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Jazz Musicians and Bands

Read about the history of jazz musicians and bands and their impact on music.

Jazz musicians and bands perform music without preparation. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Jazz musicians and bands perform music without preparation.

Jazz musicians and bands perform the type of music that has been called "the purest expression of American democracy." Jazz music earned this label in part because it brings together the sounds of independent musicians playing culturally diverse instruments. Cosmeo explains that jazz is also improvisational -- in other words, jazz musicians and bands perform music without much preparation as to how the music will come together. They simply play.

Jazz originated in early 20th-century America. Thus, it has been labeled "America's music," according to Ken Burns' documentary JAZZ. The Smithsonian Institution considers jazz "America's classical music."

History of Jazz

The Library of Congress labels the 1920s and the preceding years as the American "jazz age." Jazz was born out of the demographic mishmash in New Orleans, Louisiana -- a mix of Africans, French, American Indians, English and people of other nationalities. Jazz was primarily performed in urban locales in the U.S.

Other forms of music, including ragtime, blues and marches, influenced jazz. African American influence on jazz is strong. According to the National Park Service, jazz derived in part from slaves' dancing and drumming traditions. The musical form was popularized in African American communities and soon spread outward. Big jazz bands -- or swing bands -- soon became a significant part of the musical landscape. Chicago and New York joined New Orleans as jazz epicenters.

In the beginning, people danced to jazz, rather than simply listening to it -- probably because jazz grew partly from the brass bands of New Orleans, which people also danced to. By 1917, however, jazz was being recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Jazz pioneers, such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington helped popularize the music beyond its New Orleans birthplace. Today, jazz musicians and bands are popular around the globe.

Characteristics of Jazz

According to the Smithsonian, jazz is defined in part by the improvisation of its solo artists, who often make up songs as they go. Most jazz is considered rhythmic in nature. Jazz has a "forward momentum," according to the Smithsonian, a phenomenon often called "swing." Jazz is also characterized by a technique known as "call and response," in which an instrument, a section of a band or a singer calls out to another who responds with music. In this way, jazz is a conversation of music. Jazz is also considered an emotional form of music. One jazz trumpeter may sound different from another, or a single musician might sound different at separate performances. It all depends on the mood.

Despite the improvisation that is its hallmark, jazz still features some common elements, such as constant chord progression, pitch variations and certain tonal elements like growls and wails. Jazz artists also place musical accents at surprising moments.

Jazz does not lend itself to written arrangements. When they exist, they usually function as a guide. Jazz is also known for the use of various instruments, including rhythm instruments (piano, drums) and wind instruments (saxophones, trumpets and trombones).

Impact on Music

Jazz has influenced many forms of music from classical to hip-hop. Artists tried to fuse jazz with classical music. Famous traditional artists, such as Benny Goodman and George Gershwin used jazz influences in their music. Jazz also developed into new styles, such as bebop, a form of jazz that emerged in the 1940s.

The influence that jazz has had on music and artists -- many singers include some jazz elements in their songs -- has not been a one-way street. According to Slate, modern jazz and hip-hop influence each other. More recently, jazz was influenced by Brazilian music as well. Fusion jazz, a modern form of jazz, mixes rock influences with jazz and soul. Jazz influence can be seen in early hip-hop, and bebop had a direct influence on rap music. Jazz has also influenced artists in the R&B, soul and rock genres.

Jazz Musicians

Jazz's many pioneers helped develop the music into a world-famous American art form:

  • Louis Armstrong is considered one of the most influential artists in jazz history. Armstrong, who was born in New Orleans, started singing for pennies to help his poor family survive. He became a member of Kid Ory's group, a jazz band in Louisiana, and was exposed to other jazz artists when he played on riverboats. Armstrong's improvisational style had a strong influence on jazz musicians and bands. For example, he mixed pop influences with jazz, making the music more accessible to the masses. He helped popularize jazz to a national audience.
  • Duke Ellington is recognized as a jazz composer who had enormous influence on the musical form. He was also a bandleader and a recording artist. He ran a jazz orchestra and is known for his romantic songs and new techniques for harmony and melody.
  • Dizzie Gillespie developed a musical style known as bop and was known for his trumpet playing and improvisation. He was interested in mixing jazz and Afro-Cuban music. His television appearances helped jazz become mainstream.
  • Ella Fitzgerald was raised in an orphanage in New York. Many regard her as the most preeminent female jazz artist. Fitzgerald played in jazz bands and performed as a solo artist. She is credited with influencing many other jazz artists and bands.
  • Miles Davis is a trumpeter, picked up where Gillespie and Armstrong left off and was most influential in the latter part of the 20th century. Davis is known mostly for his influence on the forms of jazz known as cool jazz and bebop.
  • John Coltrane was the most influential jazz saxophonist of the 1960s. Deeply spiritual, he played with Gillespie's band.
  • Charlie Parker was also an influential saxophonist. Although he died young, Parker created new melody forms that influenced future generations of saxophonists.
  • Wynton Marsalis, an instrumentalist, is one of the best-known modern jazz artists. He is a Grammy winner and recognized for his performances of classical music.

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