Stylistic Origins:
Blues and other African American Folk Music, Ragtime, West African Music, European Marching Bands, 1910s New Orleans
Cultural Origins:
Early 20th Century Appalachia, especially Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky
Typical Instruments:
Saxophone – Trumpet – Trombone – Clarinet – Piano – Guitar – Double Bass – Bass Guitar – Drums – Vocals

Avant jazz – Bebop – Chamber Jazz – Cool Jazz – Creative Jazz – Dixieland – Free Jazz – Gypsy Jazz – Hard Bop – Jazz Fusion – Latin Jazz – Milo Jazz – Modal Jazz – M-Base – Smooth Jazz – Soul Jazz – Swing – Trad Jazz

Fusion Genres:

Acid Jazz – Asian American Jazz – Calypso Jazz – Jazz Blues – Jazz Fusion – Jazz Rap – Nu Jazz – Smooth Jazz – Bossa Nova

Jazz is an original American musical art form originating around the start of the 20th century in New Orleans, rooted in Western music technique and theory, and is marked by the profound cultural contributions of African Americans. It is characterized by blue notes, syncopation, swing, call and response, polyrhythms, and improvisation. Jazz has been described as “America’s Classical Music,” and started in saloons throughout the nation.


Jazz master Louis Armstrong remains one of the most loved and best known of all jazz musicians.

Jazz master Louis Armstrong remains one of the most loved and best known of all jazz musicians.

Jazz has roots in the combination of Western and African music traditions, including spirituals, blues and ragtime, stemming ultimately from West Africa, western Sahel, and New England’s religious hymns and hillbilly music, as well as in European military band music. After originating in African American communities near the beginning of the 20th century, jazz gained international popularity by the 1920s. Since then, jazz has had a pervasive influence on other musical styles worldwide. Even today, various jazz styles continue to evolve.

The word jazz itself is rooted in American slang, probably of sexual origin, although various alternative derivations have been suggested. According to University of Southern California film professor Todd Boyd, the term was originally slang for sexual intercourse as its earliest musicians found employment in New Orleans brothel parlors, with the word deriving from the term ‘jass’. The term “jass” was rude sexual slang, related either to the term “jism” or to the jasmine perfume popular among urban prostitutes. Lacking an attentive audience, the musicians began to play for each other and their performances achieved aesthetic complexity not evident in ragtime. The musicians would typically play songs of the time, including gospel, and “jass it up” by playing around notes, changing timings, and generally change the overall feel of the song.

At the root of jazz is the blues, the folk music of former enslaved Africans in the U.S. South and their descendants, heavily influenced by West African cultural and musical traditions, that evolved as black musicians migrated to the cities. According to jazz musician Wynton Marsalis:

Jazz is something Negroes invented, and it said the most profound things — not only about us and the way we look at things, but about what modern democratic life is really about. It is the nobility of the race put into sound … jazz has all the elements, from the spare and penetrating to the complex and enveloping. It is the hardest music to play that I know of, and it is the highest rendition of individual emotion in the history of Western music.

Needless to say, the view of jazz as simply and solely “black music” is controversial. Numerous non-black musicians (Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, John Zorn, Harry James, Zoot Sims, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck, and Charlie Haden among others) have made important contributions to jazz. In addition, it could be argued that jazz would not exist without both instruments invented or developed by Europeans (the trumpet, saxophone, trombone, double bass, etc.) and the previous work of Europeans in music theory, which was explored in different ways by jazz musicians, such as increased use of the seventh chord and extended chords. The origins of jazz are multicultural, not entirely “pure,” and perhaps reflect the hybrid nature of American culture more than any other art form.

Early jazz influences found their first mainstream expression in the marching band and dance band music of the day, which was the standard form of popular concert music at the turn of century. The instruments of these groups became the basic instruments of jazz: brass, reeds, and drums, and are voiced in the Western 12-tone scale.

