Jazz, type of music first developed by African Americans around the first decade of the 20th century that has an identifiable history and distinct stylistic evolution. Jazz grew up alongside the blues and popular music, and all these genres overlap in many ways. However, critics generally agree about whether artists fall squarely in one camp or another.


Since its beginnings jazz has branched out into so many styles that no single description fits all of them accurately. A few generalizations can be made, however, bearing in mind that for all of them, exceptions can be cited.

Performers of jazz improvise within the conventions of their chosen style. Typically, the improvisation is accompanied by the repeated chord progression of a popular song or an original composition. Instrumentalists emulate black vocal styles, including the use of glissandi (sliding movements that smoothly change the pitch), nuances of pitch (including blue notes, the “bent” notes that are played or sung slightly lower than the major scale), and tonal effects such as growls and wails.

In striving to develop a personal sound, or tone color (an idiosyncratic sense of rhythm and form and an individual style of execution), performers create rhythms characterized by constant syncopation (the placing of accents in unexpected places, usually on the weaker beat) and by swing. Swing can be defined as a sensation of momentum in which a melody is alternately heard together with, then slightly at variance with, the regular beat. Written scores, if present, are often used merely as guides, providing structure within which improvisation occurs. The typical instrumentation begins with a rhythm section consisting of piano, string bass, drums, and optional guitar, to which may be added any number of wind instruments. In big bands the wind instruments are grouped into three sections: saxophones, trombones, and trumpets.

Although exceptions occur in some styles, most jazz is based on the principle that an infinite number of melodies can fit the chord progressions of any song. The musician improvises new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated again and again as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.

Although pieces with many different formal patterns are used for jazz improvisation, two formal patterns in particular are frequently found in songs used for jazz. One is the AABA form of popular-song choruses, which typically consists of 32 measures in ¹ meter, divided into four 8-measure sections: section A, a repetition of section A, section B (the “bridge” or “release,” often beginning in a new key), and a repetition of section A. The second form, with roots deep in African American folk music, is the 12-bar blues form. Unlike the 32-bar AABA form, blues songs have a fairly standardized chord progression.


Jazz is rooted in the mingled musical traditions of African Americans. These include traits surviving from West African music; black folk music forms developed in the Americas; European popular and light classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries; and later popular music forms influenced by black music or produced by black composers. Among the surviving African traits are vocal styles that include great freedom of vocal color; a tradition of improvisation; call-and-response patterns; and rhythmic complexity, both in the syncopation of individual melodic lines and in the conflicting rhythms played by different members of an ensemble. Black folk music forms include field hollers, rowing chants, lullabies, and later, spirituals and blues (see African American Music).

European music contributed specific styles and forms: hymns, marches, waltzes, quadrilles, and other dance music, as well as light theatrical music and Italian operatic music. European music also introduced theoretical elements, in particular, harmony, both as a vocabulary of chords and as a concept related to musical form. (Much of the European influence was absorbed through private lessons in European music, even when the black musicians so trained could only find work in seedy entertainment districts and on Mississippi riverboats.)

Black-influenced elements of popular music that contributed to jazz include the banjo music of the minstrel shows (derived from the banjo music of slaves), the syncopated rhythmic patterns of African-influenced Latin American music (heard in southern U.S. cities), the barrelhouse piano styles of tavern musicians in the Midwest, and the marches played by black brass bands in the late 19th century. Near the end of the 19th century, another influential genre emerged. This was ragtime, a composed music that combined many elements, including syncopated rhythms (from banjo music and other black sources) and the harmonic contrasts and formal patterns of European marches. After 1910 bandleader W. C. Handy took another influential form, the blues, and broke its strict oral tradition by publishing his original blues songs. (Favored by jazz musicians, Handy’s songs found one of their greatest interpreters in the 1920s in blues singer Bessie Smith, who recorded many of them.)

The merging of these multiple influences into jazz is difficult to reconstruct because it occurred before the existence of recording, which has provided valuable documentation. Of course, individual musicians had varying backgrounds and few people were directly exposed to all of these influences. For example, most jazz artists were and are city dwellers and might have only known rural black forms indirectly.


Most early jazz was played in small dance bands or by solo pianists. Besides ragtime and marches, the repertoire included all kinds of popular dance music and blues. The bands typically played at picnics, weddings, parades, and funerals. Characteristically, the bands played dirges on the way to funerals and lively marches on the way back. Blues and ragtime had arisen independently just a few years before jazz and continued to exist alongside it, influencing the style and forms of jazz and providing important vehicles for jazz improvisation.

