Although jazz has existed only for about 100 years it has gone through numerous phases and includes many different genres. It began to develop before the turn of the twentieth century in New Orleans. At that time jazz was, technically speaking, a relatively simple form of folk music. Today, many jazz genres are extremely complicated, especially in terms of rhythm.
But what is jazz? If we compare the jazz of 1920 with the jazz of today we find very different styles that, at first glance, don’t seem to fit in the same genre. However, there are two elements found in all true forms of jazz — improvisation and swing. Music that is improvised is composed while it is being performed. All jazz involves improvisation of some sort. Sometimes there are only small sections of improvised material and sometimes everything in jazz is improvised. It is most obvious while a jazz musician is playing a solo, but there is subtle improvisation happening at all times. For example, drummers are frequently changing the patterns that they play, communicating in a musical conversation with the other players.
“Swing” has a more elusive definition than improvisation. It is unique to jazz and is a rhythmic approach in which the musicians stretch the length of some notes and shorten others. Also, when jazz players swing they accent many notes that do not fall directly on the beat.
Most jazz tunes have a form that consists of melody (called the “head”), followed by improvised solos, followed by the head again. But what are the jazz players actually doing when they improvise a solo? They are creating their own compositions within the tune being played. Technically speaking, a jazz musician plays an idea and from that point it’s all repetition, variation, or contrast. In other words, the musician makes a statement and then says it again, or says again with a slight change, or says something completely different.
It is often stated that jazz musicians are telling a story while improvising. This comparison does not mean that the jazz player starts a solo by thinking, “Once upon a time, there was a boy named Bob. One day he went outside and had a fantastic surprise . . . etc.” However, like storytellers, the improviser must express clear ideas and those ideas need to be connected in some way so that they make sense. Also, the story should have some climax or exciting point and shouldn’t just ramble around aimlessly.
Accomplished jazz musicians are not just “making it up randomly” as they create solos. There is a great deal of preparation involved in learning how to play jazz. Many scales and chords must be mastered and memorized and every player must develop a unique personal style. Also, a musician must learn the “language” of jazz. Like any spoken language, all forms of music have their own vocabularies, sentence structures, and inflections. If you were to try to learn Spanish by simply reading it in a book, you would not pronounce the words properly or truly learn how to communicate through the language. To really learn Spanish or any other language, we must listen to how it sounds and immerse ourselves in it. The same principle applies to learning jazz, or any other form of music — the musician must listen to it constantly to absorb its inflections and nuances. And, while jazz is a unique language itself, each of its genres has its own dialect — from early jazz to bebop to jazz-fusion.
Jazz began developing in the late nineteenth century in Southern Louisiana. It was influenced by elements of ragtime, brass band music, and the blues. By the 1920s jazz was being played in many parts of the country, especially in Chicago and New York. In the early era of jazz, the music was usually played by groups that consisted of a clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, upright bass, drums, and often guitar or banjo.
The greatest figure of early jazz was Louis Armstrong. Although he eventually became world-famous as a singer, some of his greatest contributions to the music were from his trumpet playing. He was an outstanding improviser and was more musically advanced than anyone else in the early stages of jazz.
Jazz has constantly grown and developed, evolving from a relatively simple folk music to an extremely complex art form. However, the blues as a genre has remained relatively the same in comparison to jazz. The blues is based on progressions of three chords. These three chords are played in a fixed order that is repeated through an entire song. One man who accompanied himself on the guitar usually sang early blues. Although blues bands of the present have added more instruments to their ensembles, the music is still based on the “blues progression” of three chords. Jazz players still improvise over the blues progression but have added many chords to the form to make the music more complicated harmonically.
From the late 1910s through the 1940s jazz was THE popular music in the United States. It was the party music of the time and was usually very lively with danceable rhythms. From the mid 1930s through the 1940s jazz was most frequently played by “big bands.” These ensembles usually consisted of four or five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, and a rhythm section of piano, bass, and drums. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman led bands that were popular throughout the United States.
The 1940s also saw the development of “bebop.” In contrast to the big band music, small groups played bebop that usually only had one or two wind or brass instruments with rhythm section. Charlie Parker was one of the main leaders of the new movement, which featured furiously fast tempos and music that was very complex. In the 1940s the individual improviser became more important and musicians began playing solos that were longer than those played in previous eras. By the 1960s jazz musicians like John Coltrane were performing solos that would last as long as thirty minutes or more. Coltrane was influenced by Eastern religions and music and brought a meditative aspect to jazz.
Rock and roll had an important impact on jazz in the late 1960s when musicians combined elements of the two genres to form jazz-rock fusion. Since that period, fusion has existed in many different forms, often taking on aspects of the popular rock music of the time.
Since jazz dates back about 100 years, we are very fortunate to have excellent documentation of most of its history. If you want to hear how bebop sounded in the late 1940s all you have to do is find a recording of it (and there are many). Also, to this day, musicians all over the world are still playing every genre of jazz. If you want to hear Dixieland or avant garde or fusion, there are people out there performing and recording it on a regular basis.