Black musicians frequently used the melody, structure, and beat of marches as points of departure; but says “North by South, from Charleston to Harlem,” a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “…a black musical spirit (involving rhythm and melody) was bursting out of the confines of European musical tradition, even though the performers were using European styled instruments. This African-American feel for rephrasing melodies and reshaping rhythm created the embryo from which many great black jazz musicians were to emerge.” Many black musicians also made a living playing in small bands hired to lead funeral processions in the New Orleans African-American tradition. These Africanized bands played a seminal role in the articulation and dissemination of early jazz. Traveling throughout black communities in the Deep South and to northern big cities, these musician-pioneers were the Hand helping to fashion the music’s howling, raucous, then free-wheeling, “raggedy,” ragtime spirit, quickening it to a more eloquent, sophisticated, swing incarnation.

For all its genius, early jazz, with its humble, folk roots, was the product of primarily self-taught musicians. But an impressive postbellum network of black-established and -operated institutions, schools, and civic societies in both the North and the South, plus widening mainstream opportunities for education, produced ever-increasing numbers of young, formally trained African-American musicians, some of them schooled in classical European musical forms. Lorenzo Tio and Scott Joplin were among this new wave of musically literate jazz artists. Joplin, the son of a former slave and a free-born woman of color, was largely self-taught until age 11, when he received lessons in the fundamentals of music
theory from a classically trained German immigrant in Texarkana, Texas.

Also contributing to this trend was a tightening of Jim Crow laws in Louisiana in the 1890s, which caused the expulsion from integrated bands of numbers of talented, formally trained African-American musicians. The ability of these musically literate, black jazzmen to transpose and then read what was in great part an improvisational art form became an invaluable element in the preservation and dissemination of musical innovations that took on added importance in the approaching big-band era.

The United States music scene at the start of the 20th century

By the turn of the century, American society had begun to shed the heavy-handed, straitlaced formality that had characterized the Victorian era.

Strong influence of African American music traditions had already been a part of mainstream popular music in the United States for generations, going back to the 19th century minstrel show tunes and the melodies of Stephen Foster.

Public dance halls, clubs, and tea rooms opened in the cities. Curiously named black dances inspired by African dance moves, like the shimmy, turkey trot, buzzard lope, chicken scratch, monkey glide, and the bunny hug eventually were adopted by a white public. The cake walk, developed by slaves as a send-up of their masters’ formal dress balls, became the rage. White audiences saw these dances first in vaudeville shows, then performed by exhibition dancers in the clubs.

The popular dance music of the time was not jazz, but there were precursor forms along the blues-ragtime continuum of musical experimentation and innovation that soon would blossom into jazz. Popular Tin Pan Alley composers like Irving Berlin incorporated ragtime influence into their compositions, though they seldom used the specific musical devices that were second nature to jazz players the rhythms, the blue notes. Few things did more to popularize the idea of hot music than Berlin’s hit song of 1911,”Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” which became a craze as far from home as Vienna. Although the song wasn’t written in rag time, the lyrics describe a jazz band, right up to jazzing up popular songs, as
in the line, “If you want to hear the Swanee River played in ragtime…….”

The early New Orleans “Jass” style

A number of regional styles contributed to the early development of jazz. Arguably the single most important was that of the New Orleans, Louisiana area, which was the first to be commonly given the name “jazz” (early on often spelled “jass”).

The city of New Orleans and the surrounding area had long been a regional music center. People from many different nations of Africa, Europe, and Latin America contributed to New Orleans’ rich musical heritage. In the French and Spanish colonial era, slaves had more freedom of cultural expression than in the English colonies of what would become the United States. In the Protestant colonies African music was looked on as inherently “pagan” and was commonly suppressed, while in Louisiana it was allowed. African musical celebrations held at least as late as the 1830s in New Orleans’ “Congo Square” were attended by interested whites as well, and some of their melodies and rhythms found their way into the compositions of white Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. In addition to the slave population, New Orleans also had North America’s largest community of free people of color, some of whom prided themselves on their education and used European instruments to play both European music and their own folk tunes.

According to many New Orleans musicians who remembered the era, the key figures in the development of the new style were flamboyant trumpeter Buddy Bolden and the members of his band. Bolden is remembered as the first to take the blues hitherto a folk music sung and self-accompanied on string instruments or blues harp (harmonica) and arrange it for brass instruments. Bolden’s band played blues and other tunes, constantly “variating the melody” (improvising) for both dance and brass band settings, creating a sensation in the city and quickly being imitated by many other musicians.