A New Orleans Jazz

Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the earliest fully documented jazz style emerged and centered in New Orleans, Louisiana. In this style the cornet, trumpet, or violin carried the melody, the clarinet played florid countermelodies, and the trombone played rhythmic slides and sounded the root notes of chords or simple harmonies. Below this basic trio the guitar or banjo sounded the chords, along with a piano, if available; a string bass (or tuba for marching parades) provided a bass line; and drums supplied the rhythmic accompaniment. In theory, these roles were the same as in other kinds of music—it was the addition of improvisation, along with elements of other black music such as blues and ragtime, that made jazz unique.

A musician named Buddy Bolden appears to have led some bands that influenced early jazz musicians, but this music and its sound have been lost to posterity. Although some jazz influences can be heard on a few early phonograph records, not until 1917 did a jazz band record. This band, a group of white New Orleans musicians called The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, created a sensation overseas and in the United States. Among the band’s many successors, two groups emerged in the early 1920s that were particularly celebrated: the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and the Creole Jazz Band, the latter of which was led by cornetist King Oliver, an influential stylist. The series of recordings made by Oliver’s band are often considered the most significant jazz recordings by a New Orleans group. Other leading New Orleans musicians included trumpeters Bunk Johnson and Freddie Keppard, soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, drummer Warren “Baby” Dodds, and pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton. The most influential jazz musician nurtured in New Orleans, however, was King Oliver’s second trumpeter, Louis Armstrong.

B Armstrong’s Impact

Armstrong was a dazzling improviser, technically, emotionally, and intellectually. He and his generation changed the format of jazz by bringing the soloist to the forefront, and within his recording groups, the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, he demonstrated that jazz improvisation could go far beyond simply ornamenting the melody—he created new melodies based on the chords of the initial tune. He also set a standard for later jazz singers, not only by the way he altered the words and melodies of songs, but also by improvising without words, like an instrument. This form of vocal improvisation is known as scat singing.

C Chicago and New York City

For jazz, the 1920s was a decade of great experimentation and discovery. Many New Orleans musicians, including Armstrong, migrated to Chicago, Illinois, influencing local musicians and stimulating the evolution of the Chicago style. This style was derived from the New Orleans style but emphasized soloists, often added saxophone to the instrumentation, and usually produced tenser rhythms and more complicated textures. Instrumentalists working in Chicago or influenced by the Chicago style included trombonist Jack Teagarden, banjoist and guitarist Eddie Condon, drummer Gene Krupa, and clarinetist Benny Goodman. Also active in Chicago was Bix Beiderbecke, whose lyrical approach to the cornet provided an alternative to Armstrong’s bravura trumpet style. Many Chicago musicians eventually settled in New York City, another major center for jazz in the 1920s.

D Jazz Piano

Another vehicle for the development of jazz in the 1920s was piano music. The Harlem section of New York City became the center of a highly technical, hard-driving solo style known as stride piano. The master of this approach in the early 1920s was James P. Johnson, but it was Johnson’s protégé Fats Waller—a talented vocalist and entertainer as well—who became by far the most popular performer of this idiom.

A second piano style to develop in the 1920s was boogie-woogie. A form of blues played on the piano, it consists of a short, sharply accented bass pattern played repeatedly by the left hand while the right hand plays freely, using a variety of rhythms. Boogie-woogie became especially popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Leading boogie-woogie pianists included Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Pine Top Smith.

The most brilliant pianist of the 1920s, comparable to Armstrong in sheer innovation and present on some of his most influential recordings, was Earl “Fatha” Hines, a Chicago-nurtured virtuoso considered to possess a wild, unpredictable imagination. His style, combined with the smoother approach of Waller, influenced most pianists of the next generation—notably Teddy Wilson, who was featured with Goodman’s band in the 1930s, and Art Tatum, who performed mostly as a soloist and was regarded with awe for his virtuosity and sophisticated harmonic sense.

E The Big-Band Era

Also during the 1920s, large groups of jazz musicians began to play together, after the model of society dance bands. These were the so-called big bands, which became so popular in the 1930s and early 1940s that the period was known as the swing era. One major development in the emergence of the swing era was a rhythmic change that smoothed the two-beat rhythms of some early bands into a more flowing four beats to the bar. Musicians also developed the use of short melodic patterns, called riffs, in call-and-response patterns. To facilitate this procedure, orchestras were divided into instrumental sections, each with its own riffs, and opportunities were provided for musicians to play solos.

