Scholars, moviemakers, and music nerds love to talk about the evolution of jazz. However, the same isn’t true about other genres like garage rock or disco. Many music styles are born and stay close to their origin.
But jazz is an ever-evolving genre and a big part of American history. It’s not in the same league as popular music since its path is much less commercial.
Join us as we explore the groovy evolution of jazz, and discover some of the big players involved in making it so popular.
What Is Jazz?
The jazz genre covers a wide range of music based on syncopation, complex harmony, and improvisation. Some even say it’s the true birth of punk. A well-known jazz musician’s pastime is learning music rules only to tear them down.
Jazz bands have as few as three members but can also be full orchestras. Drums are essential since much of what sets the genre apart is the rhythm. You won’t hear a basic four-four beat like you do in rock. Instead, jazz musicians emphasize a sort of forward momentum and swing, adding a smart kick to the sound.
Old-school jazz bands prefer the sophistication of a stand-up bass to an electric one. However, either can be used. In addition, you may have a trumpet, trombone, or saxophone. Guitars and keyboards are less common. And, believe it or not, jazz is less dependent on lead vocals than most other music genres.
Jazz evolved from trained musicians who wanted to experiment. Of course, you need to know your music scales, but knowing how to improvise is also important. The best jazz bands know how to break into improve and jump right back into time in a snap.
Jazz Evolution in the Beginning
Jazz, at its core, came from enslaved Africans living in New Orleans. Unlike in most other cities during the 19th century, enslaved people could own drums. Playing music kept spirits high and families connected to their roots.
Being a port city, New Orleans became a hotbed for creativity, with people coming and going from around the world. The first inklings of jazz came from marching bands and funeral processions. Newly freed people got jobs as musicians and experimented sonically with pianos and banjos.
Early jazz evolved into ragtime which is a synthesis of European classical music and African syncopation. The shifting beats were described as ragged time, hence the name. During the late 1800s, this upbeat piano rhythm was all the rage.
The Jazz Age and Prohibition
After World War I, many African Americans migrated from the South to cities like Chicago and New York for work. Many became musicians overnight, and city nightlife thrived. The world was dancing into the roaring 20s, and jazz was the soundtrack.
Jazz founding fathers like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie set the tone. You could explode with Armstrong’s climaxing horn solos. Or chill out at midnight with some smooth Ellington grooves. Or just doll it uptown with Basie and his orchestra.
Jazz evolved into the sound of the city. It set the perfect tone for secret speakeasies during prohibition. The parties were bigger, and the pace was faster. European cities like Paris, London, and Berlin devoured the new jazz sounds from America.
Swing and Big Band Era Jazz Evolution
As jazz exploded internationally, America faced another downturn with The Great Depression of 1929. Consequently, jazz evolved into a more standardized sound. You still had the big bands but minimal improvisation. Instead, the emphasis was on uniforms, choreography, and a sense of order.
This 1930s evolution of jazz was called swing. Bandleader Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, led one of the first integrated jazz groups in history. Although Black and White Americans had been quietly mixing in underground clubs for years, Goodman said it loud and proud. His 1938 Carnegie Hall concert is considered jazz’s global coming out party.
Post-War Evolution of Jazz – Bop and Cool
Bebop was the next step in the evolution of jazz. Innovators like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie ditched swinging dance grooves for faster arrangements. They saw jazz as an art form, not just music to entertain us. Bands became smaller but more interactive. The players needed to be kinetically synched so that complex improvisation could happen.
The reaction to bebop speed was west coast cool. Many people found bebop too radical and needed something calmer after World War II. The drums slowed way down, and the piano casually strolled along. Saxophonists like Coleman Hawkins marked the era of cool jazz.
Music Evolution from Free Jazz to Fusion
Miles Davis, one of the most famous jazz musicians in history, took us from cool to free. Davis embodied the spirit of jazz in that he was always trying new things. And his technical expertise was unmatched. You can follow jazz’s evolution just by listening to his discography.
Jazz artists continued to explore by integrating medieval music arrangements into 60s modern sounds. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman strayed far from music rules and went for a dissonant, atonal sound. Some found free jazz too weird. While others like John Coltrane moved out of it.
After the avant-garde free jazz 60s sound lost its edge, musicians played around with bringing rock music into the fold. Fusion was a loose term for jazz improvisation mixed with rock and world music.
Mainstream Jazz Evolution
You might guess that by the 1980s, the best years in jazz were behind us. This may be a little harsh, but every era has peaks and valleys.
Some 80s jazz subgenres include acid jazz and post-bop. Both styles meshed classic jazz with newer genres like British house music and American funk. In addition, afro-Cuban jazz and retro swing were popular on the dancefloor well into the 90s.
Two interesting yet utterly different great jazz musicians of this era are Herbie Hancock and Kenny G. Hancock’s 1983 single Rockit combined his decades of jazz musicianship with 80s synth sounds and hip hop. And unfortunately, Kenny G’s Songbird made smooth jazz an institution.
Even though the genre has plateaued, the evolution of jazz continues. The lean towards improvisation means musicians will always try new blends of old genres. Artists like Harry Connick Jr. and Jacob Collier fall into this method of mixing genres called jazz pluralism.
A True Part of American History
Jazz music is woven so deeply into American history that its impact is often overlooked. It started in the South before the abolition of slavery. And it’s been a voice of freedom and expression ever since. You may get swept off your feet when you listen to how the jazz sound evolved over the decades.
Do you prefer classical jazz, swing, bebop, or ragtime? Let us know in the comments below!