By the early years of the 20th century, travelers visiting New Orleans remarked on the local bands’ ability to play ragtime with a “pep” not heard elsewhere.

Characteristics which set the early New Orleans style apart from the ragtime music played elsewhere included freer rhythmic improvisation. Ragtime musicians elsewhere would “rag” a tune by giving a syncopated rhythm and playing a note twice (at half the time value), while the New Orleans style used more intricate rhythmic improvisation often placing notes far from the implied beat (compare, for example, the piano rolls of Jelly Roll Morton with those of Scott Joplin). The New Orleans style players also adopted much of the vocabulary of the blues, including bent and blue notes and instrumental “growls” and smears otherwise not used on European instruments.

Key figures in the early development of the new style were Freddie Keppard, a dark Creole of color who mastered Bolden’s style; Joe Oliver, whose style was even more deeply soaked in the blues than Bolden’s; and Kid Ory, a trombonist who helped crystallize the style with his band hiring many of the city’s best musicians. The new style also spoke to young whites as well, especially the working-class children of immigrants, who took up the style with enthusiasm. Papa Jack Laine led a multi-ethnic band through which passed almost all of two generations of early New Orleans white jazz musicians (and a number of non-whites as well).

Other Regional Styles

Meanwhile, other regional styles were developing which would influence the development of jazz.

  • African-American minister Rev. Daniel J. Jenkins of Charleston, South Carolina, was an unlikely figure of far-reaching importance in the early development of jazz. In 1891, Jenkins established the Jenkins Orphanage for boys and four years later instituted a rigorous music program in which the orphanage’s young charges were taught the religious and secular music of the day, including overtures and marches. Precocious orphans and defiant runaways, some of whom had played ragtime in bars and brothels, were delivered to the orphanage for “salvation” and rehabilitation and made their musical contributions, as well. In the fashion of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and Fisk University, the Jenkins Orphanage Bands traveled widely, earning money to keep the orphanage afloat. It was an expensive enterprise. Jenkins typically took in approximately 125 – 150 “black lambs” yearly, and many of them received formal musical training. Less than 30 years later, five bands operated nationally, with one traveling to England again in the Fisk tradition. It would be hard to overstate the influence of the Jenkins Orphanage Bands on early jazz, scores of whose members went on to play with jazz legends like Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. Among them were the likes of trumpet virtuosos William “Cat” Anderson, Gus Aitken, and Jabbo Smith.
  • In the northeastern United States, a “hot” style of playing ragtime developed. While centered in New York City, it could be found in African-American communities from Baltimore to Boston. Some later commentators have categorized it after the fact as an early form of jazz, while others disagree. It was characterized by rollicking rhythms, but lacked the distinctly bluesy influence of the southern styles. The solo piano version of the northeast style was typified by such players as noted composer Eubie Blake, the son of slaves, whose musical career spanned an impressive eight decades. James P. Johnson took the northeast style and around 1919 developed a style of playing that came to be known as “stride.” In stride piano, the right hand plays the melody, while the active left hand “walks” or “strides” from upbeat to downbeat, maintaining the rhythm. Johnson influenced later pianists like Fats Waller and Willie Smith.

The top orchestral leader of the style was James Reese Europe, and his 1913 and 1914 recordings preserve a rare glimpse of this style at its peak. It was during this time that Europe’s music profoundly influenced a young George Gershwin, who would go on to compose the jazz-inspired classic “Rhapsody in Blue.” By the time Europe recorded again in 1919, he was in the process of incorporating the influence of the New Orleans style into his playing. The recordings of Tim Brymn give later generations another look at the northeastern hot style with little of the New Orleans influence yet evident.

  • In Chicago at the start of the 1910s, a popular type of dance band consisted of a saxophone vigorously ragging a melody over a 4-square rhythm section. The city soon fell heavily under the influence of waves of New Orleans musicians, and the older style blended with the New Orleans style to form what would be called “Chicago Jazz” starting in the late 1910s.
  • Along the banks of the Mississippi around Memphis, Tennessee to St. Louis, Missouri, another band style developed incorporating the blues. The most famous composer and bandleader of the style was the “Father of the Blues,” W.C. Handy. While in some ways similar to the New Orleans style (Bolden’s influence may have spread upriver), it lacked the freewheeling improvisation found further south. Handy, indeed, for many years denounced jazz as needlessly chaotic, and, in his style, improvisation was limited to short fills between phrases and was considered inappropriate for the main melody.