The development of the big band as a jazz medium was strongly influenced by the achievements of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Henderson’s arranger, Don Redman, and later Henderson himself, introduced written jazz scores that were widely admired for their effort to capture the quality of improvisation that characterized the music of smaller ensembles. To achieve this improvisation, Redman and Henderson were aided by gifted soloists such as tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and by Armstrong, who played in Henderson’s band during 1924 and 1925.

Ellington led a band at the Cotton Club in New York City during the late 1920s. Continuing to direct his orchestra until his death in 1974, he composed colorful experimental concert pieces ranging in length, from the three-minute “Ko-Ko” (1940) to the hourlong Black, Brown, and Beige (1943), as well as songs such as “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady.” More complex than Henderson’s music, Ellington’s music made his orchestra a cohesive ensemble, with solos written for the unique qualities of specific instruments and players. Other black bands that were popular among musicians and audiences were led by Jimmie Lunceford, Chick Webb, and Cab Calloway.

A different style of big-band jazz was developed in Kansas City, Missouri, during the mid-1930s and was epitomized by the band of Count Basie. Originally assembled in Kansas City, Basie’s band reflected that region’s emphasis on improvisation, keeping the prepared passages relatively short and simple. The wind instruments in his band exchanged ensemble riffs in a free, strongly rhythmical interplay, with pauses to accommodate instrumental solos. Basie’s tenor saxophonist Lester Young, in particular, played with a rhythmic freedom rarely apparent in the improvisations of soloists from other bands. Young’s delicate tone and long, flowing melodies, laced with an occasional avant-garde honk or gurgle, opened up a whole new approach, just as Armstrong’s trumpet and cornet playing had done in the 1920s.

Other trendsetters of the late 1930s were trumpeter Roy Eldridge, electric guitarist Charlie Christian, drummer Kenny Clarke, and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Jazz singing in the 1930s became increasingly flexible and stylized. Ivie Anderson, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, and, above all, Billie Holiday were among the leading singers. Europeans also became more active in jazz during this time. Christian, for example, was influenced by Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt, whose brilliant recordings were available in the United States.

F Interplay with Popular and Classical Music

The pioneering efforts of Armstrong, Ellington, Henderson, and others made jazz a dominant influence on American music during the 1920s and 1930s. Popular musicians such as bandleader Paul Whiteman used some of the more obvious rhythmic and melodic devices of jazz, although with less improvisational freedom and skill than were displayed in the music of the major jazz players. Attempting to fuse jazz with light classical music, Whiteman’s orchestra also premiered jazzy symphonic pieces by American composers such as George Gershwin. Closer to the authentic jazz tradition of improvisation and solo virtuosity was the music played by the bands of Benny Goodman (who used many of Henderson’s arrangements), Gene Krupa, and Harry James.

Since the days of ragtime, jazz composers had admired classical music. A number of swing-era musicians “jazzed the classics” in works such as “Bach Goes to Town” (written by Alec Wilder and recorded by Goodman) and “Ebony Rhapsody” (recorded by Ellington and others). Composers of concert music, in turn, paid tribute to jazz in works such as Contrasts (1938, commissioned by Goodman) by Hungarian Béla Bartók and Ebony Concerto (1945, commissioned by Woody Herman) by Russian-born Igor Stravinsky. Other composers, such as Aaron Copland, an American, and Darius Milhaud, a Frenchman, acknowledged the spirit of jazz in their works.

G The 1940s and the Postwar Decades

The preeminently influential jazz musician of the 1940s was Charlie Parker, who became the leader of a new style known usually as bebop, but also as rebop or bop. Like Lester Young, Charlie Christian, and other outstanding soloists, Parker had played with big bands. During World War II (1939-1945), however, the wartime economy and changes in audience tastes had driven many big bands out of business. Their decline, combined with the radically new bebop style, amounted to a revolution in the jazz world.

Bebop was still based on the principle of improvisation over a chord progression, but the tempos were faster, the phrases longer and more complex, and the emotional range expanded to include more unpleasant feelings than before. Jazz musicians became aware of themselves as artists and made little effort to sell their wares by adding vocals, dancing, and comedy as their predecessors had.

At the center of the ferment stood Parker, who could play anything on the saxophone, in any tempo and in any key. He created beautiful melodies that were related in advanced ways to the underlying chords, and his music possessed endless rhythmic variety. Parker’s frequent collaborators were trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, known for his formidable speed and range and daring harmonic sense, and pianist Earl “Bud” Powell and drummer Max Roach, both leaders in their own right. Also highly regarded were pianist-composer Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Fats Navarro. Jazz singer Sarah Vaughan was associated early in her career with bebop musicians, particularly Gillespie and Parker.

