A brash new style of music emerged in America at the dawn of the 20th century. The word jazz wouldn’t enter the vocabulary until 1912, but the music itself was first heard in New Orleans a decade or more before it had a name. The sound of jazz was loud and boisterous, and it possessed a rhythmic energy never before heard in popular music. Adding to its appeal, jazz was bold and unpredictable—every time a jazz song was played, it was different. The musicians improvised, drawing on the inspiration of the moment and adapting to the contributions of other performers on the bandstand.

Jazz incorporated various ingredients that already existed in American music. It borrowed the syncopations of ragtime. It took on the sensibility and scales of the blues. It captured the emotional depth of the spiritual and the assertiveness of the march. It adopted the instruments used in brass bands and dance orchestras.  But the end result was something new and different, and the perfect musical accompaniment to the fast-paced hustle and bustle of 20th century American life.

According to legend, the African-American cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877-1931) was the first bandleader to gain popularity with the new style, but none of his music survives on record. Soon a host of other New Orleans musicians—including Freddie Keppard, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and, most famous of all, Louis Armstrong—found a ready audience for the new style. 

Jazz quickly found supporters far beyond the confines of New Orleans. The steamboats on the Mississippi River brought it on their journeys, as did the trains that carried New Orleans musicians to Chicago, New York, California and other centers of the music industry. Above all, jazz recordings built the audience for the new style—tens of millions of jazz records were sold in the 1920s—and the growth of radio also fueled demand for the music. This style that started as the invention of the black underclass in the South soon had swept through American society with such success that many people still refer to the 1920s as The Jazz Age

New variants of jazz began to emerge. In Chicago, jazz dominated the city’s nightlife, with a dance sound that captivated both white and black audiences. In Harlem, jazz pianists played fast stride piano at private parties and public events. In Kansas City, a more relaxed yet insistent swing sound, featuring an appealing four-beats-to-the-bar pulse, gained popularity. In New York, George Gershwin mixed jazz elements with classical music, most notably on his 1924 composition Rhapsody in Blue. Around that same time, Duke Ellington began recording his own ambitious compositions, and would play a key role in developing the big band style of jazz music. 

After the onset of the Great Depression, jazz record sales fell, and for a while it seemed as if the public might turn to different styles of music. But the huge popularity of swing big bands, starting in the mid 1930s, gave a new boost to jazz. From 1935 until the end of World War II, America was in the midst of the Swing Era, with the orchestras of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and others enjoying great popularity and record sales. During this period, jazz singers such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra played a major role in interpreting the leading songs of the day. Jazz was the dominant sound of American entertainment.

In the years following World War II, a more overtly modern style of jazz emerged, often called bebop or simply bop. A new generation of forward-looking jazz musicians—including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk—embraced advanced harmonies, faster tempos, new melodic elements and different ways of phrasing. This progressive idiom would never draw the large audience that had responded to jazz in the 1920s and 1930s, but signaled that jazz would not be limited by the constraints of commercial music.

With its newfound freedom, jazz evolved rapidly in the ensuing years. Miles Davis took the lead in pursuing a more relaxed and introspective style, known as cool jazz, in the 1950s. But both Davis and the jazz world were soon exploring other possibilities. The Blue Note label took the lead in promoting grittier, funkier variants of modern jazz, often called hard bop or soul jazz. In California, the West Coast sound mostly stayed true to the cool ethos, and musicians often pursued more melodic and tightly-arranged approaches. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, jazz also embraced modal structures, atonality and eventually even incorporated elements of rock and electronic music into a popular fusion sound.

The story of jazz since that time has been one of expansion, experimentation and institutionalization. Jazz gained a following outside of the United States at an early stage in its history, and acknowledged its first European jazz star, guitarist Django Reinhardt, back in the 1930s. But jazz increasingly has become a true global music, and every major city in the world now boasts first-rate, home-grown jazz talent, local performance venues and knowledgeable fans. Jazz also has found a welcome home in high schools, colleges and universities, while other institutions have arisen in recent years—including Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and SFJAZZ—to help bring the music to the next stage in its evolution. These developments ensure that this great art form will continue to thrive in the 21st century. 

                                                                                              -- Ted Gioia

Ted Gioia is the author of eight books on music, including The History of Jazz and The Jazz Standards

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