Jazz in the 1920s

The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra photographed in Houston, Texas, January 1921.
The King & Carter Jazzing Orchestra photographed in Houston, Texas, January 1921.

Two disparate, but important, inventions of the second half of the nineteenth century quietly had set the stage for jazz to capture the spotlight in American popular music by the 1920s. George Pullman’s invention of the sleeping car in 1864 brought a new level of luxury and comfort to the nation’s railways; and Thomas Edison’s invention, in 1877, of the phonograph record made quality music accessible to virtually everyone.

Pullman’s ingenious, rolling sleeping quarters provided employment to legions of African-American men, who criss-crossed the nation as sleeping car porters; and by the second decade of the twentieth century, the Pullman Company employed more African-Americans than any single business concern in the United States. But Pullman porters were more than solicitous, smiling faces in smart, navy blue uniforms.
The most dapper and sophisticated of them were culture bearers, spreading the card game of bid whist, the latest dance crazes, regional news, and a heightened sense of black pride to cities and towns wherever the railways reached. Many porters also shared, traded and even sold “race records” to augment their income, speeding artistic innovations to musicians eager to hear the latest; spreading among the general public an awareness of and appreciation for this rapidly evolving musical form; and, in the process, putting jazz on the fast track to first U.S., then worldwide, acclaim.

With Prohibition, the constitutional amendment that forbade the sale of alcoholic beverages, the legal saloons and cabarets were closed; but in their place hundreds of speakeasies appeared, where patrons drank and musicians entertained. The presence of dance venues and the subsequent increased demand for accomplished musicians meant more artists were able to support themselves by playing professionally. As a result, the numbers of professional musicians increased, and jazz like all the popular music of the 1920s adopted the 4/4 beat of dance music.

Another nineteenth-century invention, radio, came into its own in the 1920s, after the first commercial radio station in the U.S. began broadcasting in Pittsburgh in 1922. Radio stations proliferated at a remarkable rate, and with them, the popularity of jazz. Jazz became associated with things modern, sophisticated, and decadent. The third decade of the new century, a time of technological marvels, flappers, flashy automobiles, organized crime, bootleg whiskey, and bathtub gin, would come to be known as the Jazz Age.

Key figures of the decade

This USPS stamp celebrates the rise of jazz in the 1920s

This USPS stamp celebrates the rise of jazz in the 1920s

King Oliver was “jazz king” of Chicago in the early 1920s, when Chicago was the national hub of jazz. His band was the epitome of the New Orleans hot ensemble jazz style. Unfortunately, his band’s recordings were little heard outside of Chicago and New Orleans, but the ensemble was a powerful influence on younger musicians, both black and white.

Sidney Bechet was the first master jazz musician to take up what previously often had been dismissed as a novelty instrument, the saxophone. Bechet helped propel jazz in more individualistic personality- and solo-driven directions.

In this last point, Bechet was joined by a young protege of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, who was to become one of the major forces in the development of jazz. Armstrong was an extraordinary improviser, capable of creating endless variations on a single melody. Armstrong also popularized scat singing, an improvisational vocal technique in which nonsensical syllables or words are sung or otherwise vocalized, often as part of a call-and-response interaction with other musicians onstage. His unique, gravely voice and innate sense of swing made scat an instant hit.

Arguably, Bix Beiderbecke was both the first white and the first non-New Orleanian to make major original contributions to the development of jazz with his legato phrasing, bringing the influence of classical romanticism to jazz.

Paul Whiteman was the most commercially successful bandleader of the 1920s, billing himself as “The King of Jazz.” Sacrificing spontaneous improvisation for the sake of elaborate written arrangements, Whiteman claimed to be “making a lady out of jazz.” Despite his hiring Bix and many of the other best white jazz musicians of the era, later generations of jazz lovers have often judged Whiteman’s music to have little to do with real jazz. Nonetheless, his notion of combining jazz with elaborate orchestrations has been returned to repeatedly by composers and arrangers of later decades. It was Whiteman who commissioned Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which was debuted by Whiteman’s Orchestra.

