Jazz is an African-American invention that evolved around the turn of the last century in the city of New Orleans. It represents a convergence of European and African musical traditions (Norton 400).
The harmonic principles, instrumentation, and formal structures are derived from European traditions; the rhythmic principles, highly-personalized timbres, and call-and-response structures are derived from African traditions (Collier 6).
Black folk traditions such as ragtime, blues, and spirituals were the primary antecedents to jazz.
Jazz’s primary character traits are syncopated rhythms, polyphonic arrangements, and improvisation. Here’s what those words mean:
- Syncopated rhythms are ones that accent normally unaccented parts of the beat.
- Polyphonic arrangements are ones in which the members of the ensemble intertwine, and overlay, multiple melodies.
- Improvisation is the practice of composing and performing at the same time.
The story arc of jazz runs as follows: It evolved as folk music, then it became popular music, then it became avant-garde music, and last it became academic music, which is what it is today.
The trajectory of jazz history is marked by the following variants:
- New Orleans jazz (1915-1930)
- Swing (1930-1945)
- Bebop (1945-1960)
- Cool Jazz (1950-1960)
- Jazz/Fusion (1960-present)
There are others, of course, but the habit of chasing down every possible variant and permutation of jazz is pedantic and a waste of time. The above mentioned five are the ones that matter because they had the most impact on the character and direction of jazz music when it was popular.
Jazz is filed under the category of American popular music. Other forms of American popular music include musical theater, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood musicals (Burkholder, et al. 859).
Among these, jazz is the most consequential because it gave rise to the following music genres: rhythm and blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and hip-hop, which are three of the most popular genres in human history.
Burkholder, P.J., Grout, D.J., Palisca, C.V. A History of Western Music. 9th ed. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 2014.
Collier, J.L. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978.
Norton / The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Sadie, Stanley, and Alison Latham W.W. Norton and Company: New York, 1994.