, food, and other wares, and some people were able to earn enough money over time to buy their freedom. There was always music and dancing on Sundays in Congo Square, and many historians agree that the diverse blend of musical styles performed there are the roots upon which most American music has grown, including jazz.
Jazz is distinctly American. New Orleans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was home to both free and enslaved people of color from countries such as Haiti, Cuba, Africa, and the Caribbean, as well as white and Creole people from France and Spain. It was a microcosm of the melting pot of America. The diversity of New Orleans led to an incredibly interesting mix of musical styles that went in several different directions (blues, gospel, pop, etc.). A few of the key characteristics that help to define jazz as a genre such as improvisation, syncopation, swing rhythms, and unique performance practices grew from some of the music heard in Congo Square, and they are the main focus of this chapter.
Jazz has evolved immensely since the early twentieth century, where it emerged from the nightclubs of New Orleans and travelled to other regions of the country via the Mississippi River. Today, jazz is popular in countries around the world and it is taught as a part of the curriculum in middle schools, high schools, and universities; students of jazz can pursue multiple degrees in jazz performance.
In this chapter we will learn about the history of jazz, some of its renowned performers, and the evolution of the genre, and we will develop the skills to recognize and describe the primary elements of the jazz style.
Key Musical Characteristics Of Jazz
There are many musical characteristics that distinguish jazz from other musical genres, but five of the most salient elements are listed below:
Performance practices that differ from art and pop music
Individually these elements are present in other genres of music, but when two or more are combined they help to define jazz.
Improvisation is to compose, play, or sing extemporaneously ("on the fly" or offhand). It is a defining characteristic of jazz, and it requires an immense amount of knowledge and intensive practice to master. Improvisation in music mostly occurs within certain parameters dictated primarily by the form and the key center, and is performed by a soloist accompanied by a rhythm section. In the early days of jazz, the improvised section of a song or piece was kept relatively brief; just a few seconds of soloing or two to four measures. As jazz evolved throughout the twentieth century, improvisational sections grew in length and complexity. This change is representative of the growth of jazz over the course of the twentieth century and, in combination with other musical factors, aspects of improvisation play a part in determining genre and sub-genres of jazz.
The term "swing feel" refers to the rhythmic basis for jazz: the "groove", which is unique from other styles of music. In terms of rhythm, swing feel can be considered in contrast to straight feel; in other words, swing is based on triplet rhythms (long-short) played by the musicians as opposed to straight eighth notes in art or pop music (short-short). Jazz also utilizes straight feel and many other types of rhythmic grooves, but swing is the most distinctive aspect of jazz that helped to define it in the early twentieth century. Jazz started out as a primarily oral tradition, similar to folk and blues, so the best way to understand swing feel is to listen to it. Check out this website for more information.
Syncopation refers to a rhythmic pattern which emphasizes offbeats, or weak beats, and results in a displacement of a sense of metric regularity. The compositional usage of syncopation in music can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages, and it was commonly used by several renowned art music composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to create rhythmic interest. As far as its use in jazz, a connection can be made to the ubiquitous use of syncopation in ragtime, the popular precursor to jazz, in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The name "ragtime" comes from the word "ragged" which was how the highly syncopated rhythmic feel of ragtime was described around the turn of the twentieth century.
The instrumentation of jazz ensembles sets it apart from other musical genres for a few reasons. Firstly, the saxophone is considered by many to represent the sound of jazz. It was invented by an instrument maker named Adolphe Sax from Belgium who had his workshop in Paris, France, and the saxophone was patented in 1846. The popularity of the instrument took many years, despite its success in military bands in the United States and Europe. When New Orleans jazz musicians such as Sidney Bechet switched from clarinet to saxophone in the early 1900s, the instrument's popularity soared, propelled by the popularity of jazz, and the United States became home to a "saxophone craze" of sorts. The saxophone projected sound much easier than the clarinet, and its tone quality was able to compete with and further complement the other instruments of the jazz ensemble (drums, bass, piano, etc). Hundreds of thousands of saxophones were sold to young people and would-be jazz musicians in the 1920s, thus solidifying the instrument's enduring popularity and close connection to jazz and other popular styles in the United States. The saxophone and jazz enjoyed a symbiotic relationship; they aided each other in becoming popular, and the instrument became a symbol of the Jazz Age. Secondly, the other wind instruments often connected with jazz are the trumpet and trombone. These instruments are heard in many other musical styles, but in jazz they are played in a different style, and in a big band they make up two thirds of the wind instrument section of the ensemble (the other third is the saxophone section). Similar to the saxophone, they are capable of being the lead instrument that usually improvises a solo while accompanied by the rhythm section (piano, bass, drums). Finally, the rhythm section of a jazz ensemble is comprised of piano, bass, drums, and sometimes guitar and vibraphone (a keyboard percussion instrument). These are also instruments that exist in many other musical environments, but in jazz they are played in a distinctive style, and they form the harmonic and rhythmic foundation for the music.
