Skip to main content
  • Jazz
    Cover Story
    by John Edward Hasse and Bob Blumenthal

The challenge of talking about music is compounded when the subject is jazz, a word of clouded origins whose meaning reflects an evolution of astounding rapidity and imposing diversity unlikely to change as we enter jazz’s second century.

The term was originally applied to the music developed in New Orleans around the beginning of the twentieth century. Initially a product of the city’s African American community, it was quickly picked up by several of the city’s young white musicians as well. Within a mere two decades, as many of these early practitioners left home to perform throughout the United States and around the world, jazz became an international phenomenon. The earliest examples of the style, like those of the related blues, were never documented on sound recordings; but once jazz musicians did begin to record, the music expanded its audience rapidly and attracted practitioners and influences from all classes, cultures, and parts of the world.

In the ensuing decades, jazz has experienced moments of dominance, when it was accepted as popular music and produced universally recognized stars; recognition as an art form worthy of serious analysis and the highest cultural honors; and periods of marginalization, wherein even its most accomplished figures earned respect primarily from peers and enthusiasts. Through all of these shifts, the techniques and vocabulary of jazz have continued to influence other forms of both popular and “serious” music. Often acclaimed as America’s greatest art form, jazz has become accepted as a living expression of the nation’s history and culture, still youthful, difficult to define and impossible to contain, a music of beauty, sensitivity, and brilliance that has produced (and been produced by) an extraordinary progression of talented artists.

Jazz is a fluid form of expression, a quality that led critic Whitney Balliett to characterize the music in an oft-quoted phrase as “the sound of surprise.” Several characteristics contribute to jazz’s surprising nature.

A primary factor is the rhythmic energy of jazz, which incorporates both the motion of dance and the inflections of speech. The syncopations and irregular accents of early jazz styles had a visceral effect on listeners and remain central to the music’s appeal. While sometimes oversimplified as a wholesale shift in accent or emphasis— from beats one and three in a four-beat measure to beats two and four— the evolution of jazz rhythm has incorporated more complex subdivisions and superimpositions on the basic beat, while also assimilating the rhythms of other musics and cultures.

This rhythmic freedom feeds the spirit of improvisation at the heart of jazz. Unlike European classical music, which gives primacy of place to the composer, jazz is performer-oriented, with musicians generally allowed the freedom to improvise solos and even ensemble passages on the spot. While a musical score defines a classical piece, jazz’s improvisatory nature requires that it be defined by specific performances. Some performers evolve set-pieces, as a comparison of Art Tatum’s various recordings of “Willow, Weep for Me” will illustrate; but many jazz musicians pride themselves on creating a unique solo each time they play a tune, as Charlie Parker did in his numerous recordings of “Ornithology.” Even the written portion of a jazz performance can evolve, as was the case with “Mood Indigo” and other classics that Duke Ellington revisited over the decades of his career.

Inevitably, different performers interpret the same source material in different ways. A classic song such as “Summertime” will sound different when sung by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Sarah Vaughan, and when played by Stan Getz, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, John Coltrane, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. The difference goes beyond improvisation and relates to another foundation of jazz surprise—the personal sound of each musician. The young Miles Davis, one of jazz’s supremely personal voices, was chastised by his trumpet teacher Elwood Buchanan for trying to sound like Harry James. “You got enough talent to be your own trumpet man” was Buchanan’s message, though such individuality derives from serious attention to one’s sound, tone, attack, and phrasing, as well as an appreciation of rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic options (Davis and Troupe 1989, 32). As Davis put it later in his career, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” Yet sounding like yourself is the ultimate goal, and those jazz musicians who sound most like themselves, to the point that they can be identified after only a few notes, tend to have the greatest impact on other musicians.

As jazz has evolved, it has counterpoised surprise and familiarity, spontaneity and structure, soloist and ensemble, tradition and innovation. The rhythmic élan, improvisatory aesthetic, and quest for personal expression at the heart of the music have created performances in which seemingly opposing qualities are fused into aesthetically successful and often immortal wholes.

JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology

Jazz did not appear in a vacuum. Some of its elements can be traced to other cultures—its rhythmic accentuations and call-and-response patterns to Africa, its instrumentation and harmonies to Europe—but the synthesis is entirely American, rooted specifically in the earlier African American blues and ragtime styles.

The earliest jazz was not written down but rather passed on aurally among the musicians of New Orleans. This great seaport near the mouth of the Mississippi River was a bouillabaisse of African American, Anglo American, French, German, Italian, Mexican, Caribbean, and American Indian musical influences. Unlike some other U.S. cities, New Orleans had neighborhoods in which families from different ethnic backgrounds lived cheek by jowl, a circumstance that provided exceptional opportunities for musical exchange and is reflected in the music’s vitality. It explains how African Americans such as Buddy Bolden, Creoles of color such as Ferdinand Lamothe (known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton), and Caucasians such as the Italian American Nick LaRocca would all play roles in the early development of jazz. Jazz began as a solo piano music in the city’s “sporting houses”; a small-combo music played for dancers in ballrooms; and a marching band music performed at funerals, parades, and other public events. As riverboats took New Orleans music north, and as the wanderlust of Morton and other early performers brought them to both coasts, jazz became more than a local phenomenon, a process that accelerated greatly once LaRocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded in New York in 1917. Around this same time, changing working conditions in New Orleans brought about a mass exodus of the city’s musical community, launching a creative diaspora that took jazz and many of its most talented practitioners to the rest of the United States, Europe, South America, and Asia.

The imposition of Prohibition in the 1920s, and the prevalence of jazz in the speakeasies that followed in Prohibition’s wake, quickly turned jazz into both a musical and cultural phenomenon, to the point that author F. Scott Fitzgerald dubbed the era the “Jazz Age.” The music identified with this period was initially an ensemble art, with little room for individual solos beyond occasional two-bar and four-bar breaks. This soon changed, thanks in large part to the examples of clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet and cornetist/trumpeter Louis Armstrong, whose abilities to create entire choruses of improvisation were publicly recognized (especially in Armstrong’s case) by increasing activity in recording studios. The works by Morton, jazz’s first great composer, contained similar rhythmic and melodic elements and were also widely heard through recordings. Reviewing his career a decade later, Morton would claim that he was the music’s inventor.

At the same time, the growing popularity of dance orchestras led to the incorporation of jazz techniques by larger ensembles. By the end of the 1920s, a looser, more free-flowing and sophisticated style of dance music had begun to evolve into what in a few years would be called “swing.” Given the racial segregation prevalent in American society, there was less visible interaction among white and black musicians than had occurred in New Orleans, and prominent white bandleaders were quick to add white jazz soloists to their ranks, as was the case when “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman featured cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and trombonist Jack Teagarden. The primary influence on orchestral development, however, came from African American band leaders Fletcher Henderson, who standardized ensemble instrumentation and arranging style, and Duke Ellington, who was particularly attuned to the individual sounds of his musicians and the startling tone colors that they could create in combination. The featured soloists with these bands—Armstrong and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins with Henderson, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges with Ellington—also became the prevailing model for others who played the same instrument. It did not take long for the black and white bands to begin playing the same pieces, often in the same arrangements.

Big bands proliferated in the years before World War II, their popularity spurred by the remote radio broadcasts that brought the sounds of Ellington and others to listeners across the country. Concurrently, “territory” bands arose in various regions, serving as training grounds for young musicians and laboratories for new ideas. Thus the “Jazz Age” gave way to the “Swing Era,” as clarinetist Benny Goodman launched a national jitterbug craze via classic Henderson arrangements, and the band that pianist Count Basie led out of Kansas City introduced a more flowing beat and a renewed emphasis on the blues. Each of these bands in turn featured players who became role models for others: trumpeter Harry James and drummer Gene Krupa with Goodman and trumpeter Buck Clayton and tenor saxophonist Lester Young with Basie among them. When Goodman featured African American artists Teddy Wilson (piano) and Lionel Hampton (vibes) in his live appearances, he also began a push for racial equality. Lionel Hampton stated in 1994 that the Benny Goodman Quartet opened the door for Jackie Robinson to come into major league baseball. “The integration of musicians started a lot of things happening” (Blumenthal 2007, 62-63).