Fletcher Henderson led the top African American band in New York City. At first he wished to follow the lead of Paul Whiteman, but after hiring Louis Armstrong to play in his band, Henderson realized the importance of the improvising soloist in developing jazz bands. Henderson’s arrangements would play a significant role in the development of the Big Band era in the following decade.

Young pianist and bandleader Duke Ellington first came to national attention in the late 1920s with his tight band making many recordings and radio broadcasts. Ellington’s importance would grow in the coming decades. Today he is widely regarded as one of the most important composers in jazz history.

1930s to 1950s

While the solo became more important in jazz, popular bands became larger in size. The Big band became the popular provider of music for the era. Big bands varied in their jazz content; some (such as Benny Goodman’s Orchestra) were highly jazz oriented, while others (such as Glenn Miller’s) left little space for improvisation. Most were somewhere in between, having some musicians adept at jazz solos playing with section men who kept the rhythm and arrangements going. However even bands without jazz soloists adopted a sound owing much to the jazz vocabularity, for example sax sections playing what sounded like an improvised variation on a melody (and may have originated as a transcription of one).

Key figures in developing the big jazz band were arrangers and bandleaders Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and the man sometimes deemed the most prolific composer in U.S. history, Duke Ellington.

In the early 1920s, popular music was still a mixture of things – current dance numbers, novelty songs, show tunes. “Businessman’s bounce music,” as one horn player put it. But musicians with steady jobs, playing with the same companions, were able to go far beyond that. The Ellington band at the Cotton Club and the various Kansas City groups that became the Count Basie band date from this period.

Over time, social strictures regarding racial segregation began to relax in entertainment. White bandleaders, who tended to mold the music more to orthodox rhythms and harmony, began to recruit black musicians. In the mid-1930s, Benny Goodman hired pianist Teddy Wilson, vibraharpist Lionel Hampton, and guitarist Charlie Christian to join small groups. During this period, the popularity of swing and big band music was at its height, making stars of such men as Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington. Swing, the popular music of its time, covered a broad spectrum from “sweet” to “hot” bands, with the jazz content varying across the range.

The influence of Louis Armstrong also continued to grow. Musicians and bandleaders like Cab Calloway and, later, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Pop vocalists like Bing Crosby embraced Armstrong’s style of improvising on the melody, and U.S. pop singers seldom since have rendered a tune “straight,” in the pre-jazz style. In Crosby’s mould, artists famed for their vocals rather than instrumental skills also began to emerge as great ‘jazz singers’ in the form of vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday and later, Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, all of whom jumped on the scat bandwagon that galvanised the genre till the 1950s.

A development of swing in the early 1940s known as “jumping the blues” or jump music anticipated rhythm and blues and rock and roll in some respects. It involved the use of small combos instead of big bands and a concentration on up-tempo music using the familiar blues chord progressions. Drawing largely upon the evolution of boogie-woogie in the 1930s, it used a doubled rhythm that is, the rhythm section played “eight to the bar,” eight beats per measure instead of four. Big Joe Turner, a Kansas City singer who worked in the 1930s with Swing bands like Count Basie’s, became a boogie-woogie star in the 1940s and then in the 1950s was one of the first innovators of rock and roll, notably with his song “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. Another jazz founder of rock and roll was saxophonist Louis Jordan.

Development of Bebop

The next major stylistic turn came in the 1940s with bebop, led by such distinctive stylists as the saxophonist Charlie Parker (known as “Yardbird” or “Bird”), Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. This marked a major shift of jazz from pop music for dancing to a high-art, less-accessible, cerebral “musician’s music.” Thelonious Monk, while too individual to be strictly a bebop musician, was also associated with this movement. Bop musicians valued complex improvisations based on chord progressions rather than melody. Hard bop moved away from cool jazz, incorporating influences from soul music, gospel music, and the blues. Hard bop was at the peak of its popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, and was associated with such figures as Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Charles Mingus. Later, bebop and hard bop musicians, such as trumpeter Miles Davis, made more stylistic advances with modal jazz, where the harmonic structure of pieces was much more free than previously, and was frequently only implied — by skeletal piano chords and bass parts. The instrumentalists then would improvise around a given mode of the scale.

