Facts About Jazz Music

By Margot Callahan
A traditional jazz trio includes a bass, a saxophone and drums

As a distinctively American form of music, jazz nevertheless owes a debt to several different cultures. Part of the music’s strength is its elasticity -- jazz has multiple identities. It makes room for new ideas and for individual genius. The story of jazz in the United States is a story of inclusion and innovation.

The Origins of Jazz

Jazz began at the end of the 19th century with the advent of ragtime, a musical style made well known by piano player and composer Scott Joplin. Around this time people from different cultures were immigrating to American cities -- especially New York -- in search of fortune and a better life. With these immigrants came a variety of musical traditions that included Irish jigs, German waltzes and French quadrilles. Joplin and others combined these newly introduced European compositional styles with the rhythmic and melodic music of the black community and ragtime -- the written precursor to improvised jazz -- was born.

Early Jazz

Jazz emerged in New Orleans in the early 20th century as a meeting of blues music -- often considered working class -- with the more classically trained tradition of that city’s mixed race population. Blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, are also credited as early jazz innovators, as the line between blues and early jazz was still blurry. The sound traveled to New York and Chicago to usher in the era now often referred to as the Jazz Age.

Basic Principles

Jazz music is characterized by improvisation, syncopation -- unexpected rhythms -- and melodic freedom. Brass and woodwind instruments along with pianos are particularly associated with jazz, although guitar and occasionally violin are also used. Jazz vocals are distinctly recognizable and include what's know as scat singing -- a form of vocal improvisation that often includes nonsense syllables, sounds or wordless singing -- and using the voice to mimic instrumentation.

Types of Jazz

Jazz encompasses a countless number of styles including Dixieland, which dates from the 1910s, the gypsy jazz of guitarist Django Reinhardt from the '30s, big band swing from the '30s and '40s, bebop, also from the '40s and Latin jazz fusions such as Afro-Cuban and Brazilian or Bossa Nova jazz from the '50s and '60s. The musical genre also has an abundance of contemporary sub-genres such as free jazz, acid jazz and soul jazz.

Jazz Greats

Jazz's influence has reached around the world. British singer-songwriter Jamie Callum, in an article in the Guardian, lists the ten most influential jazz artists as composer and pianist Thelonius Monk, bass player and composer Charles Mingus, saxophone virtuoso John Coltrane, Miles Davis, pianist Keith Jarrett, singer Nat King Cole, pianist Mary Lou Williams, singer Kurt Elling, Herbie Hancock and Wynton Marsalis. But American critics would argue that pianist Art Tatum, drummer Art Blakey, trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Max Roach, singer Billie Holiday, bandleader Count Basie, tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and bandleader Benny Goodman -- and too many other well-loved artists to name -- also belong on that list.

About the Author

Margot Callahan has Bachelor of Arts degrees in philosophy and film studies. She has written for newspapers and magazines such as the "Toronto Star" and "Toronto Life Fashion" since 1991, in addition to producing and directing documentary films.