A History of Jazz Music

Jazz music first appeared in the late 19th and early 20th-century. It was when American and European styles of music were exposed to African folk music and culture, creating the new music genre that we know as “jazz.”

Jazz evolved drastically over the years, with artists creating their own altered styles. From Louis Armstrong to Miles Davis, from Duke Ellington to John Coltrane, from John Mclauhglin to Julian Lage, let’s go over “the high art tradition,” commonly known as jazz music.

History of Jazz At A Glance

  • Jazz originated in the late 19th and early 20th century as a fusion of American, European, and African music and culture.
  • Key characteristics of jazz include improvisation, complex chords, and instruments like saxophone, trumpet, and piano.
  • Louis Armstrong is considered the father of jazz, though Buddy Bolden was an early pioneer.
  • The first recorded jazz song was “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917.
  • Jazz evolved through various eras, including the Jazz Age of the 1920s, the swing and big band era of the 1930s-1940s, and the emergence of bebop and free jazz in the 1950s and ’60s.
  • The 1970s saw the rise of subgenres like Latin jazz, jazz fusion, and jazz-funk
  • The 1980s saw a resurgence of traditionalist jazz, led by artists like Wynton Marsalis.
  • Jazz continues to evolve with a diverse range of musicians and styles today, from traditional to fusion to modern jazz.
  • Despite its complexity, jazz remains a respected and appreciated musical tradition worldwide.

Characteristics of Jazz

Here are some of the defining elements of jazz music:

Improvisation: Creative freedom is one of the fundamental aspects of jazz music. Each artist has their own unique style.

Complex Chords: Jazz musicians use complex chords and chord progressions to create a rich harmonic palette.

Instruments: Jazz music relies on saxophone, trombone, trumpet, drums, piano, bass, and guitar.

Call and response: Jazz music is filled with call and response patterns, where one voice or instrument answers the other.

Swing and Blue Notes: Jazz is very rhythmic and relies on swing and blue notes. A blue note is a note that is played or sung at a different pitch than the standard pitch. 

Syncopation: Jazz artists like to mix up their phrases and surprise their audiences by playing different note durations frequently. This makes jazz music far less boring than other genres that rely on repetition excessively.

Who Is the Father of Jazz?

Louis Armstrong is widely regarded as the father of Jazz.

Armstrong, or Satchmo as worldwide fans knew him, was born in 1901 in New Orleans. Being a vocalist and an instrumentalist, Satchmo is credited for developing a way to play jazz. His jazz pieces influenced generations of jazz artists and continue to do so.

Armstrong’s solo adventure was inspired by his second wife, Lil Hardin. She believed that he was too talented not to start and grow his own band.

Although Louis Armstrong is considered the father of jazz as he is the musician who made jazz more mainstream, the first jazz musician is actually Buddy Bolden, who was an Afro-American cornetist in the late 19th century and early 20th century. He played a huge role in the creation of New Orleans-style ragtime music, which eventually became “jass” or “jazz.” He is the “first man of jazz.”

What Was the First Jazz Song?

Livery Stable Blues was the first jazz song ever recorded. It was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in February 1917.

A Brief Overview of the Origins and Evolution of Jazz

The rich history of jazz has made it one of the cultural highlights of the 20th century. 

Traditional jazz cemented its status for much of the 1920s-1960s period. Then, it was fused with other popular music genres like rock ‘n’ roll, which led to the emergence of traditionalists seeking the revival of improvisation-based jazz. 

Pre-1910s – The Birth Of Jazz

As mentioned before, jazz is rooted in several different genres and is created with American and European music and culture mixed with African folk music and culture. So, the story begins when African slaves were brought to America, and a new culture started to rise in the continent.  

The main three genres that built jazz were ragtime, marching bands, and blues. 

Ragtime is a genre from America’s southern regions and is a mix of traditional European music with African and American rhythms and styling.

Marching Bands were the songs played for soldiers during the Civil War to keep their motivation high. The songs are played with brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments, and the rhythm is always uplifting to accompany the marching of the group.

Blues was also born during the Civil War era, and it originated from spiritual music, word songs, and minstrel shows. 

Jazz was born as a mix of these genres, but it went to different levels, putting new things on the table, especially when improvisation became a core part of the genre.

Jazz’s traces can be found around the late 1800s, but it wasn’t fully on the stage on its own until the 1920s.

The 1910s-1920s: The Jazz Age

In 1919, one of the most popular blues singers, Bessie Smith, released her first jazz recording.

Kid Ory’s Original Creole jazz band made tours in Los Angeles and San Francisco, releasing commercial recordings in 1922. This marked them as the first African-American jazz band in New Orleans to record and release music.

