Jazz - America's Art Form
Although jazz music today is played and enjoyed around the world, it originated in the United States over a century ago. It has been described as the only art form unique to the United States. Although most of us know jazz music when we hear it, it can be difficult to define, as there have been many different styles of jazz during the past century. Even the origin of the word ‘jazz’ is not known for sure.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the American city of New Orleans, Louisiana, was home to people from around the world, including many from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. All of these groups had their own styles of making music, singing or chanting and gradually these styles combined to create a style known as jazz. Often, the music had no definite tune and the musicians would play for hours without rehearsing or writing the tune down, a technique known as improvisation.
In 1901, one of the most famous and influential jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong, was born. Armstrong was typical of many jazz musicians of the early 20th century, as he was black, came from a fairly poor background and mostly taught himself to play instruments. Armstrong was able to not only play and write music, but also change his style according to what was popular at the time. Armstrong also appeared in over 12 films and became the first black performer to host a national radio show.
Another early jazz musician was Jelly Roll Morton, whose 1915 record called ‘Jelly Roll Blues’ was the first jazz arrangement to be printed. Its success made the new style of music even more popular and it began to spread to other parts of the United States. Not everybody approved of the new musical style; many considered it to be too modern and even immoral. However, during the 1920s, jazz continued to thrive; the decade also saw some other now famous jazz names begin their careers, such as Bix Beiderbecke, Earl Hines and Duke Ellington.
During the 1930s and 40s, jazz changed in style again and was largely performed by bandleaders and their orchestras and became known as big band or swing. This type of music was often more tuneful than other types of jazz and became popular in the UK and France as well as the United States. Some of the most famous bandleaders of the time included Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway.
Jazz changed again during the 1950s and 60s and other new styles were created, such as BeBop, Cool and West Coast. One of the most influential jazz records from this time was by Miles Davis and called ‘Birth of the Cool’ which influenced many musicians who would follow. Just like the early jazz pioneers, one thing that Davis and others did was to play and record music without rehearsing, or writing it beforehand. The 1960s also saw fusion jazz, in which jazz took on some of the characteristics of rock music and combined the two into a new sound.
Today, jazz continues to evolve and in addition to many of the recordings by the early jazz musicians being widely available, there are plenty of new artists to discover. It is perhaps more difficult than ever before to accurately define jazz, but it remains one of America’s most influential exports.