The dominance of big bands through much of the 1930s should not diminish the ongoing importance of smaller groups, which operated in a variety of styles. The multitalented pianist, composer, and vocalist Thomas “Fats” Waller and his Rhythm (as his sextet was known) featured humorous takes on Tin Pan Alley material. A series of small-band recordings under the leadership of Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, and Lionel Hampton featured many of the era’s leading orchestral musicians in more informal settings that allowed for greater solo space. In Europe, the Quintette du Hot Club de France, featuring the virtuosity of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli, created a string-centered jazz sound and gave the first indication that one need not be an American to have influence on the music’s international development. With the growth of radio, the appearance of jazz stars such as Armstrong in motion pictures, and the temporary expatriation at the end of the 1930s of such American stars as Hawkins and the composer and multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, the sense that jazz was becoming the musical Esperanto of the era only intensified.

World War II brought upheavals to jazz, and all else. Musicians were drafted, gas rationing and new entertainment taxes made it more difficult for bands to sustain tours, and a contractual dispute between their union and the record companies kept most musicians out of the studios. Unable to sustain themselves financially, most of the big bands dissolved, ceding their popularity to vocalists (who could record during the ban, albeit with only choral accompaniment) such as Frank Sinatra, and to the small-group dance music called “rhythm & blues” that was gaining popularity among younger African Americans. At the same time, a more angular and asymmetrical style of jazz improvisation emerged that came to be known as “bebop.”

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, the leading exponents of the new style, created rhythmically complex, harmonically rich virtuosic improvisations, and displayed an affinity in phrasing rapid-fire bebop melodies that has rarely been matched. Kenny Clarke, the first of the great modern drummers, moved the timekeeping role from the bass drum to the ride cymbal, and used the kick and snare drums for accent and rhythmic stimulus. Pianist Thelonious Monk, whose playing style was more spare and idiosyncratic, initially had a greater impact through his angular compositions, which to this day remain the jazz works most widely performed after those of Duke Ellington.

Bebop’s growth in the years immediately following World War II as both a musical and cultural phenomenon (the latter expressed through the emulation of Gillespie’s goatee and horn-rimmed glasses) paralleled a change in the way in which jazz was presented. With dance halls and ballrooms in decline, the music found a new home in nightclubs and concert halls, where the emphasis was on listening rather than dancing. As often occurs when such transformations take place, more traditional musicians took offense. Bandleader Cab Calloway disparaged bebop as “Chinese music,” while guitarist Eddie Condon, referring to a musical interval indicative of the new style, emphasized that he and his colleagues did not flat their fifths, they drank them.

Yet it did not take long before bebop had generated stylistic variations of its own. The big band that Gillespie formed in 1946 would soon feature Cuban percussion virtuoso Chano Pozo and plant the seeds of merging jazz and Afro-Cuban music, a blend that was also encouraged on the Latin side by the jazz-oriented ensembles of Machito and Tito Puente. In 1948, trumpeter Miles Davis organized a nine-piece band that included French horn and tuba, incorporated counterpoint and subtle ensemble colors, and gave great latitude to the arranger; as this style, quickly identified as “cool jazz,” attracted adherents based in Los Angeles including Gerry Mulligan, Shorty Rogers, and Shelly Manne, it also became known as “West Coast jazz.” By the early 1950s, Davis was moving in another direction, placing greater emphasis on the blues tradition and a more intense emotional expression. This “hard bop” style, defined in the studio recordings of Davis and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the touring quintet co-led by drummer Max Roach and trumpeter Clifford Brown, was seen as the East Coast response to cool jazz; and when drummer Art Blakey and pianist Horace Silver introduced elements of spirituals and gospel music, hard bop earned another name, “soul jazz.” All the while, musicians were expanding compositional possibilities in a variety of ways, from the use of fugues and other classical techniques in the music pianist John Lewis created for the Modern Jazz Quartet to the introduction of “open” forms and a return to collective improvisation in the works of bassist Charles Mingus.