On the other side of the country, particularly in Chicago, Bix Beiderbecke started The Wolverines in 1924. At the same time, Bill Jonhson joined King Oliver to create their famous duets. They developed what would be known as “hot jazz.”

Another important event in the history of jazz was when Louis Armstrong joined the Fletcher Henderson dance band to become their soloist. However, his spell only lasted for a limited time after he left the band in 1925.

Armstrong’s unique style gave him massive popularity. After joining the Fletcher Henderson band, however, he experimented with a new style of jazz music. The style focused on soloists and arrangements.

What made Armstrong’s solos are the chords. While jazz solos often emphasized theme improvisation, his solos included experimental chords. Armstrong’s chord improvisation transformed jazz into a 20th-century language.

When Armstrong left the Fletcher Henderson band, he formed his own group – Hot Five. His bandmates included his wife Lil (pianist), Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), and Johnny Dodds (clarinet).

The Jazz Age also witnessed the recordings of Jelly Roll Morton with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. At first, it was merely a casual mixed-race collaboration, but later, Jelly went on to form Red Hot Peppers.

At that time, white orchestras that played jazz dance music were quite popular, which set up a suitable foundation for Red Hot Peppers’ success. Other notable white orchestras included Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and Jean Goldkette’s orchestra.

Whiteman, in particular, was one of the most popular bandleaders in the country. He was widely known for domesticating and reviving an inchoate type of music.

In 1924, he was the man behind the commission of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. His orchestra also premiered the musical composition that many writers consider the ideal form of the youthful zeitgeist of that era in the history of jazz.

There were other notable orchestras and large ensembles in the jazz era that led to the mainstream appeal of big band-style swing jazz. This included Fletcher Henderson’s band and the Chicago-based Earl Hines’ Band. There was also Duke Ellington’s band in New York, which owned a Cotton Club residency in 1927.

The same era witnessed the abundance of musical families, where one of the family members taught the whole family music.

Such an explosion of music teaching and learning culture among families led to the birth of many talents. One example is Pops Foster, who learned to read and play music using homemade instruments.

African-American jazz was more commonly broadcasted over urban radio stations instead of suburban stations. This was largely due to the prominent African-American populations in cities like Chicago and New York.

By the late 1930s, jazz had already spread all over the globe.

The 1930s-1940s

The early 1930s saw the rise of the swing and big band era.

During that period, jazz was the country’s pop music. You could hear jazz music being played in cafés, restaurants, and pubs. Artists like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Artie Shaw were among the most prominent jazz musicians in the 1930s and 1940s.

There was a shift from the clarinet to the saxophone as the genre’s woodwind instrument. This is largely thanks to the exceptional works of soloists like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins

Singers emerged from big bands, only to move on and build solo careers. Examples of such singers include Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Swing jazz continued to dominate, which led to the noticeable commercialization of the genre. This was the primary reason behind the creation of bebop, a style of Afro-American intellectual jazz that was intended for listening rather than dancing.

For much of jazz music’s early history, New Orleans was considered the national jazz hub. It was later replaced by New York as years went by. 

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist Charlie Parker overshadowed popular jazz styles with fast-paced, often complex melodies.

The 1950s-1960s

In the 1950s, softer styles of jazz music emerged. Acts such as The Modern Jazz Quartet and Miles Davis approached jazz music in a laid-back, cool way. At the same time, west coast jazz musicians, like Chet Baker and Dexter Jordon developed a similar relaxed style.

The 1950s-1960s era also witnessed the development of soul jazz. This was a subgenre of jazz music that was influenced by blues and gospel.

Jazz Messengers are credited for coming up with this church-influenced, soulful style of jazz that emphasized the use of the Hammond organ.

In the late 1950s, a more controversial subgenre of jazz came about called free jazz. It adopted bluesy chaos that replaced the song structures and chord sequences traditionally used in jazz music. 

Other artists were testing out modal jazz, which relied heavily on improvisation, particularly using scales. The idea was to get rid of the constrained harmony of conventional jazz styles. 

A famous example of modal jazz is Miles Davis’ “So What” song from “Kind of Blue”, which is the highest selling album in jazz history, and master John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. Free jazz or modal jazz is based on improvisation, giving big freedom to musicians with long solos. It requires high virtuosity and creativity to play free jazz, which is why it is considered one of the hardest and most virtuosic music genres. 

The 1970s

The 1970s was when jazz evolved into numerous subgenres. The most notable is Latin jazz, which combines Latin and African rhythms.