The late 1940s brought forth an explosion of experimentation in jazz. Modernized big bands led by Gillespie and Stan Kenton flourished alongside small groups with innovative musicians such as pianist Lennie Tristano. Most of these groups drew ideas from 20th-century pieces by masters such as Bartók and Stravinsky.

The most influential of the midcentury experiments with classically influenced jazz were the recordings made in 1949 and 1950 by an unusual nonet led by Charlie Parker’s protégé, a young trumpeter named Miles Davis. The written arrangements, by Davis and others, were soft in tone but highly complex. Many groups adopted this “cool” style, especially on the West Coast, and so it became known as West Coast jazz. Refined by players such as tenor saxophonists Zoot Sims and Stan Getz and baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, West Coast jazz flourished throughout the 1950s. Also in the 1950s pianist Dave Brubeck (a student of Milhaud’s), with alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, achieved popularity with his blend of classical music and jazz.

Most musicians, however, particularly on the East Coast, continued to expand on the hotter, more driving bebop tradition. Major exponents of the hard-bop or East Coast style included trumpeter Clifford Brown, drummer Art Blakey, and tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, whose unique approach made him one of the major talents of his generation. Another derivative of the Parker style was soul jazz, played by pianist Horace Silver, alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and his brother, cornetist Nat Adderley.

H The Late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s

Several new approaches characterized jazz in the third quarter of the century. The years around 1960 ranked with the late 1920s and the late 1940s as one of the most fertile periods in the history of jazz.

H1 Modal Jazz

In 1955 Miles Davis organized a quintet that featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, whose complex approach produced a striking contrast to Davis’s rich-toned, unhurried, expressive melodic lines. Coltrane poured out streams of notes with velocity and passion, exploring every melodic idea, no matter how exotic; nevertheless, he played slow ballads with poise and serenity. In his solos he revealed an exceptional sense of form and pacing. In 1959 Coltrane appeared on a landmark Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue. Along with pianist Bill Evans, Davis devised for this album a set of pieces that remain in one key, chord, and mode for as long as 16 measures at a time. This genre, which came to be known as modal jazz, allowed much freedom for the improviser.

Coltrane, striking out on his own, first pushed the complexity of bebop to its limits in the piece “Giant Steps” (1959), then settled on the other extreme, modal jazz. The latter style dominated his repertoire after 1960, when he recorded “My Favorite Things” using an open-ended arrangement in which each soloist stayed in one mode for as long as he wished. Coltrane’s quartet included pianist McCoy Tyner and drummer Elvin Jones, two musicians who, because of their dramatic musical qualities, were widely imitated.

H2 Third-Stream and Avant-Garde Movements

Another product of the experimentation of the late 1950s and 1960s was the attempt by composer Gunther Schuller, together with pianist John Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet, to combine jazz and classical music into a “third stream.” This movement brought together musicians from both worlds in a repertoire that drew heavily on the techniques of both kinds of music.

Also active during these years was composer, bassist, and bandleader Charlie Mingus, who imbued his chord-progression-based improvisations with a wild, raw excitement. Most controversial was the work of alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whose improvisations, at times almost atonal, did away with chord progressions altogether, while retaining the steady rhythmic swing so characteristic of jazz. Although Coleman’s wailing sound and rough technique shocked many critics, others recognized the wit, sincerity, and rare sense of form that characterized his solos. He inspired a whole school of avant-garde jazz that flourished in the 1960s and included the Art Ensemble of Chicago, clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, pianist Cecil Taylor, and even Coltrane, who ventured into avant-garde improvisation before his death in 1967.

H3 Mainstream Developments

Meanwhile, the mainstream of jazz, despite incorporating many of Coltrane’s melodic ideas and even some modal jazz pieces, continued to build improvisations largely on the chord progressions of popular songs. Brazilian songs, especially those in the bossa nova style, were added to the jazz repertoire in the early 1960s. Their Latin rhythms and fresh chord progressions appealed to jazz musicians of several generations, notably Stan Getz and flutist Herbie Mann. Even after the bossa nova style declined, the sambas that gave rise to it remained staples of the jazz repertoire, and many groups augmented their regular drum set with Caribbean percussion.

