When we think jazz we think classy piano bars, or underground jazz clubs full of swing rhythms, delicate yet impressive piano scales and trills, and of course the trumpet melodies that have defined so many jazz pieces.
What we don’t always think about though is the fact that jazz is perhaps the music genre with the richest history, so where did it all start?
The beginning of Blues
Jazz is usually associated with the early 20th century, but the origins of classic blues date back as far as the 1800s. In fact, it’s a genre that grew with the progress of African American liberty.
As the slave trade came to an end, what had previously just been hollers throughout plantations, and basic drum beats used for slave communication, became the foundations for one of the world’s favourite music genres.
In Southern American, particularly New Orleans, jazz developed as a combination of West African and European musical traits. It was the voice of African Americans.
Ragtime was made popular with its ragged rhythms, and call and response became a standard musical structure for jazz artists.
The spread of jazz
By the start of the 20th century, Jelly Roll Morton had defined jazz as we know it today, and began taking the bluesy music elsewhere.
With his determination to popularise the genre, and the recently new invention of recording equipment, jazz gradually filled the ears of more and more American cities. But still, its popularity was still very much contained to the South of America.
The Great Migration
Even at the start of the 1900s, nearly 100 years after slavery had been abolished, many African Americans still remained in the rural area, working for next to nothing on the same plantations that previous generations had been enslaved upon.
These southern towns had harsh segregation laws in place, and whilst African Americans were technically ‘free’, they were still bound to poverty by their lack of opportunities and lack of fair pay.
When the first world war came about, new work opportunities arose in the North, the part of America that was known for more liberal laws and less racial prejudice. More than 6 million African Americans seized the opportunity to leave the racist south, and headed to the northern cities of America.
What has this got to do with the history of jazz? Well, as the African American population grew further across America, so did the music that was so popular amongst African American communities – jazz.
There wasn’t a city in America that hadn’t now been exposed to the swinging vibes of jazz music. The genre grew in popularity amongst both black and white audiences.
Louis Armstrong – The King of Jazz
So now that jazz was established as a growing genre, more and more people became involved in producing swinging tunes, the most notable artist being Louis Armstrong.
Most artists nowadays have a few golden years before their popularity fizzles out, but Louis Armstrong remained the face of jazz music for nearly 50 years, and is still referred to as the ‘king of jazz’.
Like any King, he had a huge influence on his kingdom (the world of jazz). He introduced features that we now consider staple parts of jazz music, from improvisation, to impressive solos to experimental rhythms. His influence paved the way for individual solos, accompanied by a basic ensemble. This was a musical structure that gave jazz music multiple levels of flavour, rather than the traditional simultaneous melody that was played by several musicians.
The Swing Period
Not long after Louis Armstrong entered the jazz scene, the genre evolved some more, as 1935 saw America enter the swing era.
Larger groups of musicians became more popular, for louder, richer and stronger music. The drums became a more dominant part of this style of jazz, a strong bass rhythm defining the swinging tempo of songs. Jazz bands kitted themselves out with a wider range of instruments, a variety of woodwind and string instruments replacing the simple piano and trumpet combination of the 1920s.
Armstrong still kept up with the quickly changing demands of the jazz genre, appearing in ‘combos’ and playing together with more and more musicians, but now there were more musicians and bands on the scene.
Whilst Louis Armstrong was still well known as the King of Jazz, Benny Goodman had stepped in as the King of Swing.
Goodman saw the popularity of jazz music hit the roof, as led the first integrated jazz groups America had seen. This integration was a huge milestone in the history and progress of jazz music, as it meant that for the first time, segregation was brushed aside for the sake of music. Jazz, a genre that began as the music of African Americans, was finally and definitely appreciated by both blacks and non-blacks in an extremely racially prejudiced America.
Jazz as art
As jazz moved out of the swing stage and into the bebop stage, it became a genre that was more about the art of talent and composition.
This is what led to the creation of smoky piano bars, as rather than dancing, audiences now sat, listened and appreciated.
The recording ban of the 1940s
Recording technologies had at first seemed like an incredible invention, and a great way to popularise jazz music, but now that jazz music had become popular, and thousands of recordings had been made, records started to replace musicians in cafes and bars.
As a result, the musician’s union called a ban on recording music, as a protest against the lack of royalties received by musicians from record sales.
Those musicians who were part of a union stopped recording for over a year, but the ban saw an increase in vocal music, as vocal artists weren’t considered to be musicians. This paved the way for the predominantly vocal music industry we know today, and separated jazz from popular music, as jazz was now seen more as an art form than a popular genre.
After the ban, jazz music took another turn, returning to songs played by ensembles, without any focus on solos, and slowing down the tempo from swing and bebop.
Cool jazz is where musicians like Miles Davis rose to the forefront of jazz music. Chord progressions that we now class as classic jazz also came into play in this era of jazz, as with a more relaxed mood surrounding the genre, the compositions of jazz songs also became more relaxed and less focused on impressive and artsy musical ornaments. Miles Davis’ song Milestones used only two chords.
In cool jazz, more attention was given to the use of space and silences within a melody, and so rather than the constant swinging melodies of swing and bebop, we see pauses that create suspense and build towards the rich sound of trumpets and saxophones.
When we refer to jazz today, songs from several stages of jazz might spring to mind, as it’s no longer as widely produced as it was throughout the 1900s.
Jazz that is produced today often makes use of electronic instruments and effects, and less attention is paid to the talent of musicians.
The move away from classic jazz to electronically influenced jazz started in the 70s and 80s, and now it’s rare that popular songs are played by musicians with their instruments.
This is perhaps why we still enjoy the songs of Armstrong and Davis, rather than the work of more modern jazz artists.