Jazz, commonly referred to as "jass" until the latter stages of World War I, emerged at around the turn of the century. During the nineteenth century, distinctions between "pure" and "mixed" African ancestry were increasingly ignored. In the pre-Civil War era, the latter group-- known as "Creoles" in the tolerant, cosmopolitan climate of New Orleans--had tended to hold themselves aloof from black culture, sometimes even passing as whites. The entrenchment of segregated society during the Reconstruction caused whites to regard anyone with a percentage of African ancestry (no matter how small) as black. The interaction of Creoles--who tended to be well-schooled in white culture--and blacks facilitated the blending of European and African musical traditions.
A number of preconditions assured New Orleans' central role in the rise of jazz: (1) the presence of more musical organizations by the late 1700s than in any other American city; (2) the festive French tradition; (3) the brothel district (designated "Storyville" in 1897) generated work for musicians of all types; (4) its role as a magnet for freed and escaped slaves throughout the 1800s (due to the city's employment opportunities, social activity, diverse ways of life, convenient location, and influence on black culture as a result of the proportionately high number of resident African Americans); and (5) the considerable amount of sex and marriage between blacks and whites prior to the mid-1800s.
New Orleans provided the setting for the emergence of ragtime in the last decade of the nineteenth century. The role of ragtime in the development of early jazz has been debated by music historians for most of the twentieth century; some consider it to be the first jazz style, while others feel that it was just one of many American pop music genres which influenced the formation of jazz. What is certain, however, is that the term was being employed by the mass media during the World War I years when the New Orleans jazz style achieved astounding success across the nation through performers such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz act to produce bestselling recordings.
Jazz is now recognized to be perhaps America's greatest indigenous art form. It embraces a number of well-defined subgenres, including
Dixieland. An innovative style from the World War I years to the late 1920s, its leading exponents included Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
Transitional/Dance. The musical accompaniment to the dance crazes of the Roaring Twenties, performers such as Paul Whiteman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Fletcher Henderson utilized a slightly larger group performers than had been the norm with dixieland. However, the emphasis on tight ensemble playing remained.
Big Band/Swing. The small jump combos of the early 1930s evolved into large bands often including at least a half dozen of each major instrumental grouping; i.e., brass, winds, strings. First the first time, solo breaks featuring headline performers (e.g., drummers like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa) were widely employed. Major bandleaders included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Harry James.
Bebop/Bop. The first jazz style to elevate concertizing above dancing, its stringent intensity precluded any aspirations for mainstream acceptance. The jazz vanguard from the mid- 1940s to the mid-1950s, the focus was now on scaled down bands whch featured virtuoso soloists such as saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie, and pianist Thelonius Monk.
Modern/Cool Jazz. This strain, popular from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, featured a more restrained, reflective form of ensemble playing. Top artists included Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and Stan Getz. Stylistic offshoots included West Coast/Third Stream.
Fusion. This form, which arose in the mid-1960s and remains commercial viable to the present day, represents the intermingling of jazz values with one or more additional styles (e.g., Latin, funk). Jazz-rock was the most popular fusion style; notable interpreters included Miles Davis, Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and various collaborations involving guitarist Carlos Santana. Many consider the jazz-pop idiom--ranging from the soft soul excursions of Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington, and others in the 1970s to the easy listening material of the likes of Kenny G. in the 1990s--to be the nadir of the genre.
Free Form/Avant-Garde. This category encompasses a wide variety of cutting edge experiments reaching back as far as the 1950s. Notable proponents have included Ornette Coleman (originator of the harmolodic system of improvisation), Sun Ra, and John Coltrane during the 1960s.
Despite the diversity of sounds found within jazz, certain features can be discerned which typify the genre as a whole. These traits (and probable ancestry) include:
1. Improvisation; i.e., simultaneously composing and playing a fresh melody or accompaniment. This technique appears to have been appropriated from both European (e.g., the Baroque period) and West African (e.g., drum ensembles) models.
2. Syncopation; i.e., the occurrence of accent at times when it is not normally anticipated. The most common rhythmic trait found in jazz, it has occasionally been employed in classical music (e.g., compositions by Mozart and Haydn), although it's far more prevalent in West African music.
3. Harmony; i.e., multiple melodic textures. While two- and three-part melodic textures are not unknown in Africa, they are generally conceived as simultaneous melodies rather than as a progression of chords. On the other hand, European music has had chord progressions like those employed by jazz at least since the 1500s.
4. A collective approach. Some African music allows each member of an ensemble to spontaneously vary his part while performing. While informal European dance and parade music also employs this approach, with most formal concert works improvisation is solo, not collective.