The trio formed by pianist Bill Evans treated popular songs with depth; the musicians were constantly interacting instead of simply taking turns for solos. This interactive approach was carried even further by the rhythm section of Davis’s quintet of 1963 and beyond, which included drummer Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and later the highly original tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

H4 Fusion Jazz

Jazz underwent an economic crisis in the late 1960s. Younger audiences favored soul music and rock, while older aficionados turned away from the abstractness and emotional rawness of much modern jazz. Jazz musicians realized that to regain an audience they had to draw ideas from popular music, and this movement was dubbed fusion jazz. Some of these ideas came from rock, but most were drawn from the dance rhythms and chord progressions of soul musicians such as James Brown. Some groups also added elements of music from other cultures. The initial examples of this new genre met with varying success, but in 1969 Davis recorded Bitches Brew, a highly successful album that combined soul rhythms and electronically amplified instruments with uncompromising, highly dissonant jazz. Not surprisingly, alumni of Davis’s groups created some of the most musically successful fusion recordings of the 1970s: Hancock; Shorter and Austrian-born pianist Joe Zawinul, coleaders of the ensemble Weather Report; English electric guitarist John McLaughlin; and the brilliant pianist Chick Corea and his group Return to Forever. Rock musicians, in turn, began featuring jazz phrasings and solos over a rock-based rhythm. These groups included Chase; Chicago; and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

During this same period another alumnus of one of Davis’s groups, the iconoclastic pianist Keith Jarrett, succeeded commercially while eschewing electronic instruments and popular styles. His performances of popular standards and original songs with a quartet, as well as his improvisations alone at the keyboard, made him a major contemporary pianist of jazz.

I The 1980s and 1990s

By the mid-1980s jazz artists were once again performing to sizable audiences in a variety of styles, and there was renewed interest in acoustic, non-fusion jazz. One of the key artists during this rejuvenation was trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who has also received acclaim for his classical music—in 1982 he became the first person ever to win Grammy Awards in both jazz and classical categories in the same year. Marsalis is a gifted artist who considers jazz as practically a birthright: His father is one of the leading jazz pianists in New Orleans, and a number of Wynton’s siblings are also jazz musicians, including his brother Branford Marsalis. Wynton’s trumpet style has changed dramatically over the years; today, he pays tribute to past masters such as Louis Armstrong and Ellington’s trumpeter, Cootie Williams. His work is always technically outstanding and often melodically brilliant.

In addition to his work as an artist, Marsalis has played a significant role as an advocate and promoter of jazz. In 1987 he cofounded and became artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, an extensive education and performance program. Marsalis was an important consultant and contributor to the 20-hour television series Jazz by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.

On the heels of Marsalis, more and more young jazz musicians have emerged and received recording deals and exposure. Among them is the exciting saxophonist Joshua Redman, who gave up plans to attend law school at Yale University when his jazz career took off in 1991. His recordings include Freedom in the Groove (1996) and Beyond (2000). Some others who achieved prominence in the 1990s were saxophonist Mark Turner, trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton (both associated with Marsalis) and Dave Douglas (associated with a more experimental approach), and pianist Brad Mehldau. And despite concerns that older artists are being ignored, some have achieved renewed fame, including saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Bill Charlap.

J Current Trends

In recent years jazz has become a legitimate worldwide international phenomenon, with most top U.S. artists regularly touring Europe and Japan. Most developed countries have a jazz scene to some degree, and in some—such as Japan, Italy, and Denmark—jazz is flourishing. It has been estimated that the Japanese buy as many jazz recordings as Americans do, even though Japan has less than half the population of the United States. European and Japanese jazz musicians such as Italian pianist Franco D’Andrea, Italian clarinetist Mauro Negri, and British saxophonist John Surman are also being recognized among the best jazz musicians in the world.

Jazz is also more open to women than ever before. In the early days of the music, it was a kind of “boys club.” In the 1930s and 1940s all-women groups were formed as one way to combat these limits. In the 1960s women were sometimes included in bands, but this would provoke comment. Female jazz performers began to gain more acceptance in the genre beginning in the 1970s. Some of these female artists include pianists Renee Rosnes and Geri Allen, composer and bandleader Maria Schneider, saxophonist and composer Jane Ira Bloom, and the big band Diva led by drummer Sherrie Maricle.

While jazz recordings have consistently remained at about 3 percent of all music sales, an indication that the number of devoted fans remains small, jazz is now considered attractive and fashionable by a much greater number of casual listeners. Jazz music and musicians are now used in popular culture settings such as television commercials, while major jazz concert and lecture programs at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian Institution, and elsewhere have helped raise the status of the music. Academic programs for the study of jazz history and performance continue to proliferate, and more and more jazz musicians boast music degrees. With all its variety and despite its various factions, jazz remains a rich and vital presence in the world of music.

Contributed By:Marius Lukosius