Generally, there are two main types of ensembles that play jazz: big bands and combos. Big bands, also known as stage bands, jazz bands, swing orchestras, or swing bands, are large ensembles that typically have five saxophones, four trombones, four to five trumpets, and a full rhythm section of piano, bass, drums, guitar, and vocals. There are usually 18-20 or so musicians in a big band. Combos, on the other hand, are small jazz ensembles made up of anywhere from two to six musicians. Combos often feature one or two soloists (saxophone, trumpet, or trombone) and sometimes a vocalist, plus a rhythm section. Big bands became extremely popular in the World War II era, and jazz combos became popular in the years following the war.
An important musical characteristic of jazz, albeit less tangible than the elements discussed above, is the style and timbre of the instrumental and vocal sounds that are heard. There are many adjectives that can be used to describe sound, and one way to understand the difference between the way the instruments and voices in jazz sound different than those heard in classical/art or pop music is to employ some of these adjectives. In jazz, the timbre or tone quality can be described as gritty, gutsy, free, diffused, airy, rough or piercing (in a good way). In contrast, many classical musicians strive for clarity, elegance, focus, smoothness, or richness in their sounds. In jazz, a distinctive sound is prized for its uniqueness, while in classical music there is typically a conventional or standard timbre that is upheld to which most musicians adhere. The distinctive timbres, when considered in combination with the elements discussed above, help to define the genre of jazz.
Together, the five elements discussed above define jazz and how it sounds. Below, the evolution of the genre and the contribution of groundbreaking musicians who were the architects of the five musical characteristics listed above and who propelled the genre forward are discussed.
History And Musicians
As mentioned in the opening sentence of the chapter, certain characteristics of jazz can be traced all the way back to the early 1800s, however, the genre as we know it today essentially began in the early 1900s. In the following paragraphs, we will discuss the timeline of jazz as it progressed from the Jazz Age of the late 1910s and 1920s to the turn of the twenty-first century. We will briefly discuss jazz in the twenty-first century in Chapter 14.
"Traditional" Jazz 1900-1935
Jazz As Popular Music
At the turn of the twentieth century, ragtime music was one of the most popular forms of music in the United States. It was developed in St. Louis in the 1880s, and Scott Joplin was the most renowned of the ragtime musicians and composers. Like other Black musicians of the time, Joplin would play melodies of popular songs of the era, but he would improvise around and embellish the melodies with lots of syncopated rhythms, thus defining the style. This is where a lot of the syncopated rhythms and polyrhythms (multiple rhythms played at the same time) of jazz come from.
New Orleans jazz, or traditional jazz, was mostly performed in the Storyville district of New Orleans, which was full of nightclubs, bars, and brothels that hired musicians to provide entertainment and dance music. In 1917, Storyville was closed due to "urban reform" so many of the musicians had to leave the city to find work elsewhere. Many went north up the Mississippi River, and several of the most notable musicians went to Chicago. By 1920, most of the accomplished New Orleans musicians had left and there were no recordings of New Orleans jazz recorded in New Orleans. Most of the recordings were made in Chicago, and notably, the very first jazz record was made in New York City in 1917 by a group called the Original Dixieland Jass (Jazz) Band (the music of this time was also called "Dixieland" jazz once it made the move to northern cities). Interestingly, most New Orleans jazz musicians were African American, but the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was made up of white musicians.
The instrumentation for a traditional jazz band is cornet (or trumpet), clarinet, trombone, piano, bass or tuba, banjo, and drums. The "front line" (the people who played the melodies) was comprised of the cornet, clarinet, and trombone who played different melodies simultaneously (polyphony) and with varying degrees of improvisation and embellishment, and they were accompanied by the rest of the musicians. This music was typically played from memory, not from sheet music, and it had a relatively standard form that the musicians were familiar with.
The most accomplished and renowned New Orleans musician was Louis Armstrong, a cornet player and singer who had learned to play from the famous Joe "King" Oliver. When King Oliver moved to Chicago to perform and record in the early 1920s, he urged Armstrong to join him. They were very successful performing together, but when Armstrong met and married Oliver's piano player, Lillian Harding, she encouraged Armstrong to quit and start his own group. Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, and later Hot Seven, made some of the most influential jazz recordings of all time. The Hot Five was made up of trumpet, clarinet, trombone, piano, and guitar/banjo, and the Hot Seven group was the same as the Hot Five but supplemented with the tuba and drums. Also, the Hot Seven started to occasionally use a saxophone, as it was becoming popular and replacing the clarinet at the time. Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong is one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, known for shifting the focus of jazz from the ensemble to the soloist, and for his skillful improvisations and scat singing (singing and improvising nonsense syllables that mimic instrumental sounds). Traditional jazz, New Orleans jazz, and Dixieland is also often referred to as "hot" jazz.