These simultaneous developments indicate how difficult it had become to pigeonhole jazz into specific time or stylistic periods. By the end of the 1950s, the emergence of other new ideas would only compound the challenge. The use of musical modes based on scales rather than sequences of chords as the basis of improvisation, an approach first championed by composer and theoretician George Russell, made an immediate impact after Miles Davis applied it over the course of his 1959 album Kind of Blue. Another landmark album of the period, Time Out by the quartet of pianist Dave Brubeck, expanded jazz’s rhythmic horizons beyond the standard 4/4 swing and waltz tempos to such then-exotic time signatures as 5/4 and 9/8. Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman eliminated harmonic progression altogether in the music of his quartet, spawning the notion of “free jazz.” Pianist Cecil Taylor took the concept of freedom even further, as song forms, fixed rhythms, and the hierarchy of soloist and accompanist were abandoned in his kinetic creations. Many of these developments were reflected in the music of tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane, whose evolution during the decade before his premature death in 1967 added a personal sense of quest for spirituality and self-improvement to a music now known, for lack of a more precise metaphor, as “the new thing.”

These developments had been greatly encouraged by related strides in technology. Of particular importance was the introduction of the long-playing record in 1948, an innovation that quickly replaced the 78 rpm record (containing only three or four minutes of music per side) with the 33 1/3 rpm, twenty-minutes-per-side disc. LPs made it possible to document extended compositions as well as longer solos and jam sessions more indicative of the live jazz experience. While the advances in international travel made it easier for musicians to visit cities in Western Europe and Japan, where the popularity of jazz was rising, the worldwide short-wave radio broadcasts of the Voice of America took the music across closed political borders, leading many who lived in repressive societies to view jazz as the sound-image of freedom. All of this activity brought new influences to bear on jazz, from both other countries and American popular culture. Beginning in the 1960s, the pace of cross-cultural synthesis quickened; jazz incorporated Brazilian bossa nova, Indian raga, Eastern European klezmer, and other ethnic styles. The universal popularity of rock music also led musicians such as the vibraphonist Gary Burton and those in the orbit of perpetual innovator Miles Davis to employ more electric guitars and keyboards, and to make rhythmic adjustments that would lead to a style known initially as “jazz-rock” and then more generally as “fusion.” Others, especially the African American musicians who formed the cooperative Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) in Chicago and the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, added innovative compositional forms, unusual instruments and ensembles, and a multidisciplinary theatricality to the techniques of free jazz. By 1980, when fusion and free developments had created a “postmodern” surge that diminished the visibility and standing of more swing- and blues-oriented styles, a combination of rejuvenated expatriates such as tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, belatedly celebrated veterans including pianist Tommy Flanagan, and a new generation of technically proficient and historically focused “young lions” led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis redirected attention to the music’s rich history, while also expanding the influence of a jazz education movement that began with isolated summer band camps and college courses in the 1950s.

The sum of these developments is a music as eloquent and influential as any created in the last century. We are long past the point at which one had to be American-born to become an influence on jazz development, as illustrated by the careers of Japanese pianist/composer Toshiko Akiyoshi, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, British saxophonist Evan Parker, Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson, and Austrian keyboardist/composer Joe Zawinul, among many others. At the same time, jazz has left its mark on both other styles of music (classical, country, pop, rhythm & blues, rock) and other art forms (cinema, dance, fiction, painting, photography, poetry), not to mention vernacular speech. Once assailed as noisy, discordant, and an assault on moral values, jazz is now taught in high schools and colleges, where it is played by hundreds of thousands of young musicians and studied by a growing rank of scholars. The Smithsonian Institution, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and other major cultural institutions have established important and influential jazz programs, and the National Endowment for the Arts has honored more than one hundred musicians with the coveted title of NEA Jazz Master and a monetary award. Once disparaged and shunned, jazz is now central to America’s cultural heritage.

Sources Cited

Blumenthal, Bob. 2007. Jazz: An Introduction to the History and Legends Behind America's
Music. New York: Collins.

Davis, Miles, and Quincy Troupe. 1989. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster.