History of Jazz Music

History of Jazz Music

Jazz washes away the dust of every day life. ― Art Blakey

Merriam Webster defines jazz as "American music developed especially from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre." Obviously, there is more to it. It has an interesting history, and besides upgrading our taste in music, it has also added to our vocabulary several hip and groovy words, including the words "hip" and "groovy."

Jazz, the word

Jazz music originated in the late 1880s in New Orleans, but it wasn't until 30 years later, in 1915, that the word Jazz came to mean jazz music. In its early days, the music was called "Jas," which is believed to be related to jasm, an obsolete slang term dating back to 1860 meaning spirit, energy, and vigor. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1979) suggests that the word jasm should be considered the leading candidate for the source of the word jazz.

Before being used in a musical context, jazz was briefly associated with baseball. The Los Angeles Times, in 2003, reported on a librarian at New York University who said he found the word "jazz" used in a 1912 sports article from The New York Times. Titled "Ben's Jazz Curve," the article quotes baseball player Ben Henderson as saying: "I got a new curve this year, and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it."

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, found the word being applied to music in the Chicago Daily Tribune of July 11, 1915. In New Orleans, the hometown of jazz, the first known usage of the word was noticed in an article about "jas bands" in the local newspaper Times-Picayune.

By 1917, the term was in widespread use to the definition we are familiar with.

Early years: late 1880s/early 1900s

The jazz music originated in New Orleans, Louisiana in the late eighteenth century, around 1885. The musicians would perform in the local musical hotspots such as Congo Square, Storyville, Old Basin Canal, and the famous Globe Hall club. The time saw syncretism of America and African cultural elements –– African music was getting Americanized and American music was getting Africanized. The prevalence of Spanish, French, and African influences also played a significant role in shaping the music. Jelly Roll Morton, an early jazz pioneer once said: "...if you can't manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz."

Noted American cornetist Buddy Bolden, who is commonly credited with being the first jazz musician, used to perform at Globe Hall with his bandmates Jimmy Johnson (bass), Willie Cornish (trombone), Willy Warner (clarinet), Brock Mumford (guitar), and Frank Lewis (clarinet). Although Bolden is often cited as the first jazz musician, no recordings by him exist. He played in New Orleans from 1895 to 1906.

Other famous jazz musicians from New Orleans in the late 1800s/early 1900s were King Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, Bunk Johnson, and Louis Armstrong, who all cite Buddy Bolden as one of their musical inspiration.

In 1917, Original Dixieland Jass Band made the jazz music's, first recording, titled "Livery Stable Blues." The same year also saw many other bands, mostly ragtime or novelty, make recordings featuring "jazz" in the title or band name. 

The following year, during World War I, US army bandleader James Reese Europe took his "Hellfighters" infantry band to Europe and introduced jazz to British, French and other European audiences. The music became a sensation in France and the French General Henri Gouraud liked it so much that he used to make his headquarters wherever the band was stationed. Upon his return, James Reese recorded Dixieland standards including "Darktown Strutters' Ball".

The jazz age: late-1910s/20s

Jazz was gaining popularity in the west. In 1918, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra became a hit in San Francisco. He was labeled "The King of Jazz" and hired many other acclaimed jazz musicians including Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Frankie Trumbauer, and Joe Venuti.

In 1919, New Orleans' trombonist Kid Ory took jazz to the west, playing with his Original Creole Jazz Band in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where, in 1922, they became the first black jazz band of New Orleans origin to make recordings.

In 1923, Bessie Smith made her recording debut on Columbia, accompanied by pianist Clarence Williams. They recorded "Gulf Coast Blues" and "Down Hearted Blues." Throughout the 1920s Smith recorded with many of the Jazz greats of the time, including Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Don Redman, and Louis Armstrong.

The swing era: 1930s

In the 1930s, swing jazz emerged as a dominant form in jazz music. Swing was also dance music and the bands performed at big clubs and lounges where the audience danced to the music. The bands usually featured soloists who would improvise on the melody over the arrangement and in some cases, the virtuoso soloists became as famous as the band leaders. Key figures during the swing or "big" jazz band era included such musicians as Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Harry James, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Louis Prima, Frank Sinatra, and Artie Shaw.

At the same time, jazz was also becoming in-demand music in Europe. Influenced by swing music, Belgian-French guitarist Django Reinhardt created his own brew called "Gypsy jazz."

The bebop days: 1940s

If you really understand the meaning of bebop, you understand the meaning of freedom. — Thelonious Monk

The early 1940s saw musicians departing from the dance style and moving towards the serious and challenging "musician's music." This led to the emergence of "bebop style" that features songs with a fast tempo, complex chord progressions with rapid chord changes and numerous changes of key, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure.

Some of the most influential figures in the movement were: alto sax player Charlie Parker; tenor sax players Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and James Moody; trumpeters Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Dizzy Gillespie; clarinet player Buddy DeFranco; pianists Bud Powell, Mary Lou Williams, and Thelonious Monk; drummers Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and Art Blakey; and electric guitarist Charlie Christian.

The tail end of the 1940s also saw a revival of Dixieland or traditional jazz.

Cool jazz days: 1950s

By the end of the 1940s, the nervous and tense bebop was being replaced by its softer and calmer sibling named "cool jazz." The style is characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter tone, in contrast to the fast and complex bebop.

It emerged in the New York City music scene as a result of the mingling of swing jazz style and bebop style. Though later it became strongly identified with the West Coast jazz scene. It also made its way to Europe, especially Sweden, with the emergence of celebrated saxophonist Lars Gullin and pianist Bengt Hallberg.

Big names behind the cool jazz were trumpeter Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, and Stan Getz

The mysterious origins of jazz
Jazz slangs
What Is a Jazz Band?
Origins of ‘jazz’ thrown a curve ball
Jazz on the Edge of Change
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