Latin jazz includes instruments like conga, güiro, claves, and timbale, along with traditional jazz instruments such as the double bass and piano. Carlos Santana’s music is a classic example of Latin jazz.

Another style of jazz that gained notable recognition in the 1970s was jazz fusion or jazz-rock fusion. Its characteristics included electric instruments, amplified stage sounds, and rock ‘n’ roll rhythms. Artists like Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and Al Di Meola led the jazz fusion scene.

Before the 1970s, rock, and jazz music were in their own leagues. But, with rock music getting more creative and jazz music becoming less tied to hard bop and avant-garde music, jazz fusion was born.

The jazz fusion movement was rejected at first, particularly by jazz artists. But this hasn’t stopped contemporary hard-bop jazz purists from jumping over to fusion jazz.

Jazz-rock fusion is characterized by odd time signatures, syncopation, complex chords and harmonies, and mixed meters. The genre relied heavily on rock ‘n’ roll’s electric instruments such as the bass guitar, electric guitar, synth keyboards, and electric piano. 

Additionally, the genre utilized the amplification and wah-wah and fuzz pedals that many rock bands used in the 1970s.

What’s more interesting is that jazz fusion gained significant popularity in Japan. Casiopea, a Japanese jazz fusion band, has released more than 30 fusion albums.

The 1970s was also the era of jazz-funk, a subgenre that incorporated electrified sounds, electronic analog synths, and a strong back beat, also known as “groove”.

All of these new jazz styles transformed the genre from an improvisation-based music style into one with a broader spectrum that includes elements of funk, soul, and rock music.

The 1980s and Beyond

Since the 1970s were all about Latin and fusion jazz, it was merely a matter of time for traditionalists to reject the new forms of jazz.

In the early 1980s, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis released music that sounded very much like the traditional sounds of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, in addition to the hard bop of the 1950s.

However, free jazz continued to be present in the music scene despite declining in popularity because of the new traditionalist wave. Many traditionalist jazz artists gained success during that period.

During that decade, there was another notable phenomenon. Fusion jazz artists started abandoning fusion and free jazz in favor of acoustic jazz sounds. Some of them include Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, and Bill Evans

Even Miles Davis had started creating sounds with an accessible jazz-oriented approach rather than his abstract sounds of the previous decade. However, his music could still be classified as fusion.

The new generation of jazz artists in the 1980s adopted more conservative jazz sounds that relied on improvisation, like in the old days. Groups such as the Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Betty Carter are good examples of that.

What’s more, established jazz groups opened the door for younger jazz talents to join them, which was yet another factor that led to the resurgence of traditionalist jazz. 

Art Blakely included young musicians like James Williams and Dennis Irwin, while the Jazz Messengers hired young pianists and bassists like Peter Washington, Benny Green, and Donald Brown.

Wynton Marsalis’s passion for reviving the traditions of jazz has influenced younger generations that followed. This includes the likes of Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove, Mark Whitfield, and Wallace Roney.

Much of their music sounded like the early creations of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. The whole point was to maintain the status of jazz as a high art tradition similar to classical music rather than being a style of music that sounds similar to everything else. 

Betty Carter, a prominent American jazz singer, was particularly interested in rotating young jazz musicians in her band, which heavily contributed to her group’s widespread popularity. This was especially true when compared to traditional jazz players based in New York. Some of the names that worked with Betty include Lewis Nash, Benny Green, Marc Cary, Mark Shim, and Branford Marsalis.

O.T.B. ensemble adopted a similar approach to Betty, rotating numerous young jazz artists like Billy Drummond, Kenny Garrett, Ralph Peterson Jr., Steve Wilson, Robert Hurst, and Renee Rosnes. 

Today, jazz music is still a high art tradition with a relatively small but strong audience. Guitarists like Julian Lage, Mike Stern, John Scofield, and Pat Metheny, as well as musicians like Kamasi Washington, Keith Jarrett, Christian Scott, Nubya Nyasha Garcia, Alfa Mist and Esperanza Spalding are shaping the future of jazz. At the same time, bands like Ezra Collective, Oreglo, and Yakul are also worth taking a look at to see where modern jazz stands.


So that was a brief history of jazz music and how it evolved over the years. 

Being a genre that relies heavily on experimentation, it was no surprise how much it changed from one decade to the other. With each artist having their own take on jazz, the sounds of jazz are far from being repetitive. 

Although there is the cliche joke that rock and pop artists play 3 chords for 3000 people while jazz musicians play 3000 chords for 3 people, today, jazz is still being recorded, played, enjoyed, respected, and appreciated in many parts of the globe. 

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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