Latin Jazz

Latin jazz has two varieties: Afro-Cuban and Brazilian. Afro-Cuban jazz was played in the U.S. directly after the bebop period, while Brazilian jazz became more popular in the 1960s and 1970s.

Afro-Cuban jazz began as a movement after the death of Charlie Parker. Notable bebop musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Taylor started Afro-Cuban bands at that time. Gillespie’s work was mostly with big bands of this genre. While the music was influenced by such Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians as Tito Puente and, much later, Arturo Sandoval, there were many Americans who were drawing upon Cuban rhythms for their work.

Brazilian jazz is, in North America at least, nearly synonymous with bossa nova, a Brazilian popular style which is derived from samba with influences from jazz as well as other 20th-century classical and popular music. Bossa is generally slow, played around 80 beats per minute or so. The music uses straight eighths, rather than swing eighths, and also uses difficult polyrhythms. The best-known bossa nova compositions are considered to be jazz standards in their own right.

The related term jazz-samba essentially describes an adaptation of bossa nova compositions to the jazz idiom by American performers such as Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd, and usually played at 120 beats per minute or faster. Samba itself is actually not jazz but, being derived from older Afro-Brazilian music, it shares some common characteristics.

Free Jazz

Free jazz, or avant-garde jazz, is a subgenre that, while rooted in bebop, typically uses less compositional material and allows performers more latitude in what they choose to play. Free jazz’s greatest departure from other styles is in the use of harmony and a regular, swinging tempo: Both are often implied, utilized loosely, or abandoned altogether. These approaches were rather controversial when first advanced, but have generally found acceptance though sometimes grudgingly and have been utilized in part by other jazz performers.

There were earlier precedents, but free jazz crystalized in the late 1950s, especially via Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, and probably found its greatest exposure in the late 1960s with John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Sam Rivers, Leroy Jenkins, Don Pullen and others.

While perhaps less popular than other styles, free jazz has exerted an influence to the present. Peter Brtzmann, Ken Vandermark, William Parker, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker are leading contemporary free jazz musicians, and musicians such as Coleman, Taylor and Sanders continue to play in this style. Keith Jarrett has been prominent in defending free jazz from criticism by traditionalists in recent years.

Jazz and Rock Music: Jazz Fusion

With the growth of rock and roll in the 1960s, came the hybrid form jazz-rock fusion, again involving Miles Davis, who recorded the fusion albums In a Silent Way in 1968. Jazz was by this time no longer center stage in popular music, but was still breaking new ground and combining and recombining in different forms. Notable artists of the 1960s and 1970s jazz and fusion scene include: Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Zappa, Al Di Meola, Jean-Luc Ponty, Sun Ra, Soft Machine, Narada Michael Walden (who would later enjoy huge success as a music producer), Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, the Pat Metheny Group and Weather Report. Some of these have continued to develop the genre into the 2000s.

Recent Developments

The stylistic diversity of jazz has shown no sign of diminishing, absorbing influences from such disparate sources as world music and avant garde classical music, including African rhythm and traditional structure, serialism, and the extensive use of chromatic scale, by such musicians as Ornette Coleman and John Zorn.

Beginning in the 1970s with such artists as Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Billy Childs, the Pat Metheny Group, Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner, and Eberhard Weber, the ECM record label established a new chamber-music aesthetic, featuring mainly acoustic instruments, and incorporating elements of world music and folk music. This is sometimes referred to as “European” or “Nordic” jazz, despite some of the leading players being American.

However, the jazz community has shrunk dramatically and split, with a mainly older audience retaining an interest in traditional and “straight-ahead” jazz styles, a small core of practitioners and fans interested in highly experimental modern jazz, and a constantly changing group of musicians fusing jazz idioms with contemporary popular music genres. The latter have formed such styles as acid jazz which contains elements of 1970s disco, acid swing which combines 1940s style big-band sounds with faster, more aggressive rock-influenced drums and electric guitar, and nu jazz which combines elements of jazz and modern forms of electronic dance music.

