History of jazz

Jazz is sometimes referred to as “America’s classical music”. It has become a diverse genre with its roots in native American and African music; in particular, the blues, spirituals and rag time. Jazz first became a defined music form in the early 1920 springing from the US cities of New Orleans and later Chicago. Early Jazz was characterized by traditional rhythms and melodies being taken and improvised upon, giving a combination of swing and syncopation. Early Jazz performers of note included Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong. A good taste of this period can be gained by listening to recordings of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Seven ensembles.

By the 1930 Jazz had spread out of its local bases in South American and became more mainstream attracting white musicians as well. One development of Jazz was the big bands such as Ben Goodman and Glen Miller. Glen Millers big band became very successful and popular, but offering little scope for improvisation jazz aficionados saw it as more of swing rather than real jazz. However other big bands such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie provided some of the all time great Jazz recordings.

Whilst the Big Band led jazz in a more conventional direction. The late 1930s and 1940s also saw jazz develop in another direction through the creation of the new “Be Bop” craze. Be Bop is epitomized by the great musicians such as Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sonny Rollins. These musicians took Jazz to new heights of improvisation, loosening the adherence to harmony’s and rigid chord structures.

Unlike previous forms of jazz, Be bop was not designed for dancing but was seen more like an opportunity to showcase the musical expertise of the performers. Some of the great be bop recordings came about as the performers played off each other, each striving for greater excellence and improvisation. One of the greatest recordings of this period was “Jazz at Masey Hall” 1953 featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker amongst others, it is a very good example of live jazz music. In the 1960s Be bop evolved into a form of “free jazz” with little if any adherence to conventional harmonies and chord structures. One of the best selling jazz recordings which characterized this new form was “A Kind of Blue” by Miles Davis.

Alas many of the great jazz performers led tragic lives, a seemingly very high percentage died prematurely, inevitably from drug and alcohol misuse. Unfortunately many young performers came to associate drugs with being a successful jazz performer so jazz developed a strong reputation for association with narcotics.

To play Jazz music successfully a classical background is definitely an advantage. To be a successful jazz player you need to be able to learn the chords and scales of the song. With this basic structure you can then improvise around these chords to give the improvised or jazz effect. However to be a great jazz musician a lot more is needed than formal training, successful improvisation is a difficult skill that appears to come easily to a rare few.

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