Ain’t Misbehavin’: A Brief History of Jazz

Feb 24, 2021

February is Black History Month, and we’ve been celebrating! We started out with a humble showcase of some of the most influential and prolific African-American artists and performers, and followed it up last week with a brief history of the blues.

We’re going to continue our celebration this week as we explore another of the most quintessentially American forms of contemporary music: jazz.

It can often be difficult to nail down exactly when and where a musical genre came into being. But that’s not the case for jazz. Jazz got its start during the early years of the 20th century, and its roots can be found all over New Orleans, Louisiana.

New Orleans has always been a city of varying cultures, as people from wildly different backgrounds traveled through the port for wildly different reasons. Spanish folk music, French military bands, ragtime, European ballroom dance music, the blues, and others were all popular in the New Orleans area. And each had an impact on the creation of jazz.

Primarily created by African-American musicians, jazz wasn’t written down the same way music had been before, and the styles and tunes were passed on from one person to the next by ear instead. Possibly the most exciting thing about jazz is the way different instruments improvise around the main melody.

The History of Jazz

1920s – The Jazz Age

During this earliest period, jazz music was often called New Orleans or Dixieland Jazz. As this name implies, it was originally developed in New Orleans, but quickly spread to Chicago and New York. This new genre was extremely popular at the time, thank to its combination of elements of the blues, ragtime, and brass band marching beats, while different instruments, like the trumpet, trombone, and clarinet improvised complicated patterns around the melody.

This era saw the rise of many influential African-American artists, but perhaps the best known from this time is Louis Armstrong. Although Armstrong got his start during the jazz age, his influence on the genre would go on to change it. He was such a brilliant trumpet player that he was allowed solos – and became jazz’s first great soloist. Since then, jazz has turned its focus onto the solo, rather than having the whole band playing and improvising around each other.

1930s – The Era of Swing

With the rise in popularity of swing music bands started getting bigger, sometimes including more than 16 performers! This gave soloists even more freedom to improvise and even allowed for more than one soloist per band. They would take turns improvising around the band as it played composed melodies.

Swing was seen as a somewhat easier genre than traditional jazz, and featured a smoother sound with specific musical phrases that were repeated throughout the piece. The incredible quality of this genre was its closely compact but smooth rhythms. Pianist, band leader, and composer Duke Ellington is particularly famous for showing the combination of composition and improvisation in swing.

1940s-’50s – Latin Jazz, Bebop, & Cool Jazz

The late 1940s and into the ‘50s brought a new form of jazz to the mainstream: Latin jazz. This new subgenre combined the rhythms of African and Latin American countries, with the harmonies of contemporary jazz. Latin jazz also used straight rhythms, rather than the “swinging” rhythms of the earlier era. Dizzy Gillespie, among others, brought Latin jazz into the mainstream.

During this same time, other musicians thought Swing should be more refined and exciting. They took the opportunity to experiment with rhythm and harmony, taking them to extremes in their complexity. The result was yet another subgenre called Bebop – sometimes also known as modern jazz. This form, pioneered by such greats as Charlie Parker, was highly energetic and emotional. The style is so different from the forms of jazz that came before it that many thought Parker was playing the wrong notes!

Rising up in contrast to bebop came cool jazz. This style was gentler and more subtle than bebop, without any of its fiery intensity. Miles Davis is one example of the incredibly influential musicians to come out of cool jazz, as he preferred to concentrate on a simpler, understated style.

1960s – Hard Bop, Soul Jazz, & Free Jazz

The 1960s saw even more diversification of this incredible genre! Hard Bop rose up as an extension of bebop, but generally featuring a slower tempo with more varied bass playing.

Soul jazz also rose to popularity during this time, evolving out of hard bop, with a strong influence from the blues and gospel music. With less of an emphasis on improvisation, soul jazz is often less complicated than other styles and relies more on repetitive grooves and melodies.

The third major style of jazz to come out of the ‘60s was “free jazz.” Sometimes called “avant-jazz,” free jazz is characterized by the fact that is simply ignores all previous rules and constraints when it comes to harmony and structure. Improvisation varies more widely than other genres. For this reason, many people didn’t – and don’t – like free jazz, because to the uninitiated it doesn’t appear to make much sense.

1970s – Jazz Fusion

Jazz in the ‘70s was marked by various attempts to merge it with other popular styles of music – in particular rock and roll. Jazz solos were performed over rock rhythms. A combination of rock and jazz instruments were used, particularly electric instruments, like the guitar or keyboard.

“The Weather Report” is one group that successfully fused jazz and rock with unpredictable improvisations that drove audiences crazy!

1980s-‘90s – Acid Jazz & Jazz Rap

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the phenomenon of jazz fusion go into overdrive with “acid jazz.” This subgenre combined jazz with elements of soul, funk, disco, and hip-hop to create something new and unique.

A little later, rap jazz came into the picture, mixing alternative hip-hop music with jazz elements. Although this was always a relatively small genre, it has maintained a dedicated fanbase.

1990s to Today – Nu Jazz

Although most of the subgenres that have been developed over the years are still going strong today, that doesn’t mean the genre is finished evolving! The most recent addition to jazz is “nu jazz.” Sometimes called electro-jazz because of its use of electronic dance music and house beats, nu jazz was first performed in places like Norway, showing just how far jazz’s influence has reached over the decades!

Are you looking to follow I the footsteps of the greats and start your own musical journey? There’s no time like today to start! All our lessons have moved online, so you can enjoy them from the comfort of your own home, no matter where you live! Check out our programs and start your musical journey today!