Jazz, unique form of American music. A piece of jazz music begins with a melody and a harmonic scheme, on which the players improvise variations, typically using syncopated rhythms. The word “jazz” may derive from a slang word describing a swaying kind of walk, or it may come from the French word jaser, to gossip.
The origins of jazz are found in the work songs, laments, and spirituals of the slaves of the U.S. South. With the abolition of slavery and the migration of thousands of black workers to southern towns and cities, especially New Orleans, these songs and spirituals were given a new impetus. As they were played by the street bands that accompanied weddings and funerals and by the smaller bands that played in the cafés of the Storyville district of New Orleans, such forms as the blues, ragtime, and the stomp were established.
The original New Orleans style started to change in the 1920s as blacks moved to the cities of the North. New styles emerged, such as the piano boogie woogie, and jazz began to find a wider audience, thanks to the radio and phonograph. In the 1930s and 1940s, big bands, composed mainly of white musicians, played a commercialized type of jazz called swing, which became the most popular dance music on both sides of the Atlantic. In the late 1940s a completely new jazz style, called bebop, appeared on the scene, pioneered by several brilliant black musicians. Bebop was the start of the modern jazz era. “West Coast” and “cool” jazz styles followed in the 1950s and 1960s. The latest jazz developments are almost totally removed in both form and spirit from the original New Orleans style.
One element in jazz that has not changed much is its instrumentation. The old New Orleans bands generally consisted of trumpet or cornet, trombone, clarinet, saxophone, piano, double-bass, and drums. The majority of jazz musicians still play one or another of these instruments.
Many jazz musicians figure in the history of 20th-century music. Joe “King” Oliver, Edward “Kid” Ory, Sidney Bechet, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, Louis Armstrong, Thomas “Fats” Waller, and the first great white jazzman, Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke, were among the early masters of jazz. Fletcher Henderson, Edward “Duke” Ellington, and William “Count” Basie led some of the great bands of the 1930s and 1940s, while Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Woodrow “Woody” Herman were among the band leaders of the swing era. Perhaps the most passionate jazz has come from the great blues singers, such as Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. Modern jazz can be traced through the playing of musicians like Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Earl Hines, Charlie Parker, John “Dizzy” Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane. In the 1960s a new “free form” jazz was developed by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and others.