What is Jazz?

John J. Jones

Jazz is a musical style that covers both composition and performance and is defined primarily by spontaneity and improvisation. It is an undisputedly American style, but draws influences from many different types of music and as a result can be somewhat difficult to truly define, at least in terms of core elements and components. There are many variations on the “original” jazz, which emerged in the American south in the late 1800s and was initially played predominantly by African Americans. It incorporates many traditional African rhythms, but also relies heavily on blues, ragtime, and a number of European harmonic strains. Different American cities are often known for particular styles or variations, and aspects of the genre have alternatively crossed over into and made use of elements of many other musical styles, to include pop, soul, and dance.

Jazz, which occasionally incorporates electric guitars, is an American form of music.
Jazz, which occasionally incorporates electric guitars, is an American form of music.

Core Concept

Most traditional musical styles follow certain fixed structural influence or have melodic strains that are logical and, at least to musical scholars, can be expected or anticipated. In this sense, music is sort of like cooking; recipes can be widely different, but in most cases ingredients are blended together in the same way every time, and certain techniques, while possibly more complex than others, are still logical and grounded. This is one of the most important ways in which jazz is distinctive. Artists in this genre often rely a lot on improvisation and their own feelings in the moment. Strains and riffs are frequently borrowed from widely varying sources and combined together in unexpected ways.

Jazz has long been popular in New Orleans.
Jazz has long been popular in New Orleans.

Of course, this is not to say that no elements of the genre are fixed; many of the most popular ballads and songs have been transposed and written into traditional format, and are played and replayed by artists all over the world. The songs initially were almost always products of spontaneity and extreme creativity on the composer’s part, though, and many of even the most tested favorites still leave themselves open for interpretation and change almost by design. The more flexible nature may also have helped the genre to gain popularity with people of all demographics and many cultural and social backgrounds.

Vintage microphones are associated with the jazz music aesthetic.
Vintage microphones are associated with the jazz music aesthetic.

Important Influences

One of the most unique things about the style is that, at its core, it is made up almost entirely of borrowed pieces. African traditional music is usually considered the most important foundational piece, but American pop, brass numbers, and even classical European stringed and piano compositions have proved quite influential. The genre really can be considered a “patchwork,” with elements of many traditions woven together with the artist’s imagination and creativity.

History and Inception

The true birthplace of jazz is sometimes disputed, but New Orleans is frequently credited with this honor. New Orleans, as well as much of Louisiana and the region considered the “deep south,” has a rich African and Caribbean heritage, largely owing to the slave trade. The combination of an already established African American population with the influence from Caribbean and Mexican merchants began to integrate with the popular brass bands of the time. Saxophone and trumpet often play heavily into the melodies. The town was home to legendary players such as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, and birthed many more over the years.

The sound began to travel across the United States in the 1920's, becoming popular in large cities such as New York and Chicago. New players used the piano to combine a Ragtime feel with already established sounds. James Reece Europe began to experiment with full orchestras in what proved to be a testimony to the classic improvisation to come.

Variations and Wider Popularity

Today, jazz can still be heard echoing in smoky clubs in towns like Kansas City, Memphis and New Orleans, but a new generation has begun to appreciate the sounds, too. Modern bands have picked up much of the styling, and elements of popular riffs and classic songs have been incorporated into a number of different, often more squarely modern, genres. Electronic DJs and rappers, for instance, have both been known to "sample" or borrow hooks from famous songs.

The genre is still very much changing and adapting, too. Variations, including “classic” and “smooth,” have become staples of radio stations, CD collectors, and music aficionados the world over. While many artists play standard numbers, most also experiment with their own style in the field, proving that the genre is anything but fixed.

Chicago has its own style of jazz music.
Chicago has its own style of jazz music.

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Discussion Comments


In the 1970s, while in Madison, Wisconsin, I came across a record called Cosmic City, by a Jazz musician called Sun Ra. i am looking for a copy of the record.

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