Exponents of the “acid jazz” style which was initially UK-based included the Brand New Heavies, James Taylor Quartet, Young Disciples, and Corduroy. In the United States, acid jazz groups included the Groove Collective, Soulive, and Solsonics. In a more pop or smooth jazz context, jazz enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s with such bands as Pigbag and Curiosity Killed the Cat achieving chart hits in Britain. Sade Adu became the definitive voice of smooth jazz.

There have been other developments in the 1980s and 1990s that were less commercially oriented. Many of these artists, notably Wynton Marsalis, called what they were doing jazz and in fact strove to define what the term actually meant. They sought to create within what they felt was the tradition, creating extensions of small and large forms initially pioneered by such artists as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. In the case of Marsalis these efforts met with critical acclaim.

Others musicians in this time period – although clearly within the tradition of the great spontaneous composers such as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Fats Navarro and many others choose to distance themselves from the term jazz and simply define what they were doing as music (this in fact was suggested by the great composer Duke Ellington when the term jazz first began to be popular). Alternatively they created their own names for what they were doing (such as M-Base). Many of these artists agree with the creative guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly who feels that “You shouldn’t categorize according to styles of music, you should categorize in terms of creative levels”. These musicians feel that rhythm is the key for further progress in the music. Bourelly, similar to M-Base, believes that the rhythmic innovations of James Brown and other Funk pioneers can provide an effective rhythmic base for spontaneous composition. However, the ideas of these musicians go far beyond simply playing over a funk groove, extending the rhythmic ideas in a way analogous to what had been done with harmony in previous times. Some of the musicians involved in the approach called M-Base even view this as Rhythmic Harmony. Others, Wynton Marsalis, disagree with this point of view, preferring instead to retain the rhythmic base of swing for creating their music. However, all of these artists participate in spontaneous composition and only differ in creative focus and what could be called groove emphasis.

With the rise in popularity of various forms of electronic music during the late 1980s and 1990s, some jazz artists have attempted a fusion of jazz with more of the experimental leanings of electronica (particularly IDM and Drum and bass) with various degrees of success. This has been variously dubbed “future jazz”, “jazz-house” or “nu jazz”. The more experimental and improvisional end of the spectrum includes Scandinavia-based artists such as pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvr (who both began their careers on the ECM record label), and the trio Wibutee, all of whom have gained their chops as instrumentalists in their own right in more traditional jazz circles. The Cinematic Orchestra
from the UK or Julien Lourau from France have also gained praise in this area. Toward the more pop or pure dance music end of the spectrum of nu jazz are such proponents as St Germain and Jazzanova, who incorporate some live jazz playing with more metronomic house beats.

In the 2000s, “jazz” hit the pop charts and blended with contemporary Urban music through the work of artists like Norah Jones, Jill Scott, Jamie Cullum, Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse and Diana Krall and the jazz advocacy of performers who are also music educators (such as Jools Holland, Courtney Pine and Peter Cincotti). Some of these new styles may be light on improvisation, a key characteristic of jazz. However, their instrumentation and rhythms are similar to other jazz music, and the label has stuck.


Reggie Workman, Pharaoh Sanders, and Idris Muhammad, c. 1978

Reggie Workman, Pharaoh Sanders, and Idris Muhammad, c. 1978

Jazz is often difficult to define, but improvisation is unquestionably a key element of the form. Improvisation has been since early times an essential element in African and African-American music and is closely related to the pervasiveness of call and response in West African and African-American cultural expression. The exact form of improvisation has changed over time. Early folk blues music often was based around a call and response pattern, and improvisation would factor into the lyrics, the melody, or both. Part of the Dixieland style involves musicians taking turns playing the melody while the others make up counter lines to go with it. By the Swing era, big bands played carefully arranged sheet music, but the music often would call for one member of the band to stand up and play a short, improvised solo. In bebop, however, the focus shifted from the cleverness of arrangement to the cleverness of improvisation over the form; musicians gave comparably little attention to the composed melody, or “head,” which was played at the beginning and the end of the performance. As previously noted, later styles of jazz, such as modal jazz, abandoned the strict notion of a chord progression, allowing the individual musicians to improvise more freely within the context of a given scale or mode. The best-known example of this is the classic Miles Davis album Kind of Blue. When a pianist or guitarist improvises an accompaniment while a soloist is playing, it is called comping
or vamping.

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It uses material from the Wikipedia article – Jazz