Drenched in emotion, struggle and triumph, the history of jazz reveals a style of music which has evolved at lightening pace over the last 100 years.
In this article we chart its course to answer a question which has occupied musicians and listeners for decades, both on a practical and a philosophical level: what is jazz?
If you’re looking for the short answer, we could say this:
Jazz is a style of music which emerged in the early 20th Century, primarily within the African-American community, which features improvisation and rhythmic invention at its heart.
But of course, things are never as simple as that…
As you’d expect from a music which has been in a state of almost constant evolution over the last 120+ years, there are many twists and turns to consider when trying to answer the question “what is jazz?”
And, of course, many different opinions, often delivered with fierce resolution.
So here’s the deal: we’re going to take a trip through jazz history – the music which has been described as ‘America’s greatest gift to the world‘ – and highlight some of the greatest milestones in its development.
Stay tuned for some quotes from well-known jazz musicians and historians about their beliefs about what it ‘is’ at the end, too.
After all that, it’s up to you to decide what jazz means to you…
For many, jazz was the most important artistic development of the 20th Century.
It’s a deeply sophisticated music, and one which was created and nurtured by artists who wrought triumphant beauty out of suffering and oppression.
It also developed quickly, with new innovations and offshoots coming thick and fast.
As a result, we have a whole host of styles and sub-genres – with new developments and innovations sometimes proving controversial.
And with the word “jazz” covering such a wide variety of sounds, it can sometimes be daunting to try to understand what the term even means.
Compared to other genres, it seems to generate an awful lot of debate with regards to its definition and parameters.
Scholars and artists don’t seem to argue over exactly what constitutes classical music or rock, but it’s a debate that often rears its head in the jazz world.
Some people take a relaxed view of the meaning of jazz, along the lines of “the more the merrier”.
They might even suggest that it is more of a state of mind than a specific sound-world or set of rules.
Others, however, suggest that genres and words do matter: how can we teach something if we can’t define it? And how do we ensure that funding, media coverage and festival slots are allocated fairly if anything can call itself jazz?
There are no easy answers, but let’s start with the facts…
The Origins of Jazz
Whilst its roots can be traced much further back (as the video below explains), the sounds we’d recognise as jazz today emerged in New Orleans in the early 20th Century.
The horrors of the Atlantic slave trade had brought large numbers of Africans to North America, and in the early 1900s the population of New Orleans was particularly diverse.
African Americans, descendants of slaves from the Caribbean, Creoles (people of mixed European and African heritage) and various European immigrants all lived in close proximity, without the racialised ghettos that were present in other American cities.
As a result, New Orleans is often referred to as a ‘melting pot’ of culture.
The influences of West African folk songs, spirituals, blues, ragtime (a syncopated music largely played on the piano) and the marching band tradition all came together organically to create what would become known as jazz.
What Are The Main Characteristics of Jazz?
The word ‘jazz’ can encompass a wide variety of sounds, which makes defining it practically a little complicated!
With its roots deeply embedded in a rich tapestry of musical traditions, it boasts a set of unique characteristics that nevertheless define its unmistakable sound.
At the heart of most jazz is improvisation – or at the very least ‘spontaneity’ – which gives each performance its distinct flavour.
Syncopation, polyrhythms, and irregular beats often (but not always) infuse the music with an unpredictable energy that keeps listeners on their toes.
Solos frequently take centre-stage, allowing individual musicians to shine and contribute their voice to the collective harmony.
But Jazz’s hallmark is perhaps its boundless musical freedom, with musicians unafraid to explore unexpected elements, making every jazz piece an exciting journey of creativity and expression.
This genre embodies the essence of musical innovation, where every note carries the spirit of improvisation and the thrill of unpredictability.
The Evolution of Jazz – History in Motion
The cornetist Buddy Bolden is often considered the first jazz musician: he assembled a band in 1895 that would play at dances and street parades.
Sadly, he never recorded and, after suffering from ill health, was institutionalised in a state sanatorium in 1906, where he remained for the rest of his life.
