A beginner's guide to jazz - from its blues roots to the modern mix

A beginner's guide to jazz - from its blues roots to the modern mix

From greats such as Armstrong, Davis and Fitzgerald, to the artists who draw inspiration from them, let’s look at the genre through the ages

Most popular genres of music come to fruition in some of the most culturally diverse music scenes and highly-populated cities such as New York, Los Angeles or London, but jazz music developed predominantly in the black American communities of New Orleans in the southern US state of Louisiana. Its origins are deeply rooted in blues and ragtime music, a popular genre in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and also share similar sensibilities to European and African music.

Like most genres, jazz spread and became regionalised among diverse cultures around the world. It is centred around improvisation, blues scales, call and response vocals, a layer of varying rhythms, or polyrhythms as they are more commonly known.

Throughout the following decades, jazz forged many incarnations and styles. New Orleans jazz (also known as Dixieland) dominated the 1910s with a brass band sound, while the 30s were focused on dance, with big bands playing swing music, and the waltz style of gypsy jazz also emerging. In the 40s, a more complex, fast-paced style called bebop surfaced, before the smoother and more melodic approach cool jazz taking over soon after.

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In the 50s, jazz branched out into hard bop with R’n’B or gospel influences. Free jazz, meanwhile, saw next-level improvisation, losing any form of structure or beat; in the 60s, jazz fused with the rising rock genre.

One of the earliest, and most definitive musicians of the era was Louis Armstrong, a brass musician, who pushed the envelope in the role of soloists within a band, and formed his own Hot Five group. With the swing era, some of the soloists became more famous than the jazz bands they were part of: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller, to name a few.

The bebop era spawned jazz greats such as saxophone player Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who were among those to create a more abstract style and improvisation techniques.

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Cool jazz was born of the New York jazz scene, which was dominated by the most famous jazz musician of all time – Miles Davis. He is famous for varying his playing styles as jazz developed, remaining at the forefront of the sound as it moved into hard bop, modal jazz and more.

Other notable musicians from this scene include Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, while West Coast jazz made way for smooth crooner Chet Baker. John Coltrane is seen as the figurehead of free jazz, thanks to a flurry of releases throughout 1965.

Since then, jazz has gradually become more of a niche market, and is often used as a fusing genre, blending with rock music (most notably Frank Zappa, bassist Jaco Pastorious and Jimi Hendrix), funk in the 1970s, and nu jazz in the early 2000s, with acts like The Cinematic Orchestra.

One of the most recent artists to incorporate jazz was Thundercat with his 2017 album Drunk, which embellished elements of smooth, funk and acid jazz, receiving critical acclaim.

Recommended listening:

Duke Ellington, John Coltrane – In A Sentimental Mood

Chet Baker – Autumn Leaves

The Cinematic Orchestra – Channel 1 Suite

Franks Zappa – Peaches En Regalia

Miles Davis – Blue in Green

Thundercat – Uh Uh

Recommended viewing:

Nat King Cole: Afraid Of The Dark – Netflix

Miles Ahead – Netflix


Recommended reading:

The Birth of Bebop – Scott DeVeaux

Beneath The Underdog – Charles Mingus

Jazz – Toni Morrison

Edited by Nicole Moraleda

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
What is ... jazz?


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