Jazz – Popular Music of the Early 1900s

Jazz is a style of music that evolved in the early 1900s out of the Blues and a popular style of music called Ragtime.

  • The Blues is a style of music that evolved in the Deep South at the end of the 1800s out of African American spirituals, work songs, shouts, chants, and story songs.  The Blues often speaks of the struggle or pain felt by individuals or groups and is built around a receptive form (structure) that allows for vocal and instrumental improvisation (soloing) – see above.

Ragtime was a style of music that was played in dance halls and clubs after the abolition of slavery and had many elements that would later be emulated in jazz especially the heavy use of “syncopation” – playing and emphasizing notes in between the beats of the music.  Ragtime served as a counterpart to the blues in that it was often upbeat and meant to dance to – where the blues spoke of the struggle of daily life, Ragtime helped people to relax and have fun with friends and neighbors.


One of the most popular composers of Ragtime was Scott Joplin who wrote many pieces that are still played today by pianists all over the world such as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer.”   Born in Texas, Joplin spent his early career as a traveling musician moving all over the south playing in clubs and dance halls.  He composed in many styles but became known as the “King of Ragtime” after he wrote and published “Maple Leaf Rag” which went onto become the main sound in Ragtime music.  Joplin’s death in 1917 marked the end of the ragtime era.


Early Jazz and New Orleans

As the Blues and Ragtime were played all over the south in dance halls, the styles began to mix together.  In New Orleans, Louisiana large bands who played for funerals and parades began to adopt elements of each style and one of the earliest forms of jazz was born.  This style became known as “Dixieland Jazz” and is characterized by a lead instrument playing the melody while the rest of the band (the “frontline”) improvises around it.  This new style began to make its way off the streets of New Orleans and into the dance halls with musicians like Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton who were among the first to perform in this style and write it down for others to play.

Jelly Roll Morton’s “Jelly Roll Blues” was the first jazz composition to be published as sheet music.


The earliest Jazz recordings in this style were made at this time and the first successful Jazz single, “Livery Stable Blues,” was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.


 The Jazz Age 1920-1933

In 1920, the United States enacted a prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol.  This resulted in the creation of illicit speakeasies during the advent of early jazz.  This new form of popular music became a major part of these lively illegal bars and, despite both alcohol and jazz being labeled as immoral, jazz began to spread throughout the United States.

The Dixieland Jazz sound out of New Orleans continued to spread throughout the United States and in 1922, Kid Ory’s Original Creole Jazz Band had taken the sound to California where it became the first African American band out of New Orleans to make recordings in this style on the West Coast.


Kid Ory’s “Tin Roof Blues”

Though it was created in New Orleans and had spread from coast to coast, “Hot Jazz” (which was the new nickname of Dixieland Jazz) was especially popular in Chicago where the King Oliver Creole Jazz band was a dominant force in the Chicago music scene.


King Oliver’s “Riverside Blues”

Louis Armstrong

One of the most famous of the Hot Jazz performers was the trumpeter, singer, and eventual bandleader Louis Armstrong (nicknames: “Satchmo” or “Pops”) who was a native of New Orleans and grew up hearing and playing the early jazz sounds around him.

Jazz great Louis Armstrong with trumpet

In 1924, Armstrong joined the Fletcher Henderson dance band as the featured soloist for a year.  During this time he continued to play in the Hot Jazz style but also began to usher in a new phase in jazz.  His solos and influence on Henderson’s band moved well beyond the theme and variations and collective improvisation of the New Orleans style towards an emphasis on group arrangements and individual solos.


Fletcher Henderson Dance Band – “I’ll See You in my Dreams”

After his time with the Fletcher Henderson Dance band, Armstrong created his own group called The Hot Five and continued to play in his hometown style of Dixieland and to push jazz forward.  It was with this band that Armstrong helped to popularize the art of “scat singing” where the singer uses nonsense syllables while taking a solo like one of the instruments.  Scat singing is a difficult technique that requires singers to sing improvised melodies and rhythms using the voice as an instrument.  This became not only an identifying factor of Armstrong’s style but also has become a much used technique of jazz singers to this day.


Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five – “Heebie Jeebies”

1940s – Swing and Big Bands

By the 1940s, jazz had evolved and changed with the times. Though the New Orleans Sound of Louis Armstrong and others was still heard throughout the country, newer “Big Bands” were playing Swing Jazz to audiences of all types.  Swing is a form of jazz that often involves a large group of musicians, known as a Big Band, that is made up of a rhythm section (piano, drums, bass, and guitar) a brass section (trumpets, trombones, saxophones) and sometimes woodwinds like clarinet or flute.

  • The terms “swing” comes from a characteristic rhythm used heavily in jazz in which the division of eighth note from a quarter note is uneven (long-short-long-short) unlike a “straight ahead” division in which the eighth notes are equal.

