What Is Jazz?

A History of Jazz Music: Its’ Roots and How it Got its Start in America

by Michelle Inherst

     Jazz music is a versatile and improvisational form of music.  It was primarily developed by African-Americans in the South. The influence of Jazz came from the infusion of European harmonic structure and African rhythms in the late 19th century. The musical combination of ragtime rhythm and blues also had some influence in the development of Jazz music.

Robson Hatsukami Morgan, @robsonhmorgan

Jazz was first heard in New Orleans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The experiences of the Creole people who were born in the United States helped to shape Jazz music as we know it today. Creole people considered it to be a part of their cultural heritage.

Over time, jazz music has been characterized by syncopated (temporarily displaced) rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, and varying degrees of improvisation. Other characteristics that help define jazz are: deliberate deviations of pitch and use of original timbrels.

Jazz is a style of music that is primarily instrumental. Jazz music is constantly evolving, expanding, and changing.  It plays a special role in American history in that it tells the story of blending cultures, hardship and freedom.

     Jazz music gained its rhythm and “feel” from Africa. The tradition of playing an instrument in your own expressive way; made music an extension of one’s own voice and gave jazz a certain “blues quality. The harmony, instrumentation and classical style of European music also had its’ own influence in Jazz. The evolution of jazz in the American South came from slave songs and spirituals. Elements of these spirituals were borrowed from religious revival meetings attended by white people. Slaves were encouraged to attended to attend these revival meetings as well. They gradually adopted these elements as another musical resource into their religious texts. It found its roots in West Africa and was brought to America by slaves. Jazz was primarily invented by and became a source of pride for African-American composers, musicians, and listeners.  It was created out a simplified lifestyle and the need to substitute some style of musical expression. Harmony was very likely the last element of European music to be used by blacks during the development of jazz music.

     The harmony and structure of jazz music consist of each hand acting independently of each other and doing something different. The left hand carried a “steady, ‘march-like’ succession of alternating bass chords” while the right hand played syncopated melodies.

     Although composition, arrangement and ensemble are essential components of jazz; syncopation and swing are elements that make jazz a unique form of music. Jazz is not an entirely composed or predetermined musical style.  It instituted creative approaches on many different levels and endless permutations (fundamental changes).  Jazz music also derived some or its character from the various musicians who played it. Each jazz musician made this style of music their own by the way they improvised each note on different pieces of music, thus turning jazz into an art form.

     Jazz music became a unique musical style and language.  It is comprised of various perceived events which all came together at different times and many different regions of the country. Some places where jazz music was heard included; cotton plantations, railroads, rivers, levees, funeral processions, parades and in popular dance music.

     Ragtime music, the precursor to jazz music, was popular in the early 20th century. Jazz music differed from ragtime in that ragtime was composed, fully notated, and intended to be played in the same way each time; whereas jazz was not always notated. Jazz was improvised either wholly or in part. The themes and melodies of jazz music were more irregular than those of ragtime. The change from ragtime to jazz started somewhere around 1910- 1915 in the vicinity of New Orleans.

history of jazz
Clark Young – @CLARK1

     Pianists such as Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott, to name a few, were instrumental in speeding along the change from ragtime music to jazz music. The use of improvisation in the ragtime music these men played helped to increase the turn of events that led to the development of jazz music. Jelly Roll Martin was a composer, pianist and self proclaimed “inventor of jazz”. Martin did play a major role in the development of jazz.  Many musicians during this time, were unable to read or write music but were able to play it by ear. This, along with the variety of instruments available to blacks brought about the need and use of improvisation.

     The coronet carried and embellished the tune of a song in the middle range while the clarinet played improvisation in the higher range. The trombone gave another independent melody within the lower range of the musical scale. Other instruments used in jazz were the tuba, piano, banjo, and the drums. These instruments were used to keep the rhythm and helped to provide a harmonic foundation to the music.

     Although many jazz musicians were employed in places like Storyville, some of the first recordings of jazz were made in New York City. These recordings were made by a group of white musicians known as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. This recording did not present a correct picture of the real New Orleans jazz. There were lesser known jazz musicians who played in various orchestras in New York City; pianist James P. Johnson, Abba Labba, and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith; to name a few. James Reese Europe, another lesser known jazz musician played in Earl Fuller’s Jazz Band and Ford Dabney’s Band. Eventually Storyville closed in 1917,spelling disaster for many jazz musicians in New Orleans. Many of these musicians went from there to play in Mississippi riverboat orchestras. Other musicians, including coronet player King Oliver, in 1918, went on to perform their music in Chicago; the city that quickly became known as the “Jazz Capital of the World”.

Please download Jazz You Can Feel Volume One and 2 by Paul Knopf. You can stream or download it on any digital retailer. If you would like to download it on ITunes now, press the view button on the iTunes graphic below. To stream it on Spotify, copy and paste this link in to GOOGLE or click here: https://open.spotify.com/album/2H8lzvVVuuxeOGw8WRUkIM#upsell


 Works Cited

Coyne, Madeline. Jazz Music Will Never Die, and Here’s Why. www.thefrontporchpeople.com. The Front Porch People. 2018 – https://www.thefrontporchpeople.com/blog/jazz-music-will-never-die-and-heres-why


Schuller, Gunther. Jazz. www.britannica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. 26 April 2018-