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Jazz, type of music first developed by African Americans around the first decade of the 20th century that has an identifiable history and distinct stylistic evolution. Jazz grew up alongside the blues and popular music, and all these genres overlap in many ways. However, critics generally agree about whether artists fall squarely in one camp or another.


Since its beginnings jazz has branched out into so many styles that no single description fits all of them accurately. A few generalizations can be made, however, bearing in mind that for all of them, exceptions can be cited.

Performers of jazz improvise within the conventions of their chosen style. Typically, the improvisation is accompanied by the repeated chord progression of a popular song or an original composition. Instrumentalists emulate black vocal styles, including the use of glissandi (sliding movements that smoothly change the pitch), nuances of pitch (including blue notes, the “bent” notes that are played or sung slightly lower than the major scale), and tonal effects such as growls and wails.

In striving to develop a personal sound, or tone color (an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm and form and an individual style of execution), performers create rhythms characterized by constant syncopation (the placing of accents in unexpected places, usually on the weaker beat) and by swing. Swing can be defined as a sensation of momentum in which a melody is alternately heard together with, then slightly at variance with, the regular beat. Written scores, if present, are often used merely as guides, providing structure within which improvisation occurs. The typical instrumentation begins with a rhythm section consisting of piano, string bass, drums, and optional guitar, to which may be added any number of wind instruments. In big bands the wind instruments are grouped into three sections: saxophones, trombones, and trumpets.

Although exceptions occur in some styles, most jazz is based on the principle that an infinite number of melodies can fit the chord progressions of any song. The musician improvises new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated again and again as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.

Although pieces with many different formal patterns are used for jazz improvisation, two formal patterns in particular are frequently found in songs used for jazz. One is the AABA form of popular-song choruses, which typically consists of 32 measures in ¹ meter, divided into four 8-measure sections: section A, a repetition of section A, section B (the “bridge” or “release,” often beginning in a new key), and a repetition of section A. The second form, with roots deep in African American folk music, is the 12-bar blues form. Unlike the 32-bar AABA form, blues songs have a fairly standardized chord progression.


Jazz is rooted in the mingled musical traditions of African Americans. These include traits surviving from West African music; black folk music forms developed in the Americas; European popular and light classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries; and later popular music forms influenced by black music or produced by black composers. Among the surviving African traits are vocal styles that include great freedom of vocal color; a tradition of improvisation; call-and-response patterns; and rhythmic complexity, both in the syncopation of individual melodic lines and in the conflicting rhythms played by different members of an ensemble. Black folk music forms include field hollers, rowing chants, lullabies, and later, spirituals and blues (see African American Music).

European music contributed specific styles and forms: hymns, marches, waltzes, quadrilles, and other dance music, as well as light theatrical music and Italian operatic music. European music also introduced theoretical elements, in particular, harmony, both as a vocabulary of chords and as a concept related to musical form. (Much of the European influence was absorbed through private lessons in European music, even when the black musicians so trained could only find work in seedy entertainment districts and on Mississippi riverboats.)

Black-influenced elements of popular music that contributed to jazz include the banjo music of the minstrel shows (derived from the banjo music of slaves), the syncopated rhythmic patterns of African-influenced Latin American music (heard in southern U.S. cities), the barrelhouse piano styles of tavern musicians in the Midwest, and the marches played by black brass bands in the late 19th century. Near the end of the 19th century, another influential genre emerged. This was ragtime, a composed music that combined many elements, including syncopated rhythms (from banjo music and other black sources) and the harmonic contrasts and formal patterns of European marches. After 1910 bandleader W. C. Handy took another influential form, the blues, and broke its strict oral tradition by publishing his original blues songs. (Favored by jazz musicians, Handy’s songs found one of their greatest interpreters in the 1920s in blues singer Bessie Smith, who recorded many of them.)

The merging of these multiple influences into jazz is difficult to reconstruct because it occurred before the existence of recording, which has provided valuable documentation. Of course, individual musicians had varying backgrounds and few
people were directly exposed to all of these influences. For example, most jazz artists were and are city dwellers and might have only known rural black forms indirectly.


Most early jazz was played in small dance bands or by solo pianists. Besides ragtime and marches, the repertoire included all kinds of popular dance music and blues. The bands typically played at picnics, weddings, parades, and funerals. Characteristically, the bands played dirges on the way to funerals and lively marches on the way back. Blues and ragtime had arisen independently just a few years before jazz and continued to exist alongside it, influencing the style and forms of jazz and providing important vehicles for jazz improvisation.

A New Orleans Jazz

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the earliest fully documented jazz style emerged and centered in New Orleans, Louisiana. In this style the cornet, trumpet, or violin carried the melody, the clarinet played florid countermelodies, and the trombone played rhythmic slides and sounded the root notes of chords or simple harmonies. Below this basic trio the guitar or banjo sounded the chords, along with a piano, if available; a string bass (or tuba for marching parades) provided a bass line; and drums supplied the rhythmic accompaniment. In theory, these roles were the same as in other kinds of music—it was the addition of improvisation, along with elements of other black music such as blues and ragtime, that made jazz unique.

A musician named Buddy Bolden appears to have led some bands that influenced early jazz musicians, but this music and its sound have been lost to posterity. Although some jazz influences can be heard on a few early phonograph records, not until 1917 did a jazz band record. This band, a group of white New Orleans musicians called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, created a sensation overseas and in the United States. Among the band’s many successors, two groups emerged in the early 1920s that were particularly celebrated: the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and the Creole Jazz Band, the latter of which was led by cornetist King Oliver, an influential stylist. The series of recordings made by Oliver’s band are often considered the most significant jazz recordings by a New Orleans group. Other leading New Orleans musicians included trumpeters Bunk Johnson and Freddie Keppard, soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, and pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. The most influential jazz musician nurtured in New Orleans, however, was King Oliver’s second trumpeter, Louis Armstrong.

B Armstrong’s Impact

Armstrong was a dazzling improviser, technically, emotionally, and intellectually. He and his generation changed the format of jazz by bringing the soloist to the forefront, and within his recording groups, the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, he demonstrated that jazz improvisation could go far beyond simply ornamenting the melody—he created new melodies based on the chords of the initial tune. He also set a standard for later jazz singers, not only by the way he altered the words and melodies of songs, but also by improvising without words, like an instrument. This form of vocal improvisation is known as scat singing.

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