The one thing that makes the history of jazz so unique is the fact that it’s the only musical genre that’s one hundred percent American. From its bluesy conception to its evolution into experimental territory, jazz has been through a wide variety of periods and styles. The story of this development – one steeped in American culture and society – is worth knowing, even if you’re not a big jazz fan.
Jazz emerged from a cultural melting pot in the Deep South. At the turn of the 20th century, the musical genre then known as “jass” was primarily an African American art form. It was played primarily by the children of former slaves, and borrowed from elements of blues, slave spirituals, and even classical music. This new, developing genre of music was played mostly in New Orleans, but soon traveled up the Mississippi River into cities like St. Louis and Chicago.
By the 1930’s, jazz was America’s most popular musical genre. Big bands dominated the airways and concert halls in what is now known as the “swing” era of jazz. They played a very structured form of jazz that has since become synonymous with the pre-World War II era. Interestingly, it was in these big jazz bands – including the orchestras of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie – where integration between black and white musicians started to take place. While later civil rights figures became more well-known, the horn players and percussionists in swing jazz bands definitely helped to pioneer the trend of racial equality in the 20th century.
Jazz’s popularity declined in the 1950’s and 60’s, but creativity spiked. It was this immediate period after the swing era when jazz musicians began to get creative. Guys like Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, and Charlie Parker played now forms of music like “cool jazz” and “bebop” in nightclubs across the country. The music itself was much edgier and relied more on improvisation and musicianship, which turned off much of the general public. The core of the scene, however, stayed very strong as innovators experimented further. The latter part of this period was dominated by the giants of modern jazz, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. Each had their own unique style and played their personal takes on jazz music. Hallmark albums including “Giant Steps” and “Kind of Blue” came out of this era.
In the modern era, jazz has melded with other genres of music to create new hybrids. While all forms of jazz still have devoted fans and musicians, the new cutting edge in the genre is melding it with other popular styles of music. Hip-hop and jazz, especially, are mixed and molded together by musicians and DJ’s looking for a cool, unique sound. While the following isn’t as big as it was back in the 1930’s, jazz still claims a place as one of America’s most influential musical styles to devoted listeners.