History of Jazz Music


Jazz has its roots in the African American communities living in United States particularly in the south. Jazz is a musical art that incorporates African (mainly West African) and European styles. Since its inception in the early 20th century, Jazz has transformed due to influence from the popular music that is prevalent in America. The word “jazz” started as slang and was originally used to refer to Chicago music. The black Africans shipped to the United States (mainly from the Western part of Africa) came along with “strong tribal musical traditions”. African music is usually accompanied by a certain activity like work, ritual and so on (Kirchner 12).

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In early 19th century, Africans were holding dances and drum beating events in states like New England and New Orleans. During this period, a number of African musicians took and developed an interest in knowing how to play western instruments. The blend of this newfound skill with the single-line melody together with the European concept of harmony produced an art form that is today known as jazz. It is however the Europeans that popularized this form of music, taking the African component of the songs and incorporating it with the European harmonic accompaniment. It is the European-American minstrel performers that get credit for this. Some slaves had also “learned the harmonic style of hymns” (Kirchner 16). They integrated it in their own musical art as religious ritual (Kirchner 17).

Black people continued to learn western instruments especially violin and piano. This was accelerated by the emancipation of black slaves. They also led to new opportunities for employment and education though limited. Black musicians started finding employment in entertainment hubs like brothels, bars and clubs. Ragtime, an early form of Jazz, was popular in the last decade of the 19th Century. Some of the composers included Ernest Hogan, Scott Joplin and William H. Krell (a white composer) (Giddins 27).

The music of New Orleans had a notable effect on development of early jazz. Blacks held lavish funeral services that were accompanied by many marching bands. These bands used brass, reeds and drums. These instruments were tuned in the European 12-tone scale. This became the primary instruments used to play jazz. The majority of black people playing in this funeral bands taught themselves this art of music and started spreading it to the Northern and Western cities. The first jazz music to be put in print and published was composed by Jelly Roll Morton in 1905 (Kirchner 24).

In 1913 James Reese and the clef club were the first African Americans to record jazz music. After the ban of alcohol in the 20s and 30s jazz was played in venues selling illegal liquor. This era is known as Jazz Age. Due to venues it was played in, it started gaining a bad reputation and was labeled immoral. A new breed of musicians emerged to give rise to what was called Hot Jazz. A group known as Kidory was the first group from New Orleans to produce recordings in 1919. Bessie Smith, the most popular blues singer of the 20s also first recorded in the same year. White orchestras had a large market for jazz dance music (Giddins 33).

The 1930s saw the evolution of genre of jazz known as swing music. Solo artistes leading the whole band became key figures in jazz music. Some of the popular figures of that age included Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey. Swing was also dance music and hit live radio across America. The collaboration of black and white musicians began in the 30s. Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian played piano, violin and guitar respectively for Benny Goodman. The late 40s saw the hot jazz being replaced by calm and smooth jazz known as cool jazz. Cool jazz developed from a blend of African American Bebop music and white jazz music. It was the popular form of jazz up to 1955. Hard Bop developed in the 50s. It was a mixture of blues and gospel music. It was in the early 80s that jazz was by commercial pop music to produce Smooth Jazz. Currently, the popular version of jazz is known as straight-ahead jazz (Giddins 44).

The New Orleans jazz derives its roots in the music of New Orleans. Most of the early performers played their jazz in brothels and clubs. The New Orleans jazz had significant influence on the development of jazz. This is especially so because of the funeral marching bands. As indicated earlier, the instrument used in these bands became the basic jazz instruments. Swing music developed in the 1930s. The idea of a solo artist leading a band became popular. One distinct characteristic of swing music was that it was played live on radio and was also dance music. Swing music gave individual an opportunity to come up with their own melodic and thematic solos (Giddins 12).


Shep Fields was one of the popular and acclaimed soloists in swing music live radio broadcasts. Another popular type of jazz was Bebop. It was shift from the dance type of jazz music to a more artistic and less commercial form that developed in early 40s. Bebop was composed for listening and not for dance. It therefore made use of faster tempos. The drumming style became more elusive and explosive. Popular figures in Bebop include Charlie Packer, Lester Young and Bud Powell. Cool jazz as indicated earlier was as a result of a blend between black Bebop music and white jazz. It did not make use of aggressive tempos of Bebop. Free jazz was characterized by free tonality. Although rooted in Bebop, this type of jazz incorporated music from Asia, Africa and Arabia. Fusion is a more recent form that began in early 80s out of a mixture of pop music and jazz music. It has led to emergence of other sub genres like jazz rap and acid jazz (Kirchner 30).

Works Cited

Kirchner, Bill: The Oxford Companion to Jazz. Oxford University Press, 2005. P.12-33.

Giddins, Gary: Visions of Jazz: The First Century New York: Oxford University Press. 1998. P 2-76.