What is Jazz?


What is jazz? This question depends entirely on the individual. Ask 100 different people "What is jazz?" and you're likely to get 100 different answers. The debate becomes even more confusing since the history of jazz is relatively well documented.
Jazz music started in the black ghettos of New Orleans at the end of the 19th century. In the 1920s jazz moved to Chicago and New York as African Americans migrated north in search of a better life. The 1930s saw the development of swing bands like those lead by Duke Ellington and Count Basie. At the same time great soloists were made, virtuosi like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. In the 1940s be bop came, personified in the music of Charlie Parker. The Mozart of his day, Bird took all of the melodic and harmonic information available and crystallized it into bebop. But, even in 1955, at the time of Bird's death, most people could answer very well when asked, "What is jazz?"

Why is it, that less than half a century later, we can't agree on a working definition? Part of the reason is because jazz has always been and still is a living art form, growing and changing every minute. Subsequently, after Bird took bebop to its conclusion, musicians like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman invented new forms like modal playing and "free" jazz. In the 1960s musicians began incorporating R&B, rock and new electric instruments into their jazz. John Coltrane gave us "sheets of sound." The Modern Jazz Quartet mixed jazz and classical music. Everything exploded and suddenly jazz was all over the place.

In their effort to market these musical voyages, major record companies have added to the mystification, showering us with labels to consider: Contemporary jazz, mainstream jazz, smooth jazz, alternative jazz, avant-garde jazz, Latin jazz, fusion, etc. Now, it seems that there are almost as many names for jazz as there are jazz groups.

One thing is sure: Jazz remains America's only original living art form. Today, its influence envelops the globe. It's expressive. It's enriching. Call it what you like - jazz is here to stay.





Music has always played an important role in African American culture. The roots of jazz can be traced back to the times of slavery where slave work songs were created in the form of "call-and-response." To tell a story, and pass the time, a song leader would call out a line and the rest of the workers would respond to his call.


During this era, America became known as the "land of opportunity." Many Europeans immigrated to different American cities in search of a better life. With these immigrants came a variety of musical traditions as well.

Scott Joplin, an African American composer, combined these newly introduced European styles with the rhythmic and melodic music of the black community. This became known as "ragtime."


New Orleans played a great role in the evolution of jazz music in the 20th century. At this time, the people of New Orleans hailed from many different cultures. As new settlers arrived in New Orleans, musical traditions from all over the world began to unite. African American musicians merged European musical tradition with such music as blues, ragtime, and marching band to create a new style of music-jazz.



African Americans began migrating to northern cities like Chicago and New York in search of better opportunity. With them, they brought the sounds of jazz and blues. Young Americans began to embrace this new style of music by listening and dancing to jazz and blues. This represented a rebellion against their parent's old-fashioned views. Young women, known as "flappers," shocked their parents by cutting their hair and wearing shorter dresses.

For the first time radios and record players were widely available in stores. This encouraged the popularity and growth of jazz music. Jazz went from being played only in New Orleans to becoming a staple of the American airwaves, dance halls, and homes.



A new style of jazz, "big band swing," emerged. This became the most popular music of the 1930s and 40s. Because of its highly energetic beat, swing music brought people to the dance floor every night.



Many jazz musicians were drafted to fight in World War II. A million African Americans served in the armed forces all because of the strict segregation that pervaded throughout the era. Because of this, bands were experiencing difficulties in finding musicians to perform in the dance halls.



Present - Throughout the rest of the 20th century, jazz continued to evolve and take on new forms. The 1970's saw the popularity of fusion; the 1980's are known for acid jazz and its return to classic blues; the 1990's introduced smooth jazz and retro swing.





There are many different styles or types of jazz. It is a music that has evolved with time. Recognizing the styles won't make you enjoy the songs any more, but it may help you understand a little bit of the background better. This way, if somebody tells you, "this is a great bebop CD," you will have an idea what it is, and you can recognize which styles you have a preference for.