Swing was played in both concert halls and small venues but during the 1930s it became especially popular as a form of dance music.  Big bands were often lead by band leaders who wrote or arranged the music and had a major influence on the development of the groups’ sound.  Two such band leaders were  the clarinet player Bennie Goodman and the pianist Count Basie who lead some of the most famous Big Bands of the era.

Benny Goodman – “Sing Sing Sing”


Count Basie – “April in Paris”


Duke Ellington

Washington DC born jazz musician, pianist, composer and arranger Duke Ellington is also one of the most famous jazz and swing band leaders of all time.


Over time, his music began to move from the swing sound intended for dances to a more refined sound that bridged the gap between jazz and art music played in concert halls.  Ellington liked to refer to his music as “American Music” rather than swing or jazz because he felt that those terms or categories didn’t work for his brand of music.  Duke Ellington was a prolific composer who wrote over 1000 original composition.  He also wrote music to highlight the skills, styles and creativity of the musicians in his group which helped to make Ellington’s band one of the best known jazz orchestras (another name for big band) of the 1930s and 40s.  One such piece is “Jeeps Blues” which was written to highlight the sounds and style of saxophonist Johnny Hodges.

Duke Ellington – “Jeeps Blues”

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges

1940-1960s – Bebop, Cool Jazz, and Modal Jazz

During the early 1940’s, prominent jazz performers began to transition from popular dance music towards more challenging “musician’s music.”  This new genre of bebop is characterized by fast tempos and flashy instrumental virtuosity and improvisation. The genre developed as the younger generation of jazz artists aimed to counter the popularity of the swing style with new, non-danceable music that demanded listening.  Because bebop was not created for dancing, artists could perform at faster tempos and they also become fascinated with increasingly advanced harmonies, complex syncopation, intricate melodies, expanded use of the rhythm section, and a focus on individual solos.  The standard bebop ensemble consisted of a saxophone, trumpet, piano, drums, and double bass.  Two of the most prominent names in this style were the saxophonist Charlie Parker and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Charlie Parker – “Anthropology”


Dizzy Gillespie – “Salt Peanuts”


Cool Jazz emerged in the late 1940’s as a style of jazz characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter tone, particularly in contrast with the bebop style.  The calm smoothness of both the melodic lines and accompaniment replaced the nervous energy of bebop and dominated jazz at the beginning of the 1950’s.  In 1949, Miles Davis recorded the album “Birth of the Cool” which became one of the most famous albums and sounds in this style of jazz.  This was the first of many albums that Miles Davis would release that would push jazz in new directions.

Miles Davis – “Move”


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a number of jazz musicians began to move a new direction with their music.  Instead of focusing on chord progressions while playing melodies and solos, these jazz musicians focused on musical modes – scales and harmonies that are different than standard major/minor scales.  Musicians who played Modal Jazz, as it came to be known, used a variety of different scales to play over a single chord rather than a single major/minor scale played over chord progressions.  Modal Jazz often has slow moving chords (often 16 or more measures on the same chord) that allowed for exploration of these various modes in both melody and improvisation.  This style of jazz was made famous by Miles Davis and John Coltrane, along with a number of other musicians and the two played in this style on a number of albums including the famous Kind of Blue which features both musicians performing together.

Miles Davis – “So What”


Free Jazz

At the same time that some musicians were experimenting with and playing modal jazz during the late 1950s and early 1960s, other forms of jazz emerged including Free Jazz.  Free jazz is characterized by improvisation and “free tonality” in which time signatures, steady beat, scales and keys, and traditional forms all but disappear and are replaced by the musicians freely playing what they feel in the moment.  Free jazz is often compared to a conversation in which each musician is allowed to have their own ideas as they listen and react to other musician’s ideas. The saxophonist Ornette Coleman was one of the originators of this style and his album entitled “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” is where the movement earned it’s name.

Ornette Coleman – excerpt of “Free Jazz (part one)”


Jazz Fusion

Jazz Fusion emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s and involves the mixing of the complexity and improvisation of Jazz with ideas from other genres of music including Rock and Roll, Funk, Rhtyhm and Blues (R&B), and music from other cultures around the world.  The mid 1960s found musicians like Miles Davis exploring the incorporation of electric instruments in jazz.  In 1968, Davis released “Miles in the Sky” in which he incorporated Herbie Hancock playing the electric piano and Ron Carter playing bass guitar.  This had a major influence on the development of jazz fusion and led to a greater exploration of these ideas in future albums and performances by Davis and others.

Miles Davis – “Stuff”


By the 1970s and 1980s, jazz fusion continued to evolve and change and many groups began abandoning jazz’s typical swing feel for a rock-style backbeat and electric bass grooves.  Many of the musicians who played with Miles Davis went on to start other groups exploring the ideas of jazz fusion.  Even though many of these groups followed in Davis’s footsteps and began by playing very experimental and long compositions, some groups like The Weather Report began to move towards a more commercial sound.  In 1977, The Weather report released the top selling album of jazz fusion entitled “Heavy Weather” featuring the compositions and ideas of the fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius and the keyboards of Joe Zawinul.

The Weather Report – “Birdland”