A colorful illustration on a jazz player

Iconic jazz musician Louis Armstrong famously said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.” That might be because, more than any other musical genre, jazz comes from a feeling and an attitude. Simultaneously improvised and highly structured, it’s intrinsically an artistic expression of the black experience in America.

The Origins of Jazz

Jazz originated in the late 19th century closely aligned with the traditional polyrhythms of continental Africa as well as European military marches, and developed alongside the blues, ragtime, swing and several other kinds of popular music. Unravelling the various threads of influence is a complex task. But most scholars agree that the true birthplace of jazz is with the black communities of late 1800s New Orleans. From the bars of Bourbon Street and the street parades of Mardi Gras, it would catch fire in cities as diverse as Kansas City, Paris, Amsterdam, Washington, Havana and New York throughout the early 20th century to become one of the most popular musical forms anywhere.

Piano keys, saxophone, and microphone surrounded by music notes

What Makes It Jazz?

Like any other form of music jazz is an amalgamation of melody, harmony, rhythm and syncopation played on a variety of instruments with or without accompanying vocals. What sets it apart is that room for improvisation is also a treasured and well-traveled component of most jazz compositions. This makes it hugely appealing to musicians, who appreciate the opportunity to create in the moment, on the fly, either solo or in a collaborative capacity with other musicians.

Different Styles

Throughout the 20th century, jazz has grown, evolved and morphed, spawning regional variations and fusion forms with other styles of music. From the traditional hot licks of Dixieland jazz in 1920s New Orleans to the bluesy 20s and 30s Kansas City jazz of Count Basie and native son Charlie Parker, to guitarist Django Reinhardt’s Parisian Gypsy jazz in the 30s, jazz proved to be a supremely fluid form.

In the 40s, bebop was developed by a younger generation of jazz artist as a super fast, virtuosic non-dance alternative to the swingier forms of previous decades.

Cool jazz and free jazz followed in the 50s and 60s, the former with an almost classical formality, the latter an anarchic pushing at boundaries by the likes of saxophonists Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane and the orchestra Sun Ra Arkestra. Jazz-Rock fusions from the likes of Chick Corea, guitarist Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report would soon and inevitably follow.

Even over so many decades, jazz was never a genre in danger of codification or academic rigidity as new influences were constantly being added to the mix. The immensely popular Latin and Afro-Cuban jazz forms, born of the Spanish Caribbean and Brazil, brought jazz back to its African roots, as well as introducing the rhythms and sounds of the congas and claves. And in the late 20th century, the London acid jazz scene introduced a whole new generation to jazz principles with the chart-topping popularity of artists such as Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai and Digable Planets in the US.

Check out The New Orleans Swamp Donkeys Traditional Jazz Band playing the Dixieland jazz standard Bourbon Street Parade. 

Legends of Jazz

There are two kinds of jazz royalty: the musicians’ musicians and those that have become household names outside the music industry. And some — such as ragtime composer Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, John Coltrane, pianist Thelonius Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis — have managed to be both.

The cavalcade of jazz talent over the past century and a half is remarkable. Many of the earliest heroes of jazz were black musicians from poor circumstances (some early pioneers, such as Duke Ellington, were from families of slaves), but white musicians such as Jack Pettis and Bix Beiderbecke  also contributed to the evolution of the form. Beiderbecke is credited with making this very jazzy remark regarding the music. “One of the things I like about jazz is I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Jazz vocalists have a special place in the jazz pantheon of geniuses. From Billie Holiday to Nat King Cole, jazz crooners, with their unique phrasing and musicality, have had a huge impact on how popular singers sing to this day.

Jazz and Pop Culture

Almost since its inception, jazz has enjoyed a broad base of appeal around the world. It even established cult niche markets in far-away places like Japan. In the 1970s, jazz cafes with highly curated jazz record collections were hugely popular in cities like Tokyo. And that popularity crossed over into other cultural products such as anime and tv commercials. In Paris, live jazz clubs were all the rage throughout the post war years, and American stars, such as Miles Davis, were revered as geniuses there. Today jazz is listened to and loved from Norway to Argentina, each country and community making the music their own.

young woman singing and playing guitar with drummer, bass guitarist and saxophonist in the background

In North America, jazz has been touted as America’s own classical music. It continues to impact everything from literature to fashion and everything in between. Informed by legendary jazz culture, movies like Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross, Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club and Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, and TV shows, such as Boardwalk Empire and Treme, feature talented jazz artists like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis who contribute theme songs and sound tracks.

Jazz music continues to attract new young fans today via mainstream hiphop groups like the Roots and A Tribe Called Quest who regularly sample classic jazz tracks.

Jazz is delightful in all its forms and has been an expression of humanity, freedom, creativity and joy for musicians and listeners from all kinds of backgrounds — truly the people’s music. Perhaps writer Kurt Vonnegut described it best when he said, “What is my definition of jazz? Safe sex of the highest order.”