Jazz is impossible to define because words are not enough to capture the many phases of its rich history and evolution. Its origins have an equally diverse musical and cultural background, representing a mixture of African, European, and American cultures. It is purely a product of the United States and also a reflection of the country’s history. In fact, it is considered “America’s classical music”1 and one of the United States’ greatest contributions to the world. 

“If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”2  

– Louis Armstrong

What is Jazz Music?  

Individual style is the most distinguishing quality of jazz. Jazz musicians are encouraged to discover and perform in their own authentic sound and style. This makes every performer and performance different, even when the artists play the same instruments or sing the same songs. Every jazz artist has a unique style which is usually easily recognizable in their work. Jazz is all about adding a unique personal twist to a piece of music and making it your own. Here are a few core qualities of jazz music that can help you understand it better:

  • Jazz music is improvisational, which means that each version of the same song is performed with the performing artist’s unique touch. 
  • It is influenced by African rhythms and European harmonic structure. 
  • Jazz performers are their own composers and get to experiment, express, and represent it in their own way, whereas classical music artists usually have less room to add their originality and have to retain the essence of the creator or owner of the musical piece they are performing.
  • Artists often engage in the “call-and-response” pattern in jazz where one instrument, voice, or part of the band answers or responds to another.
  • Jazz players often spontaneously play solos that are made up on the spot during performances.

Where Did Jazz Music Originate From? 

Jazz primarily came from African-American slaves who were facing numerous restrictions which were also laid on the practice of their native musical traditions. This led them to explore other ways to express their cultural identity. Gradually, jazz, a musical genre that was deeply rooted in self-expression and was free of boundaries, emerged from all the restrictions and constraints.  

Jazz developed in New Orleans in the early 20th century. New Orleans, a port city in the United States, is situated at the mouth of the Mississippi River. New Orleans had a much more diverse population than any other city in the south of the United States. The population is comprised of people from African, French, Caribbean, Italian, German, English, Mexican, and American Indian descent. Jazz was eventually born from a fusion of African American and European musical traditions, along with a mix of all the other cultures. Jazz also evolved from ragtime, marches, blues, and other kinds of music, making it a blend of many different genres as well.

A Brief History of Jazz 

Jazz was first recorded in 1917 and became widely popular soon after. It spread across the United States and Europe with the help of iconic artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis. The 1920s and the 1930s were known as the Jazz Age due to its widespread dominance across the United States and Europe. 

The Great Depression ended the reign of jazz music.3 However, it was more of an evolution than an end as it branched out into a series of different subgenres such as traditional jazz, swing, bebop, cool jazz, and jazz rock, to name a few. Jazz has been around for more than a century and has since spread to almost every corner of the world, and its influence can be heard in several popular genres of music today.

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1. What is Jazz? | National Museum of American History. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2022, from https://americanhistory.si.edu/smithsonian-jazz/education/what-jazz
2. jazz | Definition, History, Musicians, & Facts | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/art/jazz
3. The Origins of Jazz | Jazz Observer. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2022, from https://jazzobserver.com/the-origins-of-jazz/