A Brief History of Jazz

Harry Connick, Jr.
Cover of Harry Connick, Jr.

Getting Started
The word "jazz" (then sometimes written as "jass") first appeared in general use around 1913. Its roots are found in America's south where in the 19th century mostly black musicians combined west African rhythms and gospel singing with European harmony. From the beginning, improvisations was always a major component of the new music.

Jazz grew out of ragtime, New Orleans-style brass bands and African-American Spirituals. But most directly, it grew out of blues music, first popular at the turn of the century. W.C. Handy (1873-1958), who is considered the "father of the blues," created music that had many jazz elements. His "Memphis Blues" and "St. Louis Blues" were big hits in the 1910s and are jazz classics.

In the 1920s, jazz developed beyond simple three-chord blues-based chord structures and became very popular in Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago and New York before spreading to London and Paris. During this time, in Kansas City, the tuba was replaced with the string bass as the bass clef instrument of choice. This was a major development, for the quickness and versatility of the string bass allowed the music to open up and swing more than the plodding tuba could allow.

It was during the '20s that jazz was moving away from the improvised "Dixieland" style.

As jazz grew, so did the size of the typical jazz orchestra: from five, to seven, to finally 18 and even larger. The first great jazz composer, African-American Duke Ellington went to New York City in 1923 and formed the first big jazz band-10 pieces. Ellington required his players to not only be great improvisors, but to be great improvisors, but to be formally trained in reading music. His contributions to jazz were such that he was the first jazz composer to receive the Presedential Medal of Freedom.

Composer/arranger Duke Ellington's career took off in the 1920s (particularly in famous New York night spots such as the Cotton Club). Ellington became famous for infusing traditional blues and jazz elements with great sophistication by incorporating complex harmonies and original arrangements in his music. He changed the face of modern music, and his influence on musicians of all styles still endures.

With conductor Paul Whiteman, the size of the bands increased further still. Whiteman is credited with developing "symphonic jazz" and included violins and timpani in his band. Whiteman's complex arrangements, particularly of composer George Gershwin, popularized jazz music with a greater white audience who had previously shunned jazz as "black" music.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the "swing" era was in full bloom with virtuoso instrumentalists like Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller among others. During this era, jazz was definitely the most popular style in the U.S. and musicians all over the world played the music.

After the war, swing yielded to a style of jazz called "be-bop" and "cool jazz," and smaller combos became popular again. (This was partly due to the natural evolution of the music and partly due to economics; the cost of keeping a big band together was becoming too expensive.) Saxophonist Charlie Parker, along with fellow band mates and friends Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were at the forefront of the new movement where the tempos were typically extremely fast and a great technical virtuosity was necessary. Unusual tempos and rhythms, in addition to modern harmonies, were also found in the music.

In the 1960s and 1970s, jazz continued to evolve, in part as a reaction to the growing rock and roll trend of pop music ("free jazz") and in part, embracing it ("fusion jazz" and "jazz-rock"). Greats like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock continue to take jazz to new heights, experimenting with electronic music in addition to 20th century classical music harmonies.

George Gershwin is one of American's finest composers. His wonderful songs like "I've Got Rhythm," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Embraceable You" and many others are still standards often sung today. He also successfully mixed classical and jazz elements, as evident in his famous "Rhapsody in Blue.

The 1980s and 1990s has seen a resurgence of more traditional jazz, with the brothers Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr. and others reinventing the exciting medium once more.

Piano Jazz

Jazz pianists have particularly made significant contributions to expanding jazz into an art form. Boogie, stride, swing, be-bop, cool and free jazz style have been influenced by Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, Earl Hines, Art Tatum Bud Powell, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, Keith Jarrett, Harry Connick, Jr. and many others.

Many of the musical characteristics found in the performance of these outstanding players have been sprinkled throughout this book. REcordings of those and other stars are widely available.

Jazz musicians use a unique musical skill known as improvisation. Improvisation has been used in classical music for many centuries, yet it has a special place in jazz, for it offers every performer an opportunity to use traditional musical skills and techniques to create new and personal musical compositions. Jazz improvisors are not born with the ability to improvise-it is learned. The jazz student studies the skills and vocabulary of jazz and then uses it in spontaneous ways to create new muscial compositions. It is an exciting event for the jazz performer, and it is thrilling for aufiences to see and hear that kind of creativity take place.

I personally love to hear Jazz and enjoy playing many tunes from the 20s and 40s. I have always been a firm believer on knowing your chords, connecting those chord progressions, playing those songs and improvising a bit, knowing your scales and patterns. If you have a favorite jazz song or artist, I'd love to hear from you.

Musician Breakthrough

All the best,

"Jazz washes away the dust of every day life." -- Art Blakey
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