What Is Jazz Music - Why Does It Exist?

Updated: Mar 11

Music in its entirety, exists in multiple facets that fascinate and inspire us throughout our lives. In order to organize music so that we understand and can embrace the different types in the world, we divide music into what we call genres. This is a word of French origin that literally means 'a kind' and is appropriate for music of different 'kinds'. The three most common genres are:

  • Popular music or Pop - which refers to vocal music that is enjoyed by the majority of people, and has melodies that are usually easy to listen to, and lyrics that people can sing along with.

  • Classical music - implies the more complex and often less accessible music compositions of composers who are no longer alive but have left a legacy of their work for future generations to enjoy. Some of this type of music IS accessible and has a large following among music lovers.

  • Jazz - is a genre that has deep roots in black slavery, during which time slaves would explore their African music roots, and sing to comfort themselves and their loved ones. This main forerunner of jazz was called The Blues which heavily influenced the jazz medium, especially in the early days of its growth.

Where Did Jazz Music Begin?

Let's dive into the early development of this incredible medium. Firstly, jazz exists because slavery existed. No-one, other than greedy businessmen, ever condoned slavery, but certain entrepreneurs saw a chance to make a ton of money from the buying and selling of African-based peoples.

The horrors of this dark era in US history have been well documented and are beyond the scope of this author, and so I will simply mention that in the musical idiom, jazz was born out of the evolution of the Blues. In addition, other influences included a sub genre called

Ragtime (songs with syncopated rhythms) and ensemble music played outdoors at funerals.

Prior to the Jazz Age, jazz had its roots in 19th century New Orleans, USA with whom some call the founding father, Buddy Bolden and his band. Bolden later inspired other famous band leaders such as Kid Ory, "King" Oliver and Louis Armstrong, but it was some 20 years later in 1917 that Nick LaRocca recorded the first jazz record with his Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

Fun Fact - The origin of the word jazz is a subject for debate. Some say it originates from the word "jasm" which means 'full of energy, spirit and vitality'. Others stipulate that it is a Creole word meaning either 'African dance' or 'sex'. Then there are people who believe that "jazz" is another way of spelling "jas" which is an abbreviated version of peoples' names, e.g. Jasmine or James.

The Jazz Age Revisited


From 1918 onwards, the so-called Jazz Age evolved into the 1920s and beyond. As white bands began to copy the syncopated, fast moving style of the New Orleans bands, so this "hot jazz" became more and more popular, especially among younger people. They loved the driving rhythms, the energy and syncopation that jazz offered but more importantly, they really enjoyed the amazing, on-the-spot improvisations of the talented soloists within the bands.

In fact, improvisation became a major component of jazz, and was not only encouraged by the growing audiences but championed by the more famous white band leaders such as Bix Beiderbecke, Paul Whiteman and Jack Teagarden. Duke Ellington also became a jazz icon, and helped establish black jazz bands and orchestras throughout the States with both his high level personnel and his legendary songwriting.

As if this weren't enough, the popularity of jazz infiltrated the European nightclub scene and became a staple in that culture, plus the fact that many of the US based bands made several recordings of their work which reached people who did not normally frequent the nightclub venues.

Jazz also influenced the American cultural scene in the form of new and exciting fashion statements and even impacted groups who were rebelling against the then current rules of society, such as The Womens Liberation Movement. Most importantly, it brought people of different backgrounds and cultures together in a musical setting, which could be said to have laid a tentative foundation for future tolerance.

Pluses and Minuses

Having stated that jazz united people, it certainly seemed to be a temporary situation, as segregation reared its ugly head. Black bands were invariably separated from white bands, which prompted many black musicians to go to Europe to play. Artists such as Sidney Bechet and Coleman Hawkins carved successful careers in Europe, where people were so captivated by the hypnotic and sensual qualities of jazz that they often forgot about the more unsavoury racial elements present in the US at that time.

In the 1930s, Swing jazz was developed. This was a high energy jazz style with dancing in mind, and people loved it. The larger ensembles who played it were known as 'Big Bands' and

and produced such famous names as Tommy Dorsey and Dizzie Gillespie. As these big bands introduced vocal soloists, other names appeared like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah

They not only had incredible vocal jazz ability, but could also improvise with their voices using what is known as 'scat singing' or improvising a given melody using nonsense syllables.

Probably the final impact of Swing jazz was in the Second World War, during which swing music was constantly played to soldiers in order to primarily raise their spirits and morale during their weaker moments.

Post War Jazz

After the end of WWII, there was a concentrated effort on the part of jazz musicians to revitalize the genre. Players such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis began exploring a small ensemble style called 'bop'. In this small ensemble style, these musicians and others tried to turn swing jazz into something more intellectual and soulful, with mixed results. So jazz became a more exclusive and sophisticated genre which was played in smaller clubs and recorded at length by musicians like Charlie Mingus, Horace Silver and Thelonious Monk.

The most famous "Modern Jazz" musician, and possibly the most widely listened to, was Dave Brubeck, whose jazz quartet toured university campuses and recorded a large body of work for posterity.

Very few people do not know or have not heard of the song "Take Five", in which he and his quartet explore the use of 5/4 time. If you are one of the few, give it a listen. It's surprising that it flows so well despite the odd timing.

Jazz For All

This post was never designed to be a complete history of the jazz genre but simply a rough guide as to why it exists, and perhaps a way of introducing this genre to people who have never explored its wonders.

For some it is an acquired medium, and for others it is the go-to music regardless of their circumstances or mood. One of the greatest modern jazz pianists of all time, Canadian, Oscar Peterson, is always worth hearing with his amazing piano technique and incredible improvisation abilities. I would certainly recommend even the most skeptical seek out his recordings. I was fortunate enough to hear him live in London UK a few years ago, and believe me when I say that it was one of the highlights of my life.

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