Jazz Music


jazz, the most significant form of musical expression of African-American culture and arguably the most outstanding contribution the United States has made to the art of music.

Origins of Jazz

Jazz developed in the latter part of the 19th cent. from black work songs, field shouts, sorrow songs, hymns, and spirituals whose harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic elements were predominantly African. Because of its spontaneous, emotional, and improvisational character, and because it is basically of black origin and association, jazz has to some extent not been accorded the degree of recognition it deserves. European audiences have often been more receptive to jazz, and thus many American jazz musicians have become expatriates.

At the outset, jazz was slow to win acceptance by the general public, not only because of its cultural origin, but also because it tended to suggest loose morals and low social status. However, jazz gained a wide audience when white orchestras adapted or imitated it, and became legitimate entertainment in the late 1930s when Benny Goodman led racially mixed groups in concerts at Carnegie Hall. Show tunes became common vehicles for performance, and, while the results were exquisite, rhythmic and harmonic developments were impeded until the mid-1940s.

Jazz is generally thought to have begun in New Orleans, spreading to Chicago, Kansas City, New York City, and the West Coast. The blues, vocal and instrumental, was and is a vital component of jazz, which includes, roughly in order of appearance: ragtime; New Orleans or Dixieland jazz; swing; bop, or bebop; progressive, or cool, jazz; neo-bop, or hard-bop; third stream; mainstream modern; Latin-jazz; jazz-rock; and avant-garde or free jazz.


The heart of jazz, the blues is a musical form now standardized as 12 bars, based on the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords. The "blue notes" are the flatted third and seventh. A statement is made in the first four bars, repeated (sometimes with slight variation) in the next four, and answered or commented on in the last four. In vocal blues the lyrics are earthy and direct and are mostly concerned with basic human problems—love and sex, poverty, and death. The tempo may vary, and the mood ranges from total despair to cynicism and satire.

Basing his songs on traditional blues, W. C. Handy greatly increased the popularity of the idiom. Important vocal blues stylists include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Lightnin' Sam Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Gertrude (Ma) Rainey, Bertha (Chippie) Hill, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Muddy Waters.


The earliest form of jazz to exert a wide appeal, ragtime was basically a piano style emphasizing syncopation and polyrhythm. Scott Joplin and Irving Berlin were major composers and performers of ragtime. From about 1893 to the beginning of World War I this music was popularized through sheet music and player-piano rolls. In the early 1970s, ragtime, particularly Joplin's works, had a popular revival.

New Orleans Jazz

New Orleans, or Dixieland, jazz is played by small bands usually made up of cornet or trumpet, clarinet, trombone, and a rhythm section that includes bass, drums, guitar, and sometimes piano. When the band marched, as it often did in the early days, the piano and bass were omitted and a tuba was used. The three lead instruments provide a contrapuntal melody above the steady beat of the rhythm, and individualities of intonation and phrasing, with frequent use of vibrato and glissando, give the music its warm and highly personal quality. The music ranged from funeral dirges to the exuberant songs of Mardi Gras.

The pioneer black New Orleans jazz band of Buddy Bolden was formed in the 1890s. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, both white bands, successfully introduced jazz to the northern United States. The closing in 1917 of the notorious Storyville district of New Orleans produced an exodus of jazz musicians. Many went to Chicago, where the New Orleans style survived in the bands of King Oliver, and later in the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Johnny Dodds. Fate Marable, who had played on Mississippi riverboats since 1910, now began to organize riverboat jam sessions with outstanding musicians.

Meanwhile, distinctive styles developed in many cities, evolved by younger musicians who stressed a single melodic line rather than the New Orleans counterpoint. Bix Beiderbecke, a cornetist and pianist and a major Chicago-style musician, was influential in developing more complex melodic lines. Jazz spread to Kansas City, Los Angeles, and New York City.


Originating in Kansas City and Harlem in the late 1920s and becoming a national craze, swing was marked by the substitution of orchestration for improvisation and a rhythm that falls between the beats. The average big band had about 15 members (five reeds, five brass, piano, bass, and drums) and could generate overwhelming volume or evince the most subtle articulations. The bands led by Duke Ellington and Count Basie were the finest practitioners of this idiom, while those of Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey (see under Dorsey, Jimmy), and Harry James were also outstanding. The music was often written to showcase soloists who were, or were intended to be, supported by the ensemble.


The vigor of the music notwithstanding, a revolt against the confining nature of the harmony, melody, and rhythm of swing arose in Kansas City and Harlem in the 1930s and reached fruition in the mid-40s. The new music, called "bebop" or "rebop" (later shortened to "bop" ), was rejected at first by many critics. Bop was characterized by the flatted fifth, a more elaborate rhythmic structure, and a harmonic rather than melodic focus. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie Christian were major influences in the new music, which became the basis for modern jazz. The influence of two swing musicians, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young and the drummer Jo Jones, was of paramount importance in influencing the harmonic and rhythmic direction of bop.