 Rhythms from a musical heritage in Africa were incorporated into Cakewalks, coon songs and the music of "jig bands" which eventually evolved into Ragtime. The first Ragtime composition was published by Ben Harney. The music, vitalized by the opposing rhythms common to African dance, was vibrant, enthusiastic and often extemporaneous (impromptu).


1920s and 1930s

Big Band & Swing

 During the big band era, which spanned roughly a decade from 1935 to 1945, jazz music was at the very fore front of popular culture in the United States.This was due to the fact that it was very danceable and included a very smooth beat. Bands which embraced more hard-driving rhythms and featured the improvisations of popular soloists, such as the led by Duke Ellington and Count Basie were dubbed "swing" or "hot" bands. The genre nearly died in the late 1950s and all but disappeared in the 1960s and 1970s, due to decreasing popularity and high expenses, but it is making a comeback. Now it has grown to embrace bop, fusion, and many other post-swing developments in the history of jazz.


1940s and 1950s


 This is the style that is most closely related to New Orleans and especially the marching funerals from the area. It is a very happy music which is most likely because it plays by a 2/4 rhythm. Sometimes, the early Dixieland groups recorded with a banjo keeping rhythm, since they didn't have microphones (they used something resembling a megaphone) and the drums were too overpowering. Examples of this style are the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Wild Bill Davidson and the Commodores.



 Bebop, often referred to simply as "bop", was the first modern, major post-swing style to emerge in jazz. It is now regarded as one of the fundamental, classic genres of jazz.

During the early 1940s, some very talented musicians grew tired of playing the same music in their jobs with swing bands. After the band played, they would stick around for jam sessions. A group of enormously talented musicians: Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie Christian invented a style that became known as bebop. It was less structured than say, swing, but depended heavily on improvisation and because these guys were leading the way, it required virtuosity, as well. Examples of this music would also include Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro, and Bud Powell.



 Cool jazz is often used as an umbrella term to describe various subdued and understand styles of modern jazz. This is sometimes unfairly derided as devoid of emotion. This type of Jazz music came to be as a result of the Miles Davis' compositions and a series of recordings that later became known as" The Birth of the Cool." The style uses the chord changes, like bebop, but lacks the intensity of bebop. The music is more laid back. Cool Jazz was very popular in the early to mid 1950s and some examples of players from this genre include Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, and Chet Baker.


Hard Bop

 Hard bop is a label meant to describe the intense, soulful, and hard-driving derivatives of bop music that flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. It's characterized by louder and more interactive drumming, lighter, and more flexible piano accompaniment, and original compositions.

This music was an outgrowth from bebop. Hard bop mixes bebop with gospel and blues, providing a more "emotional" music. Sometimes, the line between the music styles gets blurred. This music was also known as "East Coast jazz." Examples of this genre include: Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan, and Cannonball Adderly.


 This music was an extension of theories that George Russell presented in his book The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation. In the late 1950s, bop was starting to run its course. The chord changes were becoming more rapid and constrictive. What modal improvisation did was use slower moving chord changes, and freed up the soloist to improvise more based on scales, rather than the rapidly changing chords of bebop. Miles Davis' groups of the late 1950s popularized this music and John Coltrane spent the early 1960s taking this form of jazz to new heights. Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner are two more examples of fine modal players.


1960s and 1970s

Soul jazz

 Derived from Hardbop, Soul Jazz is perhaps the most popular Jazz style of the 1960's. Improvising to chord progressions as with Bop, the soloist strives to create an exciting performance. The ensemble of musicians concentrates on a rhythmic groove centered around a strong but varied bass line.




 Fusion is generally used to refer to a combination of jazz with rock and soul influences, a hybrid style that became enormously popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period when avant-garde experimentation had alienated many jazz listeners. Artists such as Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock went on to form popular fusion outfits of their own. The music blends jazz with rock music. It was enormously popular in the 1970s. During the 1960s, a lot of younger people were no longer interested in jazz and looked upon it as something you keep under glass in a museum. This was the time of rebellion and "trust no one over 30", so unfortunately, jazz became of casualty of this type of thinking. Miles Davis decided to "take the music to the audience" and this was the result.






The Drift



Jazz Musicians