Jazz, swing, bebop, cakewalk, even the blues that birthed it (along with spirituals and African polyrhythms)—whatever you may call the music—is bigger than one blog post. But if you’re new to jazz, hopefully we can provide some sort of introduction; and if you’re an old cat, perhaps we can introduce you to something new.
Better people than us have provided better introductions to jazz: Ken Burns, Bob Blumenthal and Herman Leonard just to start. (By the way, all these links lead you to books, music and films that you can check out for free from Mentor Public Library.)
So let’s talk about the music and its early practitioners. The earliest jazz music came out of New Orleans: pianists like Jelly Roll Morton, clarinetists like Sidney Bechet, and trumpeters like Bix Beiderbecke and Louis Armstrong.
Some modern musicians still make jazz in the style of the old Hot 5s and 7s, for example, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Back then, jazz was mostly dance music: the emphasis was on syncopated rhythms, strong melodies and catchy improvisations. The harmonies and rhythms were not yet as complicated as they would become during the bebop era.
What started as the realm of solo pianists and small groups grew until bandleaders had entire sections of brass, woodwinds, percussion and sometimes even strings at their disposals.
Composers like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman and Buddy Rich took the music to new places, incorporating aspects of classical, world, Broadway and even rock ‘n roll into their songs. Meanwhile, the Gershwins were using jazz as the basis to create some of the most memorable show tunes of all time.
The Big Bands were often accompanied by singers who became just as (or more) famous in their own right: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra and more. (That’s right. Ol’ Blue Eyes got his start singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.)
When we think of jazz, we tend to think of this era—with its Dukes and Counts and Cabs. You could argue that jazz would get more complicated and even more popular, but it would never be bigger.
Musical genres tend to evolve overtime. The Beatles may have been influenced by the 1, 4, 5 chord changes of the blues, but they grew it into a wall of sound. Kanye West may work with Rick Rubin, but the final product is going to sound a lot more complicated “My Adidas.”
Jazz also evolved from the swing of Jelly Roll to a dense jungle of chord changes, overlapping improvisations and unorthodox (sometimes dissonant) harmonies. This jungle’s name was bebop.
Thelonious Monk would integrate seemingly atonal and arrhythmic strikes in his arrangement. John Coltrane and Miles Davis would use modal (as opposed to diatonic) harmonies in their solos and arrangements. Charles Mingus would take the lessons of Ellington and stretch them into suites depicting anger, depression and contemplation.
Jazz grew from dance music to almost anything you could imagine sonically.
Let’s be honest. Genres are arbitrary things. Whether you’re bluegrass or blues, bebop or hip-hop, you’re still using the same 13 notes. So it’s unsurprising, natural even, for genres to meld.
Just like the Gershwins combined jazz and classical, Weather Report would fuse jazz and funk, Miles Davis would combine bebop and hip-hop and Herbie Hancock would mix everything with everything.
So what is jazz today? Is it swing? Big band? Bebop? Fusion?
It’s all of that and more.
Jazz has more faces than a hydra, and it’s adding more all the time.