Jazz America’s Gift

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Jazz does not belong to one race or culture, but it is a gift America has given to the world. Ahmad Allaadeen. Jazz is considered one of the most influential genres of all time. In the 1920s, Jazz opened the eyes of other cultures into African American culture. Originating in New Orleans, Louisiana; jazz has played a major role in evolving Americans into what we are today, and Jazz has also been the mother of other genres of music including Blues, Rock, RnB, and Hip-Hop. Jazz, more than any other genre of music has been associated with the geographical, social, political, and economic effects of American cities as well as the fluctuating reputation of Americans today. The beginnings of this art form can be traced back to the early 1900s in New Orleans, Louisiana. Due to an insufficient amount of reliable resources, early jazz is a difficult topic to research. One difficulty present is the lack of early recordings, and notated music due to musicians often playing by ear and being musically illiterate. Another difficulty present when researching early jazz is that many jazz greats passed away before serious research was done on the art form. Developing from Ragtime or Dixieland music, jazz is commonly defined as a mixture of African polyrhythms and European harmony deriving from African spirituals brought to America by slaves. While jazz is commonly associated with Blues and Ragtime, Saxophonist Sydney Bechet argues that jazz wasn’t spirituals, or blues, or ragtime, but everything all at once. Each one putting something over on the other. The principle difference between ragtime and jazz is that ragtime was notated note for note while early jazz was mainly improvisational or arranged music. Military and Parade bands heavily influenced the instrumentation of the genre due to the fact that these instruments were cheap and easily accessible to African-Americans.

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At the end of the Spanish-American War, the American army sold off used instruments, giving African-Americans with financial challenges, the opportunity to buy instruments. The transformation from ragtime to jazz is largely credited to pianists, Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, and cornetist Buddy Bolden. Morton’s 1920 recording of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag was one of the earliest recordings to have a triplet feel. James P. Johnson, often referred to as the first major jazz pianist, utilized and evolved stride playing for a jazz pianist. James P. Johnson was also the primary teacher of future jazz great Thomas Fats Waller. Buddy Bolden was credited as one of the first musicians to evoke a sad or blue emotion by lowering the 3rd, 5th, and 7th scale degrees of the original key the song was in. Still Developing as an art form, Jazz grew in popularity in the 1920s. While its main roots were still in New Orleans, the genre began to branch out to other parts of the country including New York City, Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Jazz offered a sense of freedom and relief for many after World War I. Due to Prohibition beginning in 1920, Speakeasies, illicit liquor stores or nightclubs, were the most common places to hear jazz. Speakeasies served as a secret place for people to listen, mingle, and dance to Jazz music. These illicit bars earned the name speakeasy because of the secret code you needed to know to gain entry. In New York, speakeasies brought the rich and poor, men and women together during Prohibition. However, racial tensions were still high and was seen with the treatment of black musicians. This was the one of the driving forces why many jazz musicians migrated to the north. The King Oliver Creole jazz band was one of the more prominent bands of this time. Started by cornetist, Joe Oliver in 1922 with clarinetist Lawrence Duh©, trombonist Roy Palmer, drummer Paul Barbarin, and bassist Bill Johnson in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1922, Louis Armstrong joined the band as second cornet player. Louis Armstrong credits Joe Oliver’s influence as If it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. Louis Armstrong gained popularity rapidly due to his distinct voice unique improvisational style playing trumpet. In 1925, Louis Armstrong began his own band in Chicago with trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, guitarist, Johnny St. Cyr, and his wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong.

