Jazz Music

Jazz is a music genre that originated in African American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African American and European American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Although the foundation of jazz is deeply rooted within the black experience of the United States, different cultures have contributed their own experience and styles to the art form as well. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as “one of America’s original art forms”.

As jazz spread around the world, it drew on different national, regional, and local musical cultures, which gave rise to many distinctive styles. New Orleans jazz began in the early 1910s, combining earlier brass-band marches, French quadrilles, biguine, ragtime and blues with collective polyphonic improvisation. In the 1930s, heavily arranged dance-oriented swing big bands, Kansas City jazz, a hard-swinging, bluesy, improvisational style and Gypsy jazz (a style that emphasized musette waltzes) were the prominent styles. Bebop emerged in the 1940s, shifting jazz from danceable popular music toward a more challenging “musician’s music” which was played at faster tempos and used more chord-based improvisation. Cool jazz developed in the end of the 1940s, introducing calmer, smoother sounds and long, linear melodic lines.

The 1950s saw the emergence of free jazz, which explored playing without regular meter, beat and formal structures, and in the mid-1950s, hard bop emerged, which introduced influences from rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues, especially in the saxophone and piano playing. Modal jazz developed in the late 1950s, using the mode, or musical scale, as the basis of musical structure and improvisation. Jazz-rock fusion appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, combining jazz improvisation with rock music’s rhythms, electric instruments, and highly amplified stage sound. In the early 1980s, a commercial form of jazz fusion called smooth jazz became successful, garnering significant radio airplay. Other styles and genres abound in the 2000s, such as Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz.

Jazz has proved to be very difficult to define, since it encompasses such a wide range of music spanning a period of over 100 years, from ragtime to the 2010-era rock-infused fusion. Attempts have been made to define jazz from the perspective of other musical traditions, such as European music history or African music. But critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt argues that its terms of reference and its definition should be broader, defining jazz as a “form of art music which originated in the United States through the confrontation of the Negro with European music” and arguing that it differs from European music in that jazz has a “special relationship to time defined as ‘swing'”, involves “a spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation plays a role” and contains a “sonority and manner of phrasing which mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician”. In the opinion of Robert Christgau, “most of us would say that inventing meaning while letting loose is the essence and promise of jazz.”

Although jazz is considered highly difficult to define, at least in part because it contains so many varied subgenres, improvisation is consistently regarded as being one of its key elements. The centrality of improvisation in jazz is attributed to influential earlier forms of music: the early blues, a form of folk music which arose in part from the work songs and field hollers of the African-American slaves on plantations. These were commonly structured around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, but early blues was also highly improvisational. European classical music performance is evaluated by its fidelity to the musical score, with much less discretion over interpretation, ornamentation, and accompaniment: the classical performer’s primary goal is to play a composition as it was written. In contrast, jazz is often characterized as the product of group creativity, interaction, and collaboration, which places varying degrees of value on the contributions of the composer (if there is one) and performers. In jazz, the skilled performer will interpret a tune in very individual ways, never playing the same composition the same way twice; depending on the performer’s mood and personal experience, interactions with other musicians, or even members of the audience, a jazz musician may alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will.