Jazz is a kind of music that has often been called the only art form to originate in the United States. The history of jazz began in the late 1800's. The music grew from a combination of influences, including black American music, African rhythms, American band traditions and instruments, and European harmonies and forms. Much of the best jazz is still written and performed in the United States. But musicians from many other countries are making major contributions to jazz. Jazz was actually widely appreciated as an important art form in Europe before it gained such recognition in the United States.
One of the key elements of jazz is improvisation--the ability to create new music spontaneously. This skill is the distinguishing characteristic of the genuine jazz musician. Improvisation raises the role of the soloist from just a performer and reproducer of others' ideas to a composer as well. And it gives jazz a fresh excitement at each performance.
Another important element of jazz is syncopation. To syncopate their music, jazz musicians take patterns that are even and regular and break them up, make them uneven, and put accents in unexpected places.
The earliest jazz was performed by black Americans who had little or no training in Western music. These musicians drew on a strong musical culture from black life. As jazz grew in popularity, its sound was influenced by musicians with formal training and classical backgrounds. During its history, jazz has absorbed influences from the folk and classical music of Africa, Asia, and other parts of the world. The development of instruments with new and different characteristics has also influenced the sound of jazz.
The folk songs and plantation dance music of black Americans contributed much to early jazz. These forms of music occurred throughout the Southern United States during the late 1800's.
Ragtime, a musical style that influenced early jazz, emerged from the St. Louis, Mo., area in the late 1890's. It quickly became the most popular music style in the United States. Ragtime was an energetic and syncopated variety of music, primarily for the piano, that emphasized formal composition.
The blues is a form of music that has always been an important part of jazz. The blues was especially widespread in the American South. Its mournful scale and simple repeated harmonies helped shape the character of jazz. Jazz instrumentalists have long exploited the blues as a vehicle for improvisation.
Fully developed jazz music probably originated in New Orleans at the beginning of the 1900's. New Orleans style jazz emerged from the city's own musical traditions of band music for black funeral processions and street parades. Today, this type of jazz is sometimes called classic jazz, traditional jazz, or Dixieland jazz. New Orleans was the musical home of the first notable players and composers of jazz, including cornetists Buddy Bolden and King Oliver, cornetist and trumpeter Louis Armstrong, saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton.
Jazz soon spread from New Orleans to other parts of the country. Fate Marable led a New Orleans band that played on riverboats traveling up and down the Mississippi River. King Oliver migrated to Chicago, and Jelly Roll Morton performed throughout the United States. Five white musicians formed a band in New Orleans, played in Chicago, and traveled to New York City, calling themselves the Original Dixieland Jass Band (the spelling was soon changed to "Jazz"). This group made the earliest jazz phonograph recordings in 1917. Mamie Smith recorded "Crazy Blues" in 1920, and recordings of ragtime, blues, and jazz of various kinds soon popularized the music to a large and eager public.
The 1920's have been called the golden age of jazz or the jazz age. Commercial radio stations, which first appeared in the 1920's, featured live performances by the growing number of jazz musicians. New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and New York City were all important centers of jazz.
Chicago style jazz
A group of Midwest youths, many from Chicago's Austin High School, developed a type of improvisation and arrangement that became known as "Chicago style" jazz. These musicians included trumpeters Jimmy McPartland and Muggsy Spanier; cornetist Bix Beiderbecke; clarinetists Frank Teschemacher, Pee Wee Russell, Mezz Mezzrow, and Benny Goodman; saxophonists Frankie Trumbauer and Bud Freeman; drummers Dave Tough, George Wettling, and Gene Krupa; and guitarist Eddie Condon. They played harmonically inventive music, and the technical ability of some of the players, especially Goodman, was at a higher level than that of many earlier performers.
In New York City, James P. Johnson popularized a new musical style from ragtime called stride piano. In stride piano, the left hand plays alternating single notes and chords that move up and down the scale while the right hand plays solo melodies, accompanying rhythms, and interesting chordal passages. Johnson strongly influenced other jazz pianists, notably Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Fats Waller, and Teddy Wilson.
This article is from The World Book Encyclopedia.