Jazz Music Essay

What is Jazz? According to the dictionary, jazz is defined as, “A kind of
syncopated, highly rhythmic music originated by Southern blacks in the late 19th
century” (“Jazz” 232). But, everyone should at least agree that jazz is
the mother of all music, and is referred to as the only art form originating in
the United States (“History 101” 2). America was home to immigrants from all
over Europe and beyond who wished to build a new life, or just needed to escape
from the old. These people, often thought of as second-class, brought their
culture with them to America, expressed it musically, and changed the music
world as we know it today. Most early jazz was played in small marching bands or
by solo pianists. Besides ragtime and marches, the repertoire included hymns,
spirituals, and blues. The bands played this music at picnics, weddings,
parades, and funerals. Characteristically, the bands played hymns on the way to
funerals and lively marches on the way back. Although blues and ragtime had
arisen independently of jazz, and continued to exist alongside it, these genres
influenced the style and forms of jazz and provided important vehicles for jazz
improvisation. Around the turn of the 20th century, the earliest fully
documented jazz style emerged, centered in New Orleans, Louisiana. This city is
often called the “cradle of jazz” (“History 101” 3). In this style, the
trumpet carried the melody, the clarinet played showy countermelodies, and the
trombone played rhythmic slides and sounded the root notes of chords or simple
harmony. Below this basic trio, the tuba or string bass provided a bass line and
drums the rhythmic accompaniment. New Orleans jazz was just the beginning of an
entire sweep across the county. The first true virtuoso soloist of jazz was
Louis Armstrong. He was a dazzling improviser, technically, emotionally, and
intellectually. He changed the format of jazz by bringing the soloist to the
forefront, and in his recording groups, the “Hot Five” and the “Hot
Seven” (Porter 2), demonstrated that jazz improvisation could go far beyond
simply ornamenting the melody. He became the first well known male jazz singer,
and also set standards for all later jazz singers, by creating scat singing:
singing meaningless syllables instead of words, not unlike instrumental
improvisation. During the 1920s, large groups of jazz musicians began to play
together, forming the big bands that became so popular in the 1930s and early
1940s, (the swing era). The development of the big band can be majorly credited
to the achievement of Duke Ellington and his revolutionary song, “It Don’t
Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” (“Jazz Music” 54). This soon
became the new word for music played with a happy, relaxed beat. A new style
also started in the early 1940’s when a group of musicians started
experimenting with more complicated chord patterns and melodic ideas. This group
included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and
pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. This new approach became known as
bebop, or bop. Most bop musicians had exceptional techniques that enabled them
to play long, dazzling phrases with many notes. In the 1940’s and 1950’s,
jazz began to lose its reputation as a “lowdown” music, and gained
acceptance among intellectuals and college students. Jazz concerts became
popular. Duke Ellington and other big band leaders gave many concerts, and a
group of improvising musicians made a series of nationwide tours called “Jazz
at the Philharmonic” (“Jazz Music” 56). Jazz music was revolutionary and
is still changing and improving, even today. The music world today would not be
the same without the influence of these amazing and breathtaking musicians.

“History 101.” Jazz Central: The true home of jazz. Jul. 1998. 1-4.

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“Jazz.” Webster’s New World Dictionary. Cleveland, OH: Simon and Schuster,
Inc., 1989. 232. “Jazz Music.” The World Book Encyclopedia. 1974 ed. Porter,
Lewis. “Jazz.” The 1998 Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia. Aug. 1997. 1-12.


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