Progressive Jazz

After beginning in New York City, progressive, or cool, jazz developed primarily on the West Coast in the late 1940s and early 50s. Intense yet ironically relaxed tonal sonorities are the major characteristic of this jazz form, while the melodic line is less convoluted than in bop. Lester Young's style was fundamental to the music of the cool saxophonists Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Stan Getz. Miles Davis played an important part in the early stages, and the influence of virtuoso pianist Lennie Tristano was all-pervasive. The music was accepted more gracefully by the public and critics than bop, and the pianist Dave Brubeck became its most widely known performer.

Recent Trends

By the mid-1950s a form of neo-bop, or hard-bop, had arisen on the East Coast. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Max Roach led various small groups that produced an idiom marked by crackling, explosive, uncompromising intensity. About the same period, a number of outstanding musician-composers, including Gunther Schuller and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, produced "third stream" jazz, essentially a blend of classical music and jazz. Jazz has also been successfully combined with Afro-Latin music, as in the music of Candido, Machito, Eddie Palmieri, and Mongo Santamaria.

In the last half of the 1950s there were three major trends in contemporary jazz. First, a general modern jazz form had developed in the period since World War II, which can be called "mainstream," best exemplified by the music of Gerry Mulligan's various bands. Second, a number of instruments that either had never been used seriously in jazz, such as the flute, oboe, and flügelhorn, or had been unpopular, such as the soprano saxophone, were used to bring new instrumental voices into the music. Third, avant-garde or free jazz leaders such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk continued to explore new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic relationships. The new jazz is often atonal, and traditional melodic instruments often assume rhythmic-percussive roles and vice versa.

In the late 1960s many jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Larry Coryell, Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett, and Chick Corea, investigated the connections between rock and jazz in a musical style known as fusion. After the rapid innovations of the 1960s and 70s, the jazz of the 1980s appeared less form-bending and somewhat revivalist, with musicians reluctant to follow trends and accept labels. Emerging in the early 1990s was a style often called acid jazz, a hybrid form that combined traditional jazz, soul, and funk with Latin and hip-hop rhythms. Some of the prominent jazz artists of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s include Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, David Murray, John Carter, Henry Threadgill, Cyrus Chestnut, and Joshua Redman.

Jazz has always been a distinctively American idiom, with Europeans largely forming an appreciative audience and Europe's jazzmen following trends begun in the United States. At the end of the 20th cent., however, many Scandinavian and French musicians, feeling that mainstream American jazz expression had retreated into the past, began creating a new genre nicknamed "the European." Returning to jazz's roots as dance music, they combined elements from European house, techno, drum and bass, and jungle music with acoustic, electronic, and sampled sound to create a more popular and populist variety of jazz. Musicians involved in this movement include Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, French pianists Martial Solal and Laurent de Wilde, French saxophonist Julien Lourau and flutist Malik Mezzadri, Sweden's Esbjorn Svensson Trio, and France's Ludovic Navarre and St. Germain groups.

Jazz artists in America have suffered much and received little. In many cases the misery of their lives and public indifference have driven them to find relief in drugs and alcohol. Despite hardships they have produced a richly varied art form in which improvisation and experimentation are imperative; jazz promises continued growth in directions as yet unforeseeable.


See G. Schuller, Early Jazz (1968) and The Swing Era (1989); A. McCarthy et al., Jazz on Record: The First Fifty Years (1969); F. Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970); M. Williams, The Jazz Tradition (1970); D. Kennington, The Literature of Jazz (1971); L. G. Feather, ed., The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz (1972); H. Panassié, The Real Jazz (1960, repr. 1973); J. Berendt, The Jazz Book (1984); W. Balliett, 56 Portraits in Jazz (1986); E. Gioia, West Coast Jazz (1992), The History of Jazz (rev. ed. 2011), and The Jazz Standards (2012); G. Giddens, Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998); B. Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (1998); G. Giddens and S. DeVeaux, Jazz (2009). For blues see C. Keil, Urban Blues (1966); P. Oliver, Aspects of the Blues Tradition (1970); A. Murray, Stomping the Blues (1976); G. Giddins, Riding on a Blue Note (1981). For ragtime see W. J. Schafer and J. Riedel, The Art of Ragtime (1974).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Jazz Music: Selected full-text books and articles

Why Jazz? A Concise Guide By Kevin Whitehead Oxford University Press, 2011
The Early Swing Era, 1930 to 1941 By Dave Oliphant Greenwood Press, 2002
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone By Nadine Cohodas University of North Carolina Press, 2002
Jazz Mavericks of the Lone Star State By Dave Oliphant University of Texas Press, 2007
Jazz Cultures By David Ake University of California Press, 2002
The History of Jazz By Ted Gioia Oxford University Press, 1997
Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies By Robert G. O'Meally; Brent Hayes Edwards; Farah Jasmine Griffin Columbia University Press, 2004
Jazz Greats: Getting Better with Age By Lowell D. Holmes; John W. Thomson Holmes & Meier, 1986
Jazz: A History By Frank Tirro W. W. Norton, 1993 (2nd edition)
The Guitar in Jazz: An Anthology By James Sallis University of Nebraska Press, 1996
The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz By Leonard Feather; Ira Gitler Oxford University Press, 1999
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