Music — 25 August 2011


Jazz – what the heck is it?

Neo: “Morpheus, that music that I here playing sounds great! It sounds like jazz!”

Morpheus: “Jazz? What is jazz? How do you define jazz, Neo?”

So, what the heck is jazz? I’m glad you asked. The goal in this article, and future articles, is to bring us closer to a great musical art form: Jazz.

What is Jazz?

Jazz is not easy to define because there many types and styles of jazz, which was not the case years ago. First, there was jazz. Now we have jazz-rock, acid jazz, Latin jazz, fusion, smooth jazz and several others.

Webster’s New Pocket Dictionary defines jazz as “kind of American music involving improvisation.” Jazz has been called “America’s Classical Music” and America’s only true art form. Depending on whom you ask, while there are a number of definitions of just what jazz is, most agree on several points:

  • It was developed around the turn of the century.
  • It was created primarily by African-Americans.
  • It is influenced by both European harmonic structure and African-American rhythms.

A Little Bit of History 

The origin of the term jazz is not a clear one. One story involves a customer in Chicago who had too much to drink one night at a club. Suddenly, this tipsy patron leapt to his feet and yelled at the band, “Jass it up boys, jass it up!” In the process of recounting this story, there was a printer’s error converting “jass” to “jazz” and the name stuck.

The great Louis Armstrong, when asked to define jazz, responded “ If you don’t know, don’t mess with it.”

Although the exact date of jazz’s emergence is unknown, there were plantation brass bands as early as 1835, and minstrel troupes were touring by the 1840’s. Ragtime, a syncopated music that took its formal structure from the march, developed in the 1880’s and is thought to be the forerunner of jazz. Pianists Scott Joplin and Fats Waller achieved wide popularity at the close of the nineteenth century. The earliest jazz band style developed in New Orleans, a city with a long and racially mixed cultural tradition.

Beginning in the late 1890’s, Charles “Buddy” Bolden’s band is thought to have played Ragtime with improvised embellishments, and by the turn of the century, many New Orleans bands were playing a collective improvisational style. One of them was The Superior Jazz Band.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white group, copied Superior’s style and was the first to record in 1917. Leading early 1920’s groups include the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, the Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver Bands, whose music was more smoothly flowing than ragtime’s choppy style. Jazz at this time included improvised solos, which in the playing of trumpeter Louis Armstrong and others, led to the development of the Chicago style in the later 1920’s. Larger ensembles started up often using written orchestrations.

The style known as Swing followed with groups led by Fletcher Henderson, Paul Whiteman, Chick Webb, Jimmy Lunceford and Bennie Moten.

Swing is characterized by a steady rhythm and the contrasting sounds of the sections of the band. Swing culminated in the music of groups led by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and the Dorsey Brothers. With the efforts of stalwarts such as pianist Art Tatum, Trumpeter Roy Eldridge and saxophonist Lester Young, solo improvisation grew in influence during this period. Throw into the mix the greatest instrument of all time, the human voice, and things get real interesting! Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are generally considered to be the greatest jazz singers in history. One of the most important sultans of swing was the great Duke Ellington (one of the coolest names ever!), who, like Jelly Roll Morton in the New Orleans style, shaped his musicians’ improvisations on his original themes into very colorful and finely balanced compositions.

The tradition of composing continued through later phases of jazz in the work of Thelonious Monk ( another cool name!), John Lewis, George Russell and many others.

 Bebop, or bop, was the first important post-war style.

Its principal developers were saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. Their improvisations over chord changes played against unpredictable accents and complicated cross-rhythms and had a new intensity. Cool jazz, some of which, like the playing of saxophonist Stan Getz and the ensembles of saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, arose out of Lester Young’s music, developed partially as a reaction against the frenetic tempo of bebop.

Other post-bop developments include the music of pianist Lennie Tristiano, the Modern Jazz Quartet, pianist Gil Evans, trumpeter Miles Davis and others. A less formal type of group interaction was evident in such bands as pianist Horace Silver and drummer Art Blakey, together with a stronger emphasis on the blues and greater prominence for the drums, in a new style of jazz known as hard bop.

As jazz continued to evolve, inventiveness by George Russell, Lennie Tristiano and bassist Charles Mingus added even more variations of both rhythms and melodies. Miles introduced modal jazz in his1959 recording Kind of Blue .

