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Jazz is a group of musical styles that originated in the United States of America in the late 19th and early 20th century. The etymology and history of the term "jazz" is obscure and disputed, but not much less than the history and precise nature of the music itself.

Jazz arose in a number of U.S. cities at the end of the nineteenth century, but its first great centre was without doubt New Orleans, Louisiana. It grew from the combination of a variety of african-american musical traditions, including ragtime, blues, spirituals, and marching band music. It was distinguished by (especially group) improvisation, and took over various elements of the earlier traditions, especially syncopation.

By the 1920s, the leading jazz musicians had begun to move out from New Orleans to cities such as Chicago and New York, looking for better lives. This inevitably led to the evolution of regional styles, given the distances involved and the scarcity of recordings and mass-media outlets. The most significant development, however, soon became a national phenomenon: swing.

History of jazz

Antecedents and influences

One of the most important influences on the development of jazz was ragtime. This was a genre of American popular music that appeared in the late 19th century, growing out of the music of the African American marching bands.[1] The first ragtime songs to be published were by European Americans: the first was Ben Harney's song "You've Been a Good Old Wagon" (published 1895), and the first instrumental rag was William Krell's "Mississippi Rag" (published in January 1897). The first African American ragtime song published was "Harlem Rag" by Tom Turpin in late 1897.[2] By the early twentieth century ragtime had become an extremely popular musical form throughout America due to the availability of piano sheet music. Its origins in the music of marching bands meant that rags were generally written in 2/4 or 4/4 time with a predominant left-hand pattern of bass notes on odd-numbered beats and chords on even-numbered beats accompanying a syncopated melody in the right hand. Other time signatures were also popular, however, including ragtime waltzes in 3/4 time.

Another major influence on jazz was the blues; indeed, the blues is part of the history of almost all Western (and much non-Western) popular music developed since the beginning of the 20th century. The blues grew out of various African musical traditions taken over to North America by slaves, and for the first part of its existence existed as a purely oral tradition. Although one of the major influences on the genesis and development of jazz, it didn't itself achieve wider (and especially commercial) success until after jazz had established itself. W.C. Handy, who is known as the "Father of the Blues", was the first to publish a song with the word "blues" in the title ("Memphis Blues", 1912); many of his other compositions, such as "Beale Street Blues", "Yellow Dog Blues", and "St. Louis Blues", also became jazz standards.

Early jazz

But the first great soloist of jazz (to have survived on record, unlike fellow trumpeter Buddy Bolden) was Louis Armstrong. Despite his grinning 'Satchmo' persona and the films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the youthful Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are landmarks of early jazz.

Sidney Bechet was an admired clarinet and soprano saxophone player.

Stride piano was a solo piano style that evolved from ragtime and blues. The most celebrated stride players were James Johnson, Fats Waller, and Willie "The Lion" Smith.

The 1930s

Duke Ellington (piano), a major composer and bandleader.

Count Basie (piano) also a bandleader. Art Tatum, virtuoso pianist.

Lester Young, tenor saxophone player, who started his career in Basie's band, and whose friend Billie Holliday is one of the great singers and tragic heroines (heroin) of jazz.

Other tenor pioneers were Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.

Ella Fitzgerald, another great singer. Pianist Teddy Wilson.

Benny Goodman, clarinet player, king of swing - and clarinettist, whose classical training enabled him to make celebrated recordings of Mozart's Concerto and Quintet.

The 1940s

Until the forties jazz was the mainstream pop music of America and the English speaking world: F. Scott Fitzgerald was the novelist of the Jazz Age, and he began writing in the twenties. Typical of this was the dance band music of Glenn Miller, and there exist films of Ellington's band (among others) playing with members of the public dancing. But the middle of the decade saw the emergence of be-bop, which was a faster, more cerebral musical language, with the beat subdivided. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis were among the pioneers of modern jazz, as it became known, though the short-lived guitarist Charlie Christian had had similar ideas some years before.

The 1950s

Erroll Garner, individual pianist with an unclassifiable style, unlike Bill Evans, whose sensitive sound (another heroin addict) came to typify the jazz piano trio, alongside more robust performers such as Ray Bryant and two technical wizards, the obscure Phineas Newborn, Jr. and very famous Canadian Oscar Peterson.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet began, featuring Dave on piano and (usually) Paul Desmond on alto saxophone. In 1961 they recorded Desmond's composition in 5/4 time 'Take Five': it became a hit, and they followed it up with others in unusual time signatures. Brubeck had also featured baritone saxophone player Gerry Mulligan, who also appeared on Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool, with arrangements by Gil Evans.

John Coltrane was one of many notable musicians who came to prominence during the 1950s. He featured in groups with eccentric composer-pianist Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. As a soloist, his most famous piece was his version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's My Favorite Things on soprano saxophone, although he more often played tenor. He was joined on some recordings by another tenor player, Pharaoh Sanders.

As for Monk, his distinctive compositions rank among those of George Gershwin and Duke Ellington as among the most widely recorded in jazz.

The Modern Jazz Quartet, chamber music with a swing, featuring composers John Lewis (piano) and Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke, later Connie Kay, on drums.

The 1960s

Charles Mingus, bassist, pianist, composer and leader of medium-sized groups, Ellington meets the avant-garde. Roland Kirk made his debut with Mingus: he played several instruments including tenor, flute, manzello (something like a soprano saxophone shaped like an alto), and stritch (the reverse), also occasionally singing and often adding vocal harmonies to the instruments.

Ornette Coleman, alto: free jazz, free of key.

Miles Davis married jazz with rock.

The 1970s

The 1980s

Wynton Marsalis, trumpet player with traditional jazz values in opposition to the avant-garde - and also a classical musician. His brother Branford Marsalis, saxophones.

Michel Petrucciani, French pianist.

The 1990s to the present


  1. van der Merwe 1989, p.63
  2. Jerome J. Wolbert "The Ragtime Story"