The Big Band/Swing Band Era 1935-1945
In the mid-1930s America was in the midst of the Great Depression (the stock market crashed in 1929) and jazz was still incredibly popular. However, it was a new style of jazz that featured large ensembles full of saxophones, trumpets, and trombones that played swing that captured the hearts and minds of millions of Americans and eventually spread across the Atlantic to Europe during World War II.
The era from approximately 1935 to the end of WWII in 1945 is commonly known as "the swing era", and this was when jazz was the most popular type of music in the United States. Swing was a style of music meant for dancing and it was developed in the late 1920s by Black dance bands in New York, Chicago, and Kansas City. It transformed American popular music, and the term "swing" came to have two meanings: as a reference to a rhythmic feel or groove, and as a proper, marketable noun for the style of music that prevailed just before and during World War II.
During this time there were hundreds of swing orchestras (another name for swing bands) that toured nationally and internationally, but a few of the most famous were directed by bandleaders that became celebrities such as Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller. The music that these leaders and their bands released dominated the hit song charts and could be heard on nationally syndicated radio shows and in jukeboxes across the country.
Swing bands were made up of 18-20 musicians and played elaborate, sophisticated arrangements of songs that typically had a small improvisational section in the middle. Sometimes the bandleaders were the composers and arrangers, and other times there would be a composer and/or arranger on the staff of the band. For instance, Duke Ellington was an incredibly skilled composer and arranger, but he also worked closely with another composer, arranger, and lyricist who wrote music for his band, Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn wrote one of the Ellington band's most famous pieces, "Take the 'A' Train" in 1940.
Several jazz vocalists rose to great prominence during the swing era, most notably Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughan, to name a few. Holiday and Fitzgerald have become known as two of the greatest jazz vocalists of all time.
The swing era represented the apex of jazz's influence on popular music, and after World War II the style fell out of favor for many reasons (gas shortages after the war that prevented travel, politics in the music industry, etc.). Jazz musicians who had been featured soloists in the big bands such as saxophonists Lester Young, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Hodges, and Coleman Hawkins, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Red Allen, pianist Art Tatum, and many others, started playing in small groups in New York and other big cities. This was a shift away from the preoccupation with record sales and popularity that the big bands had been focused on, and towards individual artistic achievement and virtuosity. This was when a new era of jazz began.
Many of the musicians who played in swing bands were frustrated with the lack of soloing opportunities and would often go out to nightclubs after their swing band gigs to play in smaller groups until the wee hours of the morning. The musicians could play whatever they wanted without the constraints of the big band sheet music in front of them. Friendly competitions arose out of these late-night performances, that were sometimes called "cutting sessions", to prove that you were good enough to be there and play. This led to an intense period of growth in the style and form of jazz. The songs became longer in duration to account for the elaborate and virtuosic solos that the artists were playing, and they were all trying to outdo one another. This style prioritized the artistic side of jazz over the commercial or popular side; jazz became art instead of strictly entertainment. The result of these various changes was a new style of jazz—bebop—and two of the key architects of the style were saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.
Bebop was meant for critical, focused listening and not for dancing, which was a significant divergence from the music of the swing era. At the center of bebop was the originality, virtuosity, and improvisational skill of the soloist.
Charlie "Yardbird" or "Bird" Parker embodied the style of bebop through his dexterous command of the saxophone and ingenious improvisational ideas. He composed much of the music that he performed, and it is characteristically fast and difficult to play. Parker was originally from Kansas City and grew up around the thriving jazz scene there; he started playing professionally in big bands at the age of fifteen and decided to drop out of school and pursue his music career full time. In the early 1940s, while playing with a big band, he would play side gigs with Dizzy Gillespie, and by 1945 they had organically developed the style of bebop by playing together for several gigs in New York and Los Angeles. Parker was incredibly influential for developing bebop, but even more for his boundless influence on saxophonists and saxophone playing.
