The History of Jazz

The History of Jazz

The History of Jazz

Native to the United States, Jazz made a roaring boom in the beginning of the 20th century. Though the music may have developed in the U.S., Musicologists have found certain characteristics of Jazz that have their roots in much earlier forms of music. When over-packed slave ships arrived on American shores, the African people undoubtedly brought their music with them. It is important to note that through the years 1620-1865, 597,000 slaves were imported to the American colonies.  The captives sang songs of their birthright, as they tirelessly worked on American soil. Eventually, a new genre of music was developed called “Spirituals.” Most of these songs have religious texts, and were sung while working, during prayer meetings, and in black churches which helped them cope with slavery. Though many slaves were forced into Christianity by their masters, they learned church Hymns and naturally combined various forms of traditional African music with biblical texts. Though the words were biblical, the meanings were entirely personal. In Africa, music was infused into every aspect of life, but in the Americas, the slaves weren’t allowed to use instruments. In fact, they were taken away from them on the ships. As a result, they were forced to improvise with different forms of hand-clapping and singing, which could never be taken away. Melodic traditions of the African diaspora are most alive in Blues and Jazz, including call and response (antiphony), syncopation, and improvisation techniques. It was the African-American work songs that gradually evolved into the Blues, Gospel, Jazz, and virtually every other American genre created during the 20th century, including Rock N’ Roll and Hip-Hop!

This drawing of African slaves stacked in a ship’s hold appeared in Thomas Clarkson’s 1808 book The History of the Rise, Progress, & Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-trade by the British Parliament.



Archival Image of the slave trade depicting East African slaves taken aboard the HMS Daphne 


If you are interested in learning more about the music of African-American Spirituals, below is a great 17 minute PBS special on the first Slave Songbook of Spirituals of the United States.

As quoted from Slave Songs of the United States, published in 1867, (which was two years after the end of the Civil War),

“The musical capacity of the negro race has been recognized for so many years that it is hard to explain why no systematic effort has hiterto been made to collect and preserve their melodies. More than thirty years ago, those plantation songs made their appearance which were so extraordinarily popular for a while; and if “Coal-Black Rose,” “Zip Coon,” and “Ole Virginny nebber tire” have been succeeded by spurious imitations manufactured to suit the somewhat sentimental taste of our community, the fact that these were called “negro melodies” was itself a tribute to the musical genius of the race.”

The book is a collection of 136 songs with familiar music and lyrics, like “Roll Jordan Roll”, or “Michael Roll the Boat A’shore.”

During this video, make sure to check out the early John Lomax recording of “Roll Jordan Roll” at 11:05

John Avery Lomax, born in 1867, was an American Teacher, Folklorist and pioneering Musicologist who did much to preserve American folk songs. Here is one of his early recordings titled “Rock Island Line” sung by inmates at the Arkansas State Prison in 1934.

Three years later, “Rock Island Line” became world-famous by Leadbelly & The Golden Gate Jubilee Quartet in 1937.

Here is a more recent video of the South African jazz group, “Mantonoro”. Take note of the methods of call and response (Antiphony) and syncopation. 

Though Jazz is known to have developed in the early 20th century, it most likely came into existence even earlier in the southern United States. Technically, Jazz is a combination of the adoption by African-Americans of European harmony and form, and combining those elements with African based music. This is evident by the use of blue notes, or “worried notes” sung at a slightly lower pitch (often times these notes are semitones or less.) These tones are a slightly lower pitch than that of the major scale for expressive purposes, improvisation, syncopation, polyrhythms, and swung note/time.

1900’s: Eventually after slavery was abolished, and Africans became Americans, Jazz as we know it was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. This location was known as a ‘melting pot of sound’, and had a great tradition of celebration. “Opera, military marching bands, folk music, the blues, different types of church music, ragtime, echoes of traditional African drumming, and all of the dance styles that went with this music could be heard and seen throughout the city. When all of these kinds of music blended into one, jazz was born.” —Wynton Marsalis (American Trumpeter, composer, teacher, music educator, and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City.)


1901: Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, and became known as one of the most influential artists in the history of music. He began playing the cornet at age 13, and perfected the improvised Jazz solo as we know it. Louis Armstrong was in charge of playing during musical breaks, which expanded into musicians playing individual solos. Affectionately known as “Pops” and “Satchmo,” Louis was loved and admired throughout the world. He died in New York City in 1971.

