Jazz, one of the most popular genres of music, has a history spanning over a hundred years. The genre is very difficult to define, both by its musicians and by those who have studied its history. But, it is widely accepted that what differentiates Jazz from the rest of the music is its improvisation, spontaneity, polyrhythms, group interactions, and swing. One of the most intriguing aspects of jazz is that it brings out the individuality of the performing jazz musician, like no other genre does. In a way, it is the perfect blend of group music, and solo performance.
The genre has its origins in the early African-American communities in the southern United States. Towards the late nineteenth century, the descendants of former slaves developed their own form of music, by taking some cues from the European music. In fact, it also draws inspiration from a number of other music forms including French quadrilles, ragtime, biguine, and so on. Over the decades, the genre itself has spawned a number of jazz forms, some of which lasted a few years, and others emerged as persistent jazz forms such as the New Orleans jazz, the Kansas City jazz, bebop, cool jazz, free jazz, and others. Since this music form emerged in the multicultural society of the United States, it has been hailed by intellectuals across the world as one of America’s original art forms. For the African Americans, jazz is a matter of pride, as it highlights the community’s contribution to American society. Therefore, some of the members of the community consider the newer forms of jazz, especially the commercial music forms, as a debasement of their music and rich culture.
By the early 19th Century, the US was home to half a million African slaves, who had origins in the greater Congo River basin and West Africa. With them, they brought their musical traditions to the US. In tune with the seasons, during the time of harvests, large gatherings and festivals were organized that hosted the dance and musical performances by these communities of slaves. As time went by, their music imbibed characteristics of Church hymns, which was one of the main features of the early blues form. As more black musicians began to learn European instruments, their native music began to drift further from the source, and evolve into a genre of its own.
A drastic change was introduced to jazz, with the promulgation of Black Codes, which prohibited the slaves from drumming. Drums were a major part of the black music, and it left a gaping hole when it got banned. To make up for its absence, stomping, patting, clapping, and other body rhythms were introduced into the music. As the music progressed, by the late 19th century, the blacks managed to retain the basic rhythmic patterns, which were simple and could be transferred to the European instruments, while the major similarities to the African music was lost completely. During this period, two distinct forms of jazz emerged, depending on where they drew their influence from – tresillo, and Spanish tinge.
Once the slavery was abolished, although the blacks were free, their employment opportunities were limited. They had to find work in the entertainment industry by playing dances, minstrel shows, and so on. This period was characterized by the emergence of black music bands which performed in commercial establishments such as bars, brothels, and others, giving birth to the ragtime form. Ernest Hogan, and white jazz musician William H. Krell, were the prominent musicians of the time known for fueling this music. It was also during this time that the blues emerged as a form of its own. It was a confluence of African music of Arabic influence with the rhythms of Church hymns. The blues eventually bestowed its harmonic complexity to jazz, which still dominates this genre.
New Orleans became the seat of jazz development as a prominent music genre. This music form was practiced mainly by the African-Americans, in the funerals, pubs, clubs, and brothels. But the musicians began to travel the entire south of the country to perform vaudeville shows, in turn popularizing the genre itself. The cornetist Buddy Bolden and Afro-Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who were active around 1905, laid some of the basic foundations for the music genre, which later came to be known as jazz. The term “jazz” itself was not used to refer to the music at this point of time. The name was adopted to refer to the music somewhere around 1910. It took Morton’s entire career to take jazz from ragtime to jazz piano. He freed the genre from rigid rhythmic feeling, got rid of the embellishments, and preserved the swing feeling, that has now become one of the defining characteristics of the genre.
With the coming of 1920s, and abolition of alcoholic drinks, illicit clubs became popular, where jazz music was the most commonly performed music. This created a huge negative feeling towards the music, both from the public as well as members of the African American community. The genre eventually managed to shed its image, and grew to become a mainstream art, thanks to legends the likes of Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bix Beiderbecke, and others. The ‘30s saw a sudden sprout of swing big bands, most notable those which were led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Glenn Miller, and so on. The next decade was arguably ruled by one figure, Duke Ellington, who went on to become one of the most respected jazz musicians in his lifetime.
So far, jazz was markedly a danceable music. But, during 1940s, some musicians made an effort to make it more challenging, and turn it into “musician’s music”. The result of this attempt was bebop. It was a music that was to be listened to and not danced to. Since it was released during the time when dancing music was the thing, bebop did not taste significant success. Eventually it gave way to a new emerging form, cool jazz. The transition from the tense and energetic tones of bebop to the calm and smooth Cool jazz can be credited to Miles Davis. Although cool jazz dominated the fifties, other forms were also prevalent during the period, such as hard bob, modal jazz, and free jazz. The ‘60s and 70’s witnessed a renewed interest in the jazz music with the rise in African-American Civil Rights Movement. The period also saw a great number of jazz musicians including the white jazz musicians taking to the genre. However, late sixties and early seventies were the time of hybrid music. Jazz produced a number of sub-genres by blending with other forms. Jazz fusion, jazz-rock, jazz-funk, and many other hybrid forms.
Meanwhile, jazz was evolving quite differently in the Latin America, supported by different instruments, and taking inspiration from local music. Two main forms of Latin jazz are distinguished from each other – Afro-Cuban jazz and Brazilian jazz. Some American jazz musicians do take some elements of the Latin jazz and incorporate them in their music, in their own way.
Eventually, the traditional jazz began to emerge as a rebellion as an answer to all the new forms of jazz, which were considered to be not “pure jazz” by the traditionalists. Despite the popularity of a number of jazz forms, none of them hold the center stage right now. The genre is pluralist, with a variety of jazz forms having their own loyal fans, and passionate naysayers. Just hop over here to find out how to access lots of jazz via your television or the Internet.