Born in America, jazz can be seen as a reflection of the cultural diversity and individualism of this country. At its core are openness to all influences, and personal expression through improvisation. Throughout its history, jazz has straddled the worlds of popular music and art music, and it has expanded to a point where its styles are so varied that one may sound completely unrelated to another. First performed in bars, jazz can now be heard in clubs, concert halls, universities, and large festivals all over the world.
The Birth of Jazz:
New Orleans, Louisiana around the turn of the 20th century was a melting pot of cultures. A major port city, people from all over the world came together there, and as a result, musicians were exposed to a variety of music. European classical music, American blues, and South American songs and rhythms came together to form what became known as jazz. The origin of the word jazz is widely disputed, although it is thought to have originally been a sexual term.
One thing that makes jazz music so unique is that it’s focus on improvisation. Louis Armstrong, a trumpet player from New Orleans, is considered the father of modern jazz improvisation. His trumpet solos were melodic and playful, and filled with energy that could only result from being composed on the spot. A leader of several groups in the 1920s and 30s, Armstrong inspired countless others to make the music their own by developing a personal style of improvisation.
Thanks to early records, the music of Armstrong and others in New Orleans could reach a broad radio audience. The music’s popularity began to increase as did its sophistication, and major cultural centers around the country began to feature jazz bands. Chicago, Kansas City, and New York had the most thriving music scenes in the 1940s, where dance halls were filled with fans that came to see large jazz ensembles. This period is known as the Swing Era, referring to the lilting “swing” rhythms employed by the Big Bands.
Big Bands gave musicians the opportunity to experiment with different approaches to improvisation. While members of a Big Band, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie began to develop a highly virtuosic and harmonically advanced style known as "Bebop," an onomatopoeic reference to the rhythmic punches heard in the music. Parker and Gillespie performed their music in small ensembles all over the country, and musicians flocked to hear the new direction jazz was taking. The intellectual approach and technical facility of these pioneers of Bebop has set the standard for today’s jazz musicians.
Jazz is a highly developed art form that continues to evolve and expand in numerous directions. The music of each decade sounds fresh and distinct from the music that preceded it. Since the days of bebop, the jazz scene has included avant-garde music, Latin jazz, jazz/rock fusion, and countless other styles. Jazz today is so diverse and broad that there is something unique and interesting about every artist’s style.