Brief History of Jazz

Jazz music originated in the Afro-American communities of the Southern States of the US, particularly in New Orleans, around 1900. Its roots were the working songs of the Afro-American slaves, and the traditional music which the European settlers brought with them, especially brass music and marching bands. The fusion of these very different music styles brought the blues and the ragtime, from which jazz emerged. Since 1920, jazz has been recognised as an essential music genre, and it is often described as America’s classical music. Characteristics of jazz are improvisation, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and blues notes. The focus is not on skill and perfection, but on expression.


New Orleans jazz first emerged around 1910 and was born out of a mixture of Euro-American brass band marches, French quadrilles, blues and ragtime. It was based on polyphonic improvisation. The instruments used by the New Orleans dance and marching bands became the instruments of jazz. They were brass (e.g. trumpet, trombone, cornet), reeds (e.g. clarinet, saxophone) and drums.


In the 1930s, the first swing big bands became popular. Their music was very much dance orientated and had a particular swing rhythm to it. Out of a fusion of swing and blues emerged Kansas City jazz, which was a very improvisational style. Gipsy jazz was based on the musette waltzes of the French Gipsies.


Bebop shifted jazz music to being less danceable and more challenging for musicians. The style was faster and used more chord-based improvisation. Towards the end of the 1940s, cool jazz emerged and brought calmer and smoother sounds.


Free jazz came along in the 1950s and explored playing without a formal structure or beat. In the mid-1950s, hard bop developed out of influences from blues, gospel and rhythm and blues. Hard bop was dominated by the piano and saxophone. In the late 1950s, modal jazz developed using the mode musical scale as the basis for improvisation.