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Jazz is the classical musical tradition created by Africans in America beginning in the late 19th century. The term jazz came into common usage by 1918 with numerous theories posed as to its etymology, all of which were associated in some way with African or African American men. Despite the obscurity around the term, jazz epitomizes the highest developed art form produced in the United States and, as a musical tradition, encompasses many diverse and continually changing styles.
Throughout the development of jazz, African musical sensibilities are central. The technique of call-and-response found in much of African music has remained prominent in jazz. The concept of participatory music-making that is at the core of African music, whereby all members of the group take part in the creation of the music, is evidenced in the prevalence of polyphonic ensemble playing in jazz. Improvisation— composing and performing simultaneously, the most important feature of jazz—can be traced to African antecedents. It was, however, the encounter of the African with his new environment in America that allowed for the development of jazz, which has become one of the world's most vibrant art forms.
Jazz developed primarily as an outgrowth of two African American musical genres—ragtime and the blues. Ragtime, made popular by pianist Scott Joplin, was intended to accompany dance with its highly syncopated rhythmic patterns. Syncopation is a rhythmic technique derived from African music in which a part of the beat that is usually unaccented is instead accented, while the usually accented parts of the beat are left unstressed. Bent pitches, vocal embellishments, and other special vocal effects associated with emotional expressions typify the blues. It is the fusion of the rhythms, phrasing, and sound productions of ragtime and the blues with the instrumentations, melodies, and harmonies of brass bands and dance orchestras, that jazz first began to evolve.
The vast array of styles that comprised the jazz tradition is most often identified in terms of geographical locations, chronological periods, and key musicians of the style. One of the prime locations for the incubation of the earliest styles of jazz was New Orleans, Louisiana. During the late 1800s up through the first two decades of the 1900s, the popularity of military bands, the influences of the music and dances performed by Africans in Congo Square, along with the appearance of individual performers such as pianist Jelly Roll Morton, led to the formation of musical ensembles that performed at parades, funerals, and for other various occasions. These performers developed what came to be known as New Orleans jazz, a distinctively instrumental style performed on three or four wind instruments, drums, piano, guitar or banjo, and tuba.
Chicago is considered to have been the center of jazz activities in the 1920s. Many musicians from New Orleans migrated to Chicago with the first recordings produced by groups such as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven, and King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. During the 1930s and 1940s, New York came into the spotlight with the emergence of the jazz style known as swing. With the emphasis on music for dancing, the swing bands or bigbands—ten or more musicians consisting of a brass section, a reed section and a rhythm section—were led by bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington. Kansas City Jazz also became popular with bandleader Count Basie at this time.
During the 1940s, a group of jazz musicians in New York City began experimenting with new musical ideas which developed into a style that came to be known as bop, bebop, or rebop. This new style of jazz emphasized intense and elaborate improvisations, and was developed by musicians such as saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk. Hard bop became associated with saxophonists such as Cannonball Adderly and John Coltrane.
Jazz vocalists have also been instrumental in the development of jazz styles. Most often, the jazz vocalist uses the voice as a musical instrument blending in with the rest of the ensemble. Some prominent jazz vocalists in the history of jazz have included Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Jimmy Rushing.
Although many jazz styles continued to coexist, the 1950s brought in the development of cool jazz epitomized, by trumpeter Miles Davis, and the genesis of free jazz, first associated with saxophonist Ornette Coleman. In the 1960s and 1970s, many jazz musicians returned to the roots of jazz and began performing styles known as jazz funk and gospel jazz. During the 1980s and 1990s, electric jazz and jazz/rock fusion became popular with musicians such as bassist Stanley Clarke, saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., and pianist Herbie Hancock. The catch-all term contemporary jazz includes many new styles that are being developed currently. Latin jazz/Cuban jazz has also developed as a distinct style with such artists as drummer Poncho Sanchez and pianist Chucho Valdez.
While the many styles of jazz reflect the lifestyles and culture of African Americans during the various historical periods, jazz can categorically be described as music having a) a vitality, originality and spontaneity in which improvisation is an essential element; b) a distinctive relationship to time in which the music is played a little ahead of, or a little behind, the main beats, referred to as “swing” and enhanced with syncopation; and c) pitch and tonal inflections along with phrasing that reflect the creativity and musicianship of the performer. These characteristics are present in varying degrees in the wide range of jazz styles and various stages of jazz development.
Jazz is still the most recognizable and most highly influential music in the world today. As an artistic and cultural tradition, jazz reveals the “soul” of African Americans and in all of its manifestations captures the “spirit” of life in America.



Further Reading

  • Conyers, James L., Jr. (Ed.). (2001). African American Jazz and Rap: Social and Philosophical Examination of Black Expressive Behavior. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland. Relates music to social and political consciousness.
  • Martin, Henry. (1986). Enjoying Jazz. New York: Schirmer. Gives a brief survey of various jazz styles.
  • Megill, Donald D., & Demoy, Richard S. (2004). Introduction to Jazz History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. Highlights some musicians and jazz styles.
  • Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. (2003). Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. Berkeley: University of California Press. Provides contemporary comments on social realities in relation to jazz.