The Birth of Jazz

Originated in New Orleans, Jazz music is a mixture of European and Afro-American influences. It is often improvisational and always features syncopated rhythms and original timbres.

What is Jazz about?

The struggle to find a satisfying definition for this kind of music can be futile. The first phase, named New Orleans style or Swing, is different from the so-called Free Jazz period. Many people think that jazz is tightly connected with improvisation even if, many musicians, played jazz music giving extreme importance to the arrangement. Syncopation can be relevant in many ways when dealing with jazz music, even if many trumpeters could play wonderful swings without using syncopated rhythms. Jazz is different from any other musical way of expression but, most of all needs to be distinguished from the Classical way of making music. A classical musician often reproduces someone else’s music, while a jazz player loves to create, to add something new, in every live exhibition.

Jazz musician playing saxophone –
Image source: Author:by Maate_Toth

It all started in the South of United States

Against all odds, the Afro-Americans preserved their musical cultures while working in the plantations in the South of the United States. This is not what eventually gave birth to the Jazz we listen to nowadays, it’s interesting to think about it as a wonderful mixing of sounds, of different musical sensibilities. These cultures created, alongside European influences, the syncopated jazz of the beginning, basically a simplification of multilayered and polyrhythmic tribal dances coming from Africa. Jazz was born as a form of emancipation and freedom, stimulating experimentation and expression which would be key elements to jazz music.

Artists playing jazz in New Orleans
Image source: Author:by sailn1

New Orleans, The Capital of Jazz

The city that can be declared the capital of Jazz music is, of course, New Orleans, which can be considered the only city where a distinctive jazz style developed. Jazz originated in New Orleans, a port city that had many people coming from all over the world, sharing their music. All kinds of music could be heard in the streets of New Orleans, one of the few cities that allowed the slaves to own drums. West Africa was important for musical traditions that continued in the songs of America’s slaves. When slavery was abolished, many former slaves found jobs as musicians, exposing them to other musical styles from other parts of the world. Improvisation became an important part of New Orleans Jazz because many musicians could not read music even if in the end this way of conceiving jazz went out of fashion. Jazz has poor roots so it’s made with affordable instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass, drums, and guitar. 

Jazz at a Bourbon Street bar – New Orleans, Louisiana.
Image source: Author:by StuSeeger

The Contribution of Louis Armstrong

His trumpet changed all perspectives in Jazz developing as a musical culture. His way of doing solos changed the whole landscape of popular music all over America. Armstrong created completely different solos from the ones played by the artists coming from New Orleans before him. They used to play simple melodies while he tried to create something new every single time. He also thought of his voice as an important part of his on-stage persona. He used to sing something in every live show and in recordings from himself since 1925. He also made famous the scat way of singing, a technique that features nonsense and syllables that will influence Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra
Image source: Author: by classic film scans

Jazz clubs: Village Vanguard

In 1935 this club was born with the purpose of hosting the most important jazz musicians from all over the world. It was founded by Max Gordon and his wife and in this club took place several historical exhibitions. Many musicians used to record their works in this basement in Greenwich Village. Bill Evans recorded here “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and John Coltrane “Live at the Village Vanguard”, both in 1961.

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