Previously, a style called “Dixieland” (sometimes referred to as “Hot jazz” or “Early Jazz” was made popular by bands that spread from New Orleans to New York City in 1910. Chicago-Style Jazz was a transition and combination from 2-beat to 4-beat, introducing swing in a very early form. Everyone in the band soloed at the same time, which is when Armstrong modified the improvised Jazz solo.

The Lindy Hop also developed during this time, which was American dance first seen in Harlem, New York City, in the 1920’s and 30’s. The dance itself was based on Jazz, Tap, Breakaway, and Charleston, and was frequently described as both a member of the Jazz and swing dance family.

I absolutely love this Lindy Hop instructional video from 1944.

1930’s:  Swing first appeared during the Great Depression, and is noted as the basic rhythm of jazz. At the time, these swing vibes were both sought after, and uplifting, as they helped the people of America get through the 30’s. The Depression meant that millions of people all over American would now be playing and performing music for free. For centuries, a strong division between blacks and white’s permeated throughout American society. Jazz symbolized a certain kind of American freedom, and lifted the spirits of a frightened country. As a result, it broke down the barriers that had separated Americans from each other for centuries.

Here’s a picture of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five in Chicago in the late 1920’s


Around 1935, a period developed called the “swing” era, and was well-known for its national dance; ‘swing dance.’ Big bands commonly played this style of music, and Orchestra leaders such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman, and Benny Goodman led some of the greatest bands of the era.

In shuffle rhythm, the first note in the pair is exactly twice the duration of the second note, and in jazz, the verb “to swing” is also used as a term of praise for playing with strong rhythmic groove or drive.  Swing is commonly used in Jazz and blues, and came about in the 1930s-1940s. Triplets are also very common in Jazz, and blues music, which may have mimicked the rhythm of a beating heart during ceremonial dance practices in ancient times. The basic shuffle rhythm is created by leaving out, or resting the middle note of each three-note triplet group. This makes it easy for composers or improvising soloists to include triplets in the melody without clashing any rhythm patterns.

Duke Ellington is praised as  being the greatest composer in American history, and he rightfully deserves this title. Ellington was born in 1899 in Washington D.C., and began studying piano at the ripe age of 7. He grew up to be  a well-known composer, pianist, and jazz- orchestrator/leader, and his career spanned over a whopping 50 years. Duke Ellington led his orchestra in 1923 until his death in 1974, and was the first person to refer to his music as “Jazz,” rather than the mere genre, “American Music.” He gained a national profile through his some 1,000 compositions and collaborations, and his music lives on today through what Billy Strayhorn (Jazz composer/pianist/arranger who collaborated with Ellington for nearly three decades), called the “Ellington Effect,” which meant achieving the right sound for the band, rather than standing out as a distinct entity.

1940’s: was strictly known for the development of Bebop. “If you really understand the meaning of bebop, you understand the meaning of freedom.” —Thelonious Monk, pianist and composer. Looking for new directions to explore, a new style of jazz was born. This new style had fast tempos, complex harmonies, and intricate melodies, and became known as “jazz for intellectuals.” Big bands fizzled away, and smaller jazz groups shifted to playing music for listening audiences, rather than dancing audiences.

Dizzy Gillespie was born in 1917 in South Carolina. He received his first music lesson from his father, and took off as a natural from there. He moved to New York in 1937, and met Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. Together, they established the Bebop sound, and Dizzy became known as one the greatest trumpet players of all time. He was very well-known for introducing Latin American rhythms into Jazz, and had a playing style that was unbelievably precise, and fast-paced.

1950’s: was the era of Latin and Afro-Cuban Jazz, and “celebrates collective musical history. Through its percussive beat, it unites ragtime, blues, swing, and the various grooves of Cuban Music. It proclaims our shared musical heritage.”- Wynton Marsalis

In the 50’s, there was a strong combination of African, Spanish and native cultures in Latin America that created a special body of music and dance. Musicians from this era like Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie, blended their music styles with this Latin sound to create an unstoppable musical force. In the 40’s and 50’s, Cuban musicians began playing with Jazz musicians in New York, which further enhanced the cultural circle. CuBop, was developed by Dizzy Gillespie, (who became the godfather of modern Jazz in the U.S.), and collaborated his ideas with with Cuban musician, Chano Pozo. Together, they pushed the limits in order to make Afro-Cuban Jazz a mainstream. CuBop fused the African-based rhythms with the post modernist Bebop.


Here is a popular hit by Gillespie of the time called “Manteca” recorded in 1947. You can clearly hear the fusion of Cuban and African styles working in sync with earlier Jazz techniques in this piece.