 We’re not done, yet!

In the late 1950’s and 60’s, saxophonists Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler and others developed a new emotional intensity in their playing, rejecting conventional jazz harmonies and melodies in favor of screeches, wails, and soaring cascades of notes played against irregular but driving rhythmic accompaniment. This very influential style became known as free jazz.

In moving away from European influences, jazz attained with cornetist /pianist Don Cherry, trumpeter Don Ellis and others inserted fusions with music of other cultures, especially the music of India and the Arab world. A counter tendency during the 1970’s was the use of technology, particularly rhythmic devices, borrowed from rock. This lead jazz musicians to experiment with electronic instruments. The most successful was Miles Davis’ later bands (for which he took a lot of criticism from fellow jazz musicians), and Weather Report ( one of the greatest bands ever!), Return to Forever (in my humble opinion, the greatest band of all time!), and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The landscape of jazz underwent a paradigm shift-unaccompanied improvisation by melody instruments.

The tradition of free jazz of the 1960’s was carried on by pianist Cecil Taylor and by groups such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago into the 1980’s. This electric-based style of jazz is also called jazz fusion (my favorite style of jazz); a popular form of this music developed in the 1970’s. Fusion’s main characteristics are drumming styles and instrumentation of rock, improvisation with a strong emphasis on electric instruments and dance rhythms. Although various jazz musicians began to include at least some jazz-rock in their performances and recordings regardless of their basic style, a few who made significant contributions before the 1970’s also created original styles within jazz-rock as well. These giants include former Miles Davis alums pianist-composers Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul; saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter, and guitarist John McLaughlin (founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra). This style gained one of the largest jazz audiences since the swing era ended in the mid 1940’s. As with swing-era big bands, those jazz-rock groups that emphasized improvisation the least tended to enjoy the most acclaim. This style was known as “cross over” because sales crossed over from the jazz market to the popular music market. Jazz-rock provided a new musical expression stemming in part from John Coltrane and rock.

Even today, jazz continues to evolve, but still steeped in the tradition established by composers, vocalists and instrumentalists who understand its history. Some of those carrying the baton are Wynton Marsalis (the first and only musician to win a Grammy in both classical and jazz), Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, Bobby McFerrin and many others.

 Are We There Yet?

Whew! That was quite a journey through the history of jazz. Jazz has greatly influenced society and me personally. Of all of the genres that I grew up listening to, jazz was the first style of music to hold my ears hostage and led me to play baritone horn and later electric bass (which I still play as a very passionate hobby). I am saddened, however, that jazz is less appreciated and recognized in the eye of today’s American public than it once was. All is not lost, though. One of my son’s is going on to a prestigious university to pursue his Masters Degree in Jazz this fall.

In future posts I plan to delve more into the various styles of jazz and their practitioners, including audio and video examples.

Neo: “Morpheus, can we listen to some more of that jazz again?”

Morpheus: “What style do you want to hear, Neo? Swing, bop, free jazz, fusion, smooth



African American Registry website (

The Kennedy Center website (

Forward to a friend and help us engage more readers Forward to a friend and help us engage more readers

Get new and fresh stories like this each morning by joining the folks reading Paul's Posts. Click here

Related Articles


About Author

Keith Copeland

Keith Copeland lives in the Central Valley area of California with his wife and two sons. He has a Bachelors Degree in Chemistry and is a primarily self-taught musician. When he is not working as a forensic scientist for the Department of Justice, Keith spends his time listening to music, serving as a member of the church music ministry playing bass with his church choir (with his wife as the choir director) and with the MFC Jazz Ensemble, assisting as a member of the church audio/video ministry as a mixing console operator and having fun enjoying life with his wife and sons. “Music and audio have been passions of mine for a long time and I feel very blessed to have enough knowledge of both to make a difference, even though I am not an expert.”

(3) Readers Comments

  1. Great article. Very informative. Seems like you know your “jass”

  2. Thank you for reading the article and your comments!

    I am by no means an expert on jazz-just a very passionate fan of the genre. Besides, what I don’t know, I can look up!

  3. Pingback: Jazz - what the heck is it? Keith Copeland might have the answer - Our Listeners Club | Our Listeners Club

Leave a Reply