Getting Jazzy With Jazz

Jazz music, also known as “African American classical music,” originated in the late 19th century in New Orleans, Louisiana. It consists of different times such as traditional jazz, the swing era, and bebop. It is distinguished by its improvisation, virtuosity, and erudition. The emergence of Jazz has often been explained as, “the mixture of uptown African American brass and string band tradition of blues-drenched, aurally transmitted music, with the downtown Creole band tradition of instrumental virtuosity musical literacy, and training in classical music” (Burnim and Maultsby 165). The presence of French, Spanish, African American, Creole, Cuba, and Caribbean populations created a melting pot in New Orleans. The Congo Square became an open space where these integrated ethnic societies were free to express themselves in a mix of styles that would contribute to the creation of jazz.


Jazz has all the elements that other music has such as melody, harmony, and rhythm set by the foundation of the bass. However, improvisation has set jazz apart from other musical genres. Improvisation means to make things up on the spot. With the use of improvisation, being creative and having an imagination became a necessity. Scatting was a form of improvisation. This consisted of a singer improvising melodies and rhythms, using the voice as an instrument, instead of as a voice medium. Coping is another big thing in jazz, this means to accompany. People who aren’t singing a solo are softly singing or playing an instrument in the background. Another distinctive thing about jazz is the syncopation that is present in the music, this syncopation later transitioned into swing. Swing, a rhythmic propulsiveness, refers to the change of the length of notes, by holding some longer and making some other notes shorter. Riff, a short, recurrent melodic rhythmic phrase is used in several different ways. These ways include: as melodies, in call-and-response with another riff or an improvised passage, a continuous supporting texture, or in layers.  In regards to the ensemble, wind instruments are the largest category of jazz instruments. Reed instruments such as the clarinet and saxophone, are often used as well. Jazz incorporates a blues feeling and harmonic complexity. All of these elements come together to give us different forms of jazz such as cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, free jazz, and jazz fusion.

There was several societal implications that came from jazz depending on the time. With World War II, came Bebop. This reflected a new attitude of African Americans that reflected the Double V campaign. The improvised style that was characterized by exceedingly fast tempos, with improvisational lines based on the harmonic structure rather than on the melody, reflected the anger that African Americans felt at the time. They felt like if they were deemed fit to fight and risk their lives in a war, they should be treated with such dignity at home and not be faced racial injustices. After World War II, there was a shift in American attitudes. Cool jazz was regionalized in the west coast. It reflected a subdued emotion, where people’s feelings reflected a calm emotion of self control, in regards to weapons of mass destruction. Cool jazz emphasized lyrical melodic style and became coded as a white sound. On the opposite end of cool jazz, hard bop was created as a way to express the anger African Americans felt about the social, economic, and political climate of America. This climate included racial inequality like Jim Crow. Hard bop was a combo jazz style that incorporated blues, rhythm and blues, and gospel music. Hard bop was regionalized in New York and became coded as a black sound. Similar to Hard Bop, Modal Jazz focused on making societal commentaries, specifically in regards to the civil rights era. This type of jazz could be seen as an expression to events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other civil right acts. Modal jazz also helped many jazz musicians who were facing drug addiction to transitioning from drugs to a realm of Afrocentric spirituality. Free jazz, “avant-garde jazz”, became popular during the 1960s. It reflected left-wing jazz expression that symbolized revolutionary social critique, spiritual awareness, and freedom.

There are several important performers in jazz. Jelly Roll Morton popularized double time. Double time refers to a section in a song where the rhythmic pulse of a piece is doubled for dramatic effect. In some of Morton’s songs, his final chorus foreshadow the ubiquitous shout chorus of swing band arrangements. Duke Ellington popularized a new unique style for jazz ensembles. He combined sweet dance band style, New Orleans and blues-inspired trumpet sound to make the jungle sound. Louis Armstrong was known for his strong stage performance. A jack of all trades, Armstrong was very talented on his trumpet, and skilled in scat singing, an amazing composer, and occasional actor, Armstrong would become one of the most influential figures in jazz. 

Picture of Jelly Roll Morton
Picture of Duke Ellington
Picture of Louis Armstrong

In terms of commodification, radio broadcasting from hotels, clubs, and dance halls were crucial for establishing and maintaining reputations of bands. These bands included but are not limited to: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. There were two different types of radio broadcasts. This included sustaining programs which originated late at night from hotels and clubs and featured a variety of bands. The other type of radio broadcasts was a sponsored program where a company hired particular bands for long-term contracts. Ragtime, blues, marches and African American religious music all contributed to the formation of jazz. Jazz would have a major influence on later genres as well. These genres would include pop, rock, and hip hop classics. 

Jazz is one of the most unique and powerful music genres introduced to America. It not only gave us a new sound to listen to and enjoy, but it also helped express the societal problems that African Americans faced during this time period. In addition, Jazz is one of the most important foundations to the music that my generation listens to today. With musical hallmarks like improvisation, syncopation, swing, blues feeling, and harmonic complexity, the sweet, yet diverse sound we’ve come to known today made and continues to make its impact on everyone living. 

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