Jazz originated from the American South in the 18th century as a form of music sung by African slaves employed in the many plantations. Jazz music was influenced by different cultures from a combination of African folk music and rhythms to Caribbean and black American music.
Various styles of playing evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries as musicians started to improvise. This was because early musicians did not have formal training in Western classical music and those that did began to introduce European harmonies and forms into Jazz and made the pattern of music uneven.
Since, the most important element of jazz is improvisation (the ability to create new music spontaneously). Performers improvised by unexpectedly accenting at various places and dipping down where accents are stressed. This added just the right amount of excitement to make each show unique.
In early 20th century, a band from Austin High School, Chicago, developed a unique type of musical arrangement that soon came to be known as ‘Chicago style’ jazz.
Chicago musicians included trumpeters Jimmy McPartland and Muggsy Spanier; cornetist Bix Beiderbecke; clarinetists Frank Teschemacher, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Goodman; saxophonists Frankie Trumbauer and Bud Freeman; drummers Dave Tough, George Wettling, and Gene Krupa; and guitarist Eddie Condon.
In New York City, James P. Johnson popularised a new musical style from Ragtime called stride piano in which the left hand plays alternating single notes and chords that move up and down the scale while the right hand plays solo melodies or accompanying rhythms. Many jazz pianists were greatly influenced by Johnson including Count Bassie, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller among others.
Jazz was not only instrumental but had its vocalists too. Among the greatest jazz singers are Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Nat ‘King’ Cole (also a superb pianist). However, the various styles evolved mainly due to various bands that introduced different music in different decades.
The big band era
Till the 1920s, Jazz music was performed by solo players until 1923 when Fletcher Henderson organized a jazz band and classified them according to instruments like brass, reed, and percussion. Henderson went on to organise many such bands in the next two decades that included jazz hall of famers like Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins.
Louis Armstrong was the first male jazz singer who became popular and he also introduced a kind of singing called ‘scat’ that consisted of wordless syllables sung in the manner of an instrument playing. Armstrong’s recording between 1925 to 1928 rank among the masterpieces of jazz as does his duet performances with pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines.
The swing era
By mid 1930’s, Jazz moved to ‘swing’ and boogie woogie. The swing form was popularised by Duke Ellington. His recording of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” got nearly everyone swinging to the rhythm of his music. While Swing emphasized four beats to the bar, boogie-woogie stressed on eight beats to the bar.
In 1934, Benny Goodman popularised Swing through performances and radio recordings with his band and combos (combination of instruments). Benny soon became the ‘King of Swing’ and he was the first white bandleader to feature both black and white musicians together in public performances.
Goodman is credited with other firsts in Jazz. He removed racial segregation and brought black musicians to the fore and in 1938 he and his band performed at Carnegie Hall in New York city, the first time Jazz had been played at a concert hall.
Major bands of the swing era included those led by Benny Carter, Bob Crosby, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Earl Hines, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, among others. Boogie-woogie had Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pinetop Smith popularising its style.
Count Basie immortalised Swing with his own distinctive jazz style adapted from blues that consisted of repeated simple melodies depending less on written arrangements thereby giving more room for rhythmic improvisations.
In the 1940s performers experimented with chord patterns and melodies that came to be called hard Bop or Bebop or funky jazz. Subtle changes of harmony was displayed that required exceptional skill. Bebop took on elements from gospel and blues music blending it with rhythmic drive.
Among the well-known Bebop bands was the Jazz Messengers led by drummer Art Blakey; Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, alto sax player Charlie Parker and drummer Max Roach.
Bebop musicians played an intricate melody, followed with long periods of solo improvisation. In 1948, tenor saxophonist Stan Getz recorded a slow, romantic solo of Ralph Burns’ composition ‘Early Autumn’ with the Woody Herman band that influenced musicians like Miles Davis and Lee Konitz.
Miles Davis’ recordings of these slow rendition numbers was soon christened as a new and better jazz form: that gave birth to the style and word ‘Cool’ to describe something exceptionally groovy.