5. Call and response format. Although common in European church music, it has a greater predominance in African vocal music.
6. Choice of instruments. West Africa provided the banjo, the flute, and the xylophone; Europe, the trumpet, the trombone, the clarinet, the saxophone (as employed by military and concert bands), the piano, the bass viol, and the guitar.
7. Infrequency of loudness changes. This is typical of African music and European folk material; however, European concert music has long explored the dramatic effects of volume changes.
8. Counterpoint; i.e., the simultaneous sounding of several different melodic lines. Although examples can be discerned, this feature is not common to West African music. A longstanding European tradition, the Sousa variant of counterpoint became the model for early jazz recordings.
9. Prominent role of percussion. In formal European concert music it is used primarily for emphasis and dramatic effect rather than being a continuous element as in African music. It is important, however, in some European military and folk dance music.
10. Rigid maintenance of tempo. Passages without discernable tempo changes are the norm in European marching band and folk dance music, the West African heritage, and pre-1960s jazz. On the other hand, much European symphonic music required speeding and slowing.
11. An attraction for altering sounds by roughenings, buzzes, and ringings. This appears to be a uniquely African quality; jazz manifestations include mutes for brass instruments, simultaneously humming and blowing on a flute or trombone, the rasping texture employed by saxophonists, the electronic altering of tone quality, and the use of devices by drummers to produce ringings (e.g., the insertion of rivets in a cymbal to create a sizzle sound while vibrating).
12. Extensive use of short-term repetition. This approach has been employed by boogie woogie pianists such as Meade Lux Lewis, the Kansas City big band style popularized by Count Basie in the 1930s, and jazz rock as exemplified by Herbie Hancock and Weather Report in the 1970s. It is far more prevalent in African practice than in the full spectrum of European music.
13. Polyrhythmic construction; i.e., the simultaneous sounding of several rhythms. This is more common in African music than in the concert music of pre-20th century Europe. It appears to have filtered into jazz by way of ragtime.
14. Ways in which tones are decorated. These practices, which are African in origin, include: (a) the tendency of jazz singers and some jazz instrumentalists to start vibrato slowly and then increase its rate so that it is fastest at the end of the note (the employment of vibrato can help differentiate styles--e.g., "hot" jazz players tended to use quicker vibratos than "cool" players of the 1940s and 1950s); (b) the use of a "fall-off" (a drop in pitch during a tone's decay) by many jazz singers and some jazz instrumentalists; (c) the cultivation of an assortment of "attacks" (decorations which precede a tone's fullness, also called "pitch bending"; illustrated in Bessie Smith's "St. Louis Blues") by jazz performers (the different types include the "scoop," starting the sound near the tone's pitch, going below it, and then working back up to it before giving the tone its full duration; the "smear," approaching the desired pitch from a pitch well below it, then gradually rising to the desired pitch; and the "doit," a rise in pitch at the end of a tone); and (d) manipulations of tone quality (e.g. beginning a tone with a smooth texture, then making it rough or hoarse, and ending smooth; a "whisper>robust>whisper" quality, best exemplified by Sarah Vaughan, Sidney Bechet, and John Coltrane).
15. Use of the blue note; i.e., sound achieved by playing a few critical notes out-of-tune or "off-key." It is likely that when Africans performed European-style music, they probably sang using their own pitch system, and it came out as though they were "playing in the cracks between the piano keys." The device has been widely used in jazz horn work (e.g., Miles Davis on the fluegelhorn for "Strawberries," from Porgy and Bess).
16. The tendency for jazz pieces and improvisations which are in a major key to sound as though they are minor.
17. An attitude of informality during performance (e.g., solos often continue long after climaxes instead of stopping, as they would in European compositions).
Some music critics and historians argue that the key to defining jazz lies in the performing arena. Mark C. Gridley, in Jazz Styles, provides four widely disseminated views of the ingredients necessary to be considered a jazz musician:
1. For some, a musician need only be associated with thejazz tradition to be considered a jazz player; he may neither improvise nor swing.
2. For others, a musician must play with jazz swing feeling in order to be called a jazz musician.
3. Still others feel a musician need only be able to improvise (however, Indian, rock, and selected pop musicians can also improvise).
4. The most common definition is that requiring the musician both to improvise and swing in the jazz sense in order to qualify as a jazz player.
Given the richness and diversity of jazz history, in addition to the conventions employed by its exponents, it would seem to be virtually impossible to deploy a definitive definition of this art form. Nevertheless, it could safely be posited that the more one listens to jazz, the more likely it is that this individual will possess a lucid understanding of exactly what the genre is all about.