We’ve already covered the main styles of jazz in detail, but let’s recap how they evolved over the years since Mr Bolden…
1910s & 1920s Early Jazz
Jazz in the 1910s and ‘20s was characterised by polyphonic collective improvisation played by a frontline that often featured a cornet or trumpet player accompanied by a clarinet and trombone.
They would be backed by a rhythm section of banjo or piano, double bass or tuba and drums.
Louis Armstrong’s bold, operatic trumpet sound made him jazz’s first major improvising soloist, and his recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven are perhaps the pinnacle of jazz in the ‘20s.
Jelly Roll Morton was one of the first major jazz composers and the first to write down and formally arrange music for his band.
The first jazz recordings, made in 1917 by The Original Dixieland Jass Band – and the accompanying marketing – proved wildly popular and helped bring the music to an enthusiastic nationwide audience.
One early review described it as “a brass band gone crazy” and that “beyond that description we can’t tell you what a “Jass” [the early name for Jazz] band is because we don’t know ourselves.”
1930s & 1940s Swing & Big Band
The swing and big band era lasted from the early 1930s until the late ‘40s.
Jazz was America’s popular music during this period, and bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw became big stars, playing for huge audiences of dancers.
The saxophone now replaced the clarinet as jazz’s primary woodwind instrument with the emergence of brilliant soloists like Coleman Hawkins, who is considered the father of the tenor sax in jazz, and Lester Young.
Singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday appeared, fronting big bands at first, then making solo careers on their own.
Partly in response to the perceived commercialism of some swing era music, the mid-1940s saw the emergence of bebop, a fiercely intellectual Afro-American creation that was meant for listening more than dancing.
With New York, rather than New Orleans, now jazz’s epicentre, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie played complex, often fast-paced music that weaved intricate new melodies over existing popular song forms, while Thelonious Monk’s delightful, highly idiosyncratic compositions are difficult to categorise.
1950s & 1960s Styles of Jazz
The relaxed Cool jazz of Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool, The Modern Jazz Quartet and the Lennie Tristano school was marketed as a softer alternative to the more fiery sounds of bebop.
Jazz from the West Coast began to emerge: artists like Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker and Art Pepper were also perceived as having a laid-back, sunny aesthetic.
1950s and ‘60s hard bop – exemplified by Horace Silver and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers – added the influence of gospel and blues to bebop to create a stripped back, bluesy sound, and this developed into Soul jazz, which might use the hammond organ to create a soulful, church-influenced sound.
Then, in 1959 Ornette Coleman put free jazz on the map.
This initially controversial style dispensed with chord sequences and song structures in favour of a kind of bluesy, swinging chaos.
Meanwhile, Miles Davis and others had been experimenting with modal jazz – where the musicians improvise with scales, often for extended periods – in an attempt to free themselves from the constraints of traditional harmony.
Davis’ “So What” from Kind of Blue, the biggest selling and most famous jazz album of all time, is the most well known example of this.
Stan Getz’s cool tenor sound fit perfectly with the Brazilian Bossa Nova craze that hit America in the 1960s.
This fusing of jazz with music from other cultures was a tradition that had been in place at least since Dizzy Gillespie had mixed together bebop with Cuban music in the 1940s.
Jazz in the 1970s & beyond
In the late 1960s Miles Davis’ band began using electric instruments and jazz rock was born.
This grew into fusion as artists like Herbie Hancock and Weather Report mixed jazz improvisation with disco and funk to create complex, danceable sounds.
More recent trends in jazz have included the growth of European jazz, which has often had its own distinct sound, the complex rhythmic music of the M-Base movement in the 1980s, and the neo-traditionalism of the Young Lions school.
Jazz is now taught all over the world in elite conservatories, which continue to produce outstanding young players and, whilst it is no longer popular music in the way that it was in the 1930s, it retains a dedicated audience of concertgoers and listeners.
If you’re interested to dive further into this, we rounded up some of the best books on the history of jazz.