Bebop is performed by a small group of musicians, or combo, usually made up of one or two lead solo instruments (saxophone, trumpet, or trombone) accompanied by a rhythm section (piano, bass, drums). Musical characteristics of bebop:
Complex harmonies and accompaniment
Focus on individual soloists
Cool Jazz 1949-1955
Bebop was not welcomed with open arms by all the jazz musicians in mid-century America. In response to bebop, a new type of jazz that was more laid back brought jazz back into the mainstream; it was called cool jazz. If bebop was fast and complex, cool jazz was relaxed and lighter in tone, and this can be heard in the playing of cool jazz's first practitioner, Lester Young. Cool jazz is also commonly called West Coast jazz, as many jazz musicians were living and performing this newer style in and around Los Angeles. Saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Art Pepper, and Paul Desmond, trumpeter Chet Baker, pianist Dave Brubeck, and many others were known for performing in the cool style.
There are several musicians who engaged in this lighter, calmer style, but the most famous is Miles Davis. Davis was a trumpet player originally from East St. Louis who attended Juilliard in New York City before dropping out to pursue his music career. He started out playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker in the bebop style, but soon realized that his jazz talents were more suited to a slower, deliberate, and more lyrical improvisational style. This realization would serve him well, and throughout his illustrious career he shaped the sound of jazz for several decades in the twentieth century. His album, Birth of the Cool, was recorded in 1949 (released in 1957) is considered one of the best jazz albums of all time. Miles Davis is commonly referred to as one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century.
Hard Bop 1951-1958, Post Bebop 1959-Present
Hard bop is the evolution of bebop and was played by the second generation of bebop musicians who attempted to maintain the characteristics of bop while also appealing to the public. Musicians who performed in this style were pianist Bill Evans, trumpeter Clifford Brown, and saxophonist Sonny Rollins.
Post bebop or post-bop was a more straight-ahead evolution of bebop, and by far the most renowned and influential post-bop musician was saxophonist John Coltrane. He, along with Miles Davis, was a creative and innovative improviser who explored new, avant-garde directions in harmonic language, and their music is studied very closely by jazz scholars and up-and-coming musicians. In terms of the saxophone, John Coltrane and Charlie Parker are the two most influential musicians to those who want to learn improvisation and the saxophone.
Fusion, Smooth, Free 1960-Present
From the 1960s to the present-day jazz has developed into several sub-genres and styles. A few of the more popular styles are fusion and smooth jazz, while free jazz was a more niche style that was influential for a few reasons but was not widely accepted by the public.
Fusion is the combination of jazz and rock and roll, and it was developed by Miles Davis in the late 1960s. He released two albums in 1969, Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way, both of which combined the electric instruments of rock music (electric bass, electric guitar, drums, synthesizers) with his unique version of jazz. This style was very popular but only for a short amount of time. However, other musicians who performed with Davis on these albums went on to have successful careers that fused jazz and popular styles. A few of those musicians were Herbie Hancock, ("Rockit", "Chameleon"), Chick Corea, and John McLaughlin.
Smooth jazz is a popular, easy-listening combination of R&B and jazz and is quite popular today. It has characteristics of popular, commercial music such as straightforward, simple melodies and improvisations and shorter, radio-friendly song forms. The primary artist that most people associate with smooth jazz is the saxophonist Kenny G, who is the best-selling instrumental musician of all time. Other renowned smooth jazz musicians are George Benson, Spyro Gyra, Dave Koz, Boney James, Chuck Mangione, and Grover Washington, Jr.
Free jazz is an avant-garde, experimental style that was pioneered by saxophonist Ornette Coleman and others in the 1960s. Parallels can be drawn between this style of jazz and some of the avant-garde art music that was being produced by composers like John Cage in the same time period. This style is defined by collective improvisation, meaning everyone in the ensemble solos at the same time, and this can be difficult for some listeners to process. Just like Cage felt constrained by the limits of classical music composition, jazz musicians like Ornette Coleman wanted to break free from the limitations of swing, bebop, and cool jazz, and they achieved that by purposefully eschewing the conventions of those previous styles to create something new.
Jazz In The Late Twentieth Century
Jazz is incredibly diverse. While it still features the five primary musical characteristics listed towards the beginning of this chapter, in more recent years its style and sound are dependent on the player and their personal proclivities. To wrap up this chapter, it is helpful to briefly review a few of the key players that have influenced jazz over the last few decades. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his brother Wynton Marsalis have made a considerable impact on jazz. Wynton is the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincon Center, one of the premier institutions in the United States that is dedicated to performing and preserving jazz heritage. Saxophonist Michael Brecker was very influential in the 1980s and 1990s and was able to have a serious jazz career while also regularly performing with famous pop musicians such as James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. Other notable jazz musicians from the 1980s and 1990s are saxophonists Phil Woods, Kenny Garrett, bassists Jaco Pastorious and John Patittucci, pianist Keither Jarrett, and vocalists Kurt Elling, Bobby McFerrin, Diana Krall, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Nancy Wilson, and Dee Dee Bridgewater.