After the wild success throughout the 1920s, Jazz was starting to become solidified as America’s mainstream music. However, during the 1930s, the genre was forced to in some ways grow up due to the financial crisis happening at the time, The Great Depression. The economic heartache created a significant challenge for less known musicians and musicians that were in other parts of the country. Scuffing was a term used by many at the time to describe a jazz musician that was struggling to get by. While this was a rough patch in American history, this period brought forth many Jazz Legends including saxophonists Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and drummer Gene Krupa. During this time, Jazz was still developing and evolving; some of the most popular jazz standards were written during this period including Body and Soul by Johnny Green (1930), All of Me by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simon (1931), and Night and Day by Cole Porter (1932). In 1935, a new era of jazz began known as the Swing Era. The term Swing was used to describe the groove or feel created by the music, making it easy to dance along to. However, in the Birth of Bebop, Scott DeVeaux argues Swing was more than a constellation of techniques and procedures to be altered at will by strong minded artists. It was an integral part of the burgeoning entertainment industry, a genre of dance music embedded within an elaborate network linking musicians with booking agents, dance-hall and theater operators, songwriters, publishers, journalists, radio broadcasters, record companies- and of course the public. It was a system that made musicians’ careers possible and that defined their place within the whole. Musicians such as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie led the Swing Era with their big bands performing throughout the country. Popular jazz standards written during the swing era included Sing, Sing, Sing by Louis Prima (1936), made famous by the Benny Goodman Big Band, In the Mood by the Glen Miller Band (1939), and Take The A Train by Duke Ellington (1941). The Swing Era lasted for a decade due to musicians being selected in the World War II draft and younger listeners decided to lean towards the quickly rising sub-genres of jazz, including Bebop and Cool Jazz; older musicians were more known to stick to traditional jazz.

During the 1940s and 50s, jazz began to branch out into different subgenres. Bebop, Latin Jazz, and Cool Jazz started to gain popularity amongst younger musicians while older musicians stuck to their roots. The Bebop Era officially began in 1945, after the economic challenges the country was facing during World War II. The term Bebop was used to describe the fast-moving, melodic lines. Bebop jazz was characterized by its fast-tempos, complex harmonies, and its rhythmic unpredictability. Bebop is associated with the East Coast because its fast and energetic tempos resemble the havoc and complexity of urban areas. Bebop is also frequently cast in explicitly racial terms: as a movement by African-American musicians seeking to create an idiom expressive of the black subculture, not the white mainstream.

The Bebop Era featured a plethora of talented soloists including saxophonist, Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, and drummer Max Roach. The Bebop era also marks the point at which the rhythm section instruments began to expand and communicate more with the featured soloist. Max Roach, a drummer from Newland, North Carolina is often credited with developing an approach to bebop jazz drumming. These top artists approach and techniques are still widely taught throughout jazz today. A few of the more popular jazz standards were written during this era including Groovin’ High by Dizzy Gillespie (1945), Ornithology by Charlie Parker (1946), and Blue Monk by Thelonious Monk (1952). The Bebop Era lasted for about 10 years alongside, the emerging sub-genre of cool jazz.

Co-existing with bebop, cool was a term used starting in the 1950s to describe a mellow, more-reserved type of music. Cool also described the climate of the country after World War II. Cool jazz was associated with the West Coast due to the laidback demeanor. Whereas bebop focused on improvisational skill, cool jazz was often pre-arranged. Influenced by classical music, cool jazz also featured an array of orchestral instruments including flute, tuba, French horn, and vibraphone. Another underlying distinction between the two sub genres is that cool jazz often features counterpoint. The use of stable dynamics and limited vibrato also gives the music that cool factor.

Released in 1957, The Birth of the Cool by Miles Davis is arguably the most important jazz album of all time. This album brought Jazz back as America’s mainstream music. Throughout his career, Miles Davis established himself as one of the premier jazz trumpet players, by mastering numerous styles of jazz music. In 1948, he declined an offer to join Duke Ellington’s Band in favor to start his own with pianist Gil Evans. Miles Davis, Chet Baker, saxophonist Gerry Mulligan and Lester Young, and pianist Dave Brubeck were amongst the most successful jazz artists at the time. The majority of modern jazz repertoire was written during this time period including Take Five by Dave Brubeck (1959), So What by Miles Davis (1959), and Blue Bossa by Kenny Dorham (1963). With the contrast of styles between east and west coast, this contributed to the different style interpretations found in urban areas across the country.

All in all, what makes jazz America’s gift? Jazz, unlike any other genre, tells the story of America’s unfair treatment and past. It is also America’s only true art form. Jazz is America’s gift to the world because it’s a melting pot of different musical influences in combined into one, similar to the population. No other genre has been credited Jazz principles are still commonly found today in modern music and its impact on American culture will be forever felt.

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Jazz America's Gift. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved December 3, 2022 , from

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