Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as “America’s classical music”. Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music. Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as “one of America’s original art forms”.
As jazz spread around the world, it drew on national, regional, and local musical cultures, which gave rise to different styles. New Orleans jazz began in the early 1910s, combining earlier brass-band marches, French quadrilles, biguine, ragtime and blues with collective polyphonic improvisation. In the 1930s, heavily arranged dance-oriented swing big bands, Kansas City jazz, a hard-swinging, bluesy, improvisational style and Gypsy jazz (a style that emphasized musette waltzes) were the prominent styles. Bebop emerged in the 1940s, shifting jazz from danceable popular music toward a more challenging “musician’s music” which was played at faster tempos and used more chord-based improvisation. Cool jazz developed near the end of the 1940s, introducing calmer, smoother sounds and long, linear melodic lines.
The 1950s saw the emergence of free jazz, which explored playing without regular meter, beat and formal structures, and in the mid-1950s, hard bop emerged, which introduced influences from rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues, especially in the saxophone and piano playing. Modal jazz developed in the late 1950s, using the mode, or musical scale, as the basis of musical structure and improvisation. Jazz-rock fusion appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s, combining jazz improvisation with rock music’s rhythms, electric instruments, and highly amplified stage sound. In the early 1980s, a commercial form of jazz fusion called smooth jazz became successful, garnering significant radio airplay. Other styles and genres abound in the 2000s, such as Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz.
The origin of the word jazz has resulted in considerable research, and its history is well documented. It is believed to be related to jasm, a slang term dating back to 1860 meaning “pep, energy”. The earliest written record of the word is in a 1912 article in the Los Angeles Times in which a minor league baseball pitcher described a pitch which he called a “jazz ball” “because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it”.
The use of the word in a musical context was documented as early as 1915 in the Chicago Daily Tribune. Its first documented use in a musical context in New Orleans was in a November 14, 1916 Times-Picayune article about “jas bands”. In an interview with NPR, musician Eubie Blake offered his recollections of the slang connotations of the term, saying, “When Broadway picked it up, they called it ‘J-A-Z-Z’. It wasn’t called that. It was spelled ‘J-A-S-S’. That was dirty, and if you knew what it was, you wouldn’t say it in front of ladies.” The American Dialect Society named it the Word of the 20th Century.
Jazz is difficult to define because it encompasses a wide range of music spanning a period of over 100 years, from ragtime to the rock-infused fusion. Attempts have been made to define jazz from the perspective of other musical traditions, such as European music history or African music. But critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt argues that its terms of reference and its definition should be broader, defining jazz as a “form of art music which originated in the United States through the confrontation of the Negro with European music” and arguing that it differs from European music in that jazz has a “special relationship to time defined as ‘swing'”. Jazz involves “a spontaneity and vitality of musical production in which improvisation plays a role” and contains a “sonority and manner of phrasing which mirror the individuality of the performing jazz musician”. In the opinion of Robert Christgau, “most of us would say that inventing meaning while letting loose is the essence and promise of jazz”. See for more.