Defining Jazz: “I Dare You”
Whilst the characteristics that make up much of this music are clear to see, the question of ‘what is jazz’ on a more philosophical level is perhaps even more tricky.
Albert Murray, who wrote the acclaimed book Stompin’ the Blues, suggested that the core elements of jazz are swing, blues tonalities and acoustic sounds.
Murray’s philosophy was a major influence upon Wynton Marsalis, the virtuoso trumpeter who was regarded as a ‘neo-traditionalist’ when he appeared in the 1980s and who is now artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Marsalis, who compared Miles Davis’ late-period embracing of pop music to “a general who has betrayed his country”, is clear on what he thinks jazz is and isn’t, making the case in an essay on his website.
“Despite attempts by writers and record companies and promoters and educators and even musicians to blur the lines for commercial purposes, rock isn’t jazz and new age isn’t jazz, and neither are pop or third stream. There may be much that is good in all of them, but they aren’t jazz.” – Wynton Marsalis
He also makes the point elsewhere that we cannot teach an art form to younger generations if we are unable to define it clearly.
Stanley Crouch, an outspoken critic and a colleague of Marsalis’, had his own criteria with regards to what constitutes jazz:
“Jazz has a very solid base of Afro-American fundamentals that exclude no one of talent, regardless of color, anymore than the Italian and German fundamentals of opera do.
These fundamentals remained in place from the music’s beginnings in New Orleans to, literally, yesterday. Those fundamentals are 4/4 swing (or swing in any meter), blues, the romantic or meditative ballad, and what Jelly Roll Morton called “the Spanish tinge,” meaning Latin rhythms.
All major directions in jazz have resulted from reimagining those fundamentals, not avoiding them.” – Stanley Crouch
However, many would consider this to be a rather narrow and conservative view.
In fact, these parameters would exclude a number of the sub-genres mentioned above, including jazz-rock, fusion, Brazilian jazz and much of what we think of as modern European (and even American) jazz.
As Murray and Crouch note, the swing rhythm has generally been integral to jazz.
But certain types of jazz (or at least jazz-adjacent musics, featuring artists who are recognised as jazz musicians) have utilised straight, rather than swung, eighth notes whilst retaining other elements that we associate with the music.
Stan Getz’s collaborations with João Gilberto, the music of Weather Report, or Herbie Hancock’s fusion albums, to give three examples, do not swing.
Do they still count as jazz music?
Improvisation is a key feature of most jazz. But not every kind of music that includes improvisation is jazz, is it?
A fugue improvised in the style of J.S. Bach is not jazz, is it?
Similarly, the blues has featured in most great jazz in some form or other (although it is arguably less present in much contemporary jazz), but there are other genres which use elements of the blues without being considered jazz.
Some musicians take a more relaxed or philosophical approach to how jazz should sound.
Wayne Shorter, the great tenor saxophonist who pioneered fusion with Weather Report as well playing on classic acoustic recordings with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, says:
“Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz. For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.'”
Charlie Parker loved Lester Young and was steeped in the blues, as well as taking inspiration from modernist classical music like Stravinsky. This quote from him suggests a fairly free-flowing relationship to genre:
“Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you that music has boundaries. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.”
Louis Armstrong famously said that “if you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know”.
However, in practice, he was incredibly dismissive of the new bebop style that emerged in the 1940s, which perhaps suggests that his views on the matter were a little more rigid and specific than that rather philosophical and open-ended quote might imply.
Meanwhile, Duke Ellington, who is held up as the perfect embodiment of the ideals of jazz by Murray and Marsalis, was actually uncomfortable with the term. He felt that being described as “beyond category”, an expression coined by his colleague Billy Strayhorn, was the ultimate compliment to his music.
There are no easy answers.
But what’s almost certain is that these questions – what is jazz? And why does that matter? – are ones that will continue to inspire lively debate amongst listeners and fans alike!
Looking for more listening tips? Dive into all our articles on discovering Jazz here.