Jazz History For First Time Listeners

The word ‘jazz’ conjures up an image of something that pops, something fresh and smooth, something that flows easily off the tongue. Jazz has been called many things, rebel music, ‘black’ music, pain music, but perhaps the most telling aspect of jazz is that it defies categorization. Yes, there are some facts you can’t dispute, album sales and figures that are set in stone, but the essence of jazz is like trying to capture liquid silver, it eludes the grasp. That isn’t to say that jazz isn’t quantifiable, because it is, but the beauty of jazz as an art form is that it’s constantly evolving and shifting, becoming something else, which is its one defining quality. But if you’re new to jazz, and are trying to educate yourself on some of its basic aspects and styles, never fear, there’s a lot to learn, but a general overview starting with jazz’s origins, styles and signature musicians will help get you started.


Many historians and experts of music, trace the origins of jazz to the latter part of the 1800s, and pinpoint the creation of the music in the sweltering climes of Louisiana, specifically New Orleans. But going further back, jazz is really part of a musical expression that began when slaves were first brought to the American Colonies in the early 1700s. Torn from their familiar roots, slaves needed to establish a sense of identity and culture, and part of that culture was embodied by the telling of stories and the singing of spirituals. This oral culture gave rise to music that was steeped in the pain and loss slaves felt at their circumstances, but was also a paean to Heaven for spiritual deliverance. Though the music slaves created had an edge of sorrow, there was also a celebration of life that was manifested in drum-playing and dances that were an expression of both pain and defiance. The cultural demographic of slaves included a number of people brought over from the Caribbean, who had their own musical tastes and styles that blended in with the music from the heavy contingent of West Africans slaves. One of the hallmarks of the music slaves played was syncopation, which is a fancy way of saying that the beats were irregular or interrupted or the emphasis placed on the ‘wrong’ beat. Over time, the plaintive and powerful songs that slaves sang became known as the ‘blues,’ because the general tenor of the music was mournful and downcast. Slaves sang the blues while working in the field and when gathering together at night, until it became a signature expression of an entire race that yearned for freedom. From these roots, jazz music first took root in the late 1800s, blending drum beats, blues, syncopation and improvisation to form a style of music that was bold, defiant and alive with power and melody. Historians trace the first use of the word ‘jazz’ to Chicago in the 1915, and it was in everyday use in New Orleans by 1918. The word itself was first used in slang as ‘jass,’ but quickly became ‘jazz,’ to indicate the noise, fluidity and force that the music wielded on listeners.


The signature aspect that makes jazz so unique from other musical styles is improvisation. Contrary to popular belief, improvisation doesn’t mean that a jazz musician gets up in front of a crowd and just plays whatever he wants, but rather, it’s the ability of jazz artists to begin with a studied melody, draw inspiration from it, then deliver solos that are unplanned, un-practiced and wholly dependent on ‘feeling’ the moment. It’s this kind of freedom that makes jazz so hard to explain in musical terms. That’s why jazz performances are never alike in terms of following a ‘set,’ because the jazz artist never knows what kind of solo he’ll perform on a given night. That isn’t to say that jazz musicians can’t record solos and duplicate them in live performances. But what many of them are after is re-interpreting, revising and remixing their own music, to form something that evolves and resists categorization. Jazz improvisation was born from the fact that slaves had to adapt to a variety of constant changes in their lives, and those that didn’t, were doomed to outcast status or death. Improvisation, therefore, is the lifeblood of jazz, arising from a tangible facet that governed the everyday lives of slaves and transferred itself into the music they sang and performed, most notably, the blues and jazz.


Swing — Swing was first developed in the late 1920s and features a big, bouncy sound that makes you want to move and dance. Swing was a major component of what is known as the era of Big Bands, lead by such luminaries as Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Swing’s big sound came from the orchestra bands that accompanied the lead player.

Bebop — Like the sound of its name, ‘bebop’ ushered in an era of quick rhythms with speeded-up tempos that arose out of the uncertainty of the 1940s as the U.S. was gearing up for a second World War. Bebop features intricate harmonies and melodies that were best suited for an individual maestro as opposed to the harmonization of a band. One clever innovation that arose from bebop was ‘scat,’ in which a jazz musician would use his voice to mimic an instrument, and sing unintelligible words that were predicated on duplicating the sound of the music and not the lyrics. Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk are among the greatest musicians of this jazz style.

Latin — Latin jazz, also known as ‘Afro Cuban’ jazz, is a style developed in the post-war years after 1945 that was heavily dependent on congas, bass guitars, bongos and the piano, all playing in harmony with the main horns. The music was developed by Cuban artists who brought the sound to New York, influencing Puerto Rican jazz musicians. Latin jazz has a distinct ‘island’ rhythm that’s ideal for sexy dancing and sinuous movement. Prominent artists of this style include Tito Puente and Perez Prado.

Jazz is an American cultural export that’s become an art form loved and embraced throughout the world. Through its constant emphasis on reinvention and improvisation, it continues to evolve and give birth to new styles.