Jazz History, Complexity of Music, Cultural Factors


There is no specific definition on the word Jazz. To understand it better, many authors propose the use of broad definitions to incorporate all major definitions of jazz ranging from its origin, composition and its style of performance. The origin of Jazz music can be traced back to the late 20th century around 1895. Some authors allege that Jazz was formed as a result of the emergence of African American population in the North. Others argue that Jazz was formed to bring in a new flavor to music and reduce the monopoly of music such as Ragtime and Blues. The first Jazz music was played by African- Americans and the Creole. They were initially slaves before migrating to New Orleans where they mixed their African music with the European music to form Jazz music. There are various factors that influenced the formation of Jazz music; for instance urbanization and the migration of black slaves to the North.

Origin of jazz

Jazz, is said to have originated from the black population that existed in the early 20th century in New Orleans. The black Creoles from New Orleans were French and Spanish speakers whose origin was West Indies. They were poor, uneducated and lived on the streets. They entrenched their sub-culture into the America culture and their settlement in America gave birth to the formation of jazz music. Jazz is believed to have originated from a combination of African rhythms and European rhythms where, the African rhythms supplied the strong beat while European rhythms provided the dance rhythms. The combination of the two resulted into the swing style employed by jazz.

New Orleans music

New Orleans music had a strong contribution to the emergence of jazz music. Notably, the establishment of Storyville in 1897 saw the surge of live jazz bands in the legendary red-light district. This street was filled with prostitutes and their clients who were eager to be entertained. Therefore, jazz band was in high demand in bars and brothels along the Red light Street. This led to the formation of many band groups to accommodate the demand. In addition, New Orleans music had marching bands that employed various instruments such as the brass and reeds which were tuned to form European 12-tone scale and drums. These bands used to perform in African- American organized funerals. These instruments employed in the bands were later incorporated to form instruments of jazz music. Traveling by the black community to perform the New Orleans music in various shows further contributed to the emergence and spread of jazz music. Jazz spread as far as northern and western cities due to the influence of New Orleans music. Jelly Roll Morton who begun his jazz career in Storyville is among some of the beneficiaries of New Orleans music. His music which was published in 1915 introduced many more musicians to New Orleans style that eventually led to formation of jazz music. Two years later, Original Dixieland Jazz Band made their debut with “Lively Stable Blues” hence becoming the earliest jazz recording. This led to various other bands recording with songs with the word ‘Jazz’ as their brand name. This shows how New Orleans music was influential in the formation of jazz music.

Complexity of music

Jazz, combined elements of Blues, marching band music, Ragtime, Hymns, and spirituals and work music. However, it differed from the rest due to the element of improvisation which required interpretation of the tune by the singer. Jelly Roll Morton claimed to be the inventor of jazz in 1902. He argued that the complexity in jazz was brought about by his introduction of a swinging syncopation in non-jazz music such as the blues and ragtime. He introduced many improvisational ideas such as the Scat singing and the 2-bar break. Conversion of non-jazz to jazz involved what he called “application of a strong underlying 4/4 beat to 2/4 beat.” This was the complexity of jazz music that further contributed to its expansion. Due to the uneducated nature of the Creoles, Jazz provided ground for the exhibition of their talent. Music used to be complex in that it was structured around memorization and written work. It required that an individual must have had basic education. However, jazz paved way to the Creoles who were uneducated to participate in music. Jazz required individual interpretation of tunes and was not aligned to a given pattern or involved repetition of tune in the same way. Therefore, creativity rather than pattern characterized jazz music.


In 1894, the racial discrimination law forced Creoles to live in the street. This discrimination act resulted to Creoles living on their own on a different street with other white Americans. They became poor, illiterate and uncultured. Therefore, they resorted to formation of bands to sing in order to entertain at the same time earn a living. They resorted to sight reading and correct performance as a form of their learning and music style. Contrary to their counterparts who were educated and performed well organized music such as blues, gospel music and work songs they had no organization in their music. Soon, the Creoles music caused a spark in the American music industry with the formation jazz. Ferdinand Lamenthe explains how Jazz piece such as Tiger Gag emerged out of dances such as French quadrille, the waltz and the polka during that period of racial discrimination (White, 46).

Cultural factors

Jazz was perceived by the elderly to be immoral and that it led to the erosion of their culture. On the other hand, the youths, who were in there twenties perceived it as a modern trend of music. This led to conflict of interest between the youths and the elderly. Particularly, banning the sale of alcoholic drinks in the United States resulted during the Prohibition years (1920-1933) resulted into formation of Speakeasies. Speakeasies were organizations that were formed illegally to sell alcohol during the Prohibition period. During this period, it was illegal to produce, sell or distribute alcohol. These speakeasies encouraged live bands among other things. It is worth noting that, prostitution and other criminal activities were done in these speakeasies. Therefore, entertainment was required leading to emergence of jazz bands to perform in the speakeasies. Though jazz established itself as a result of these speakeasies, the elderly population perceived it as immoral music that would erode their culture. However, the youths enjoyed it leading to its further growth (White, 46).

In conclusion, it can be asserted that jazz began with the African-American population who were initially slaves. It combined European rhythms with African rhythms to form jazz. Various factors helped in it the evolution and spread of jazz such as socio-political factors, cultural factors, music complexity of jazz and above all New Orleans. Over the years since its inception, jazz has undergone various transformations

Works cited

The Red Hot Jazz Archive. 2009. Web.

White, Avron. Lost in Music: Culture, Style and the Musical Event. Taylor & Francis, 1987. 12-50