All about that Jazz

One of America's top exports to the rest of the globe is jazz. A musical form rooted in the blues, it is characterised by its spontaneity and improvisation. Jazz began to take shape early in the 20th century in the United States, with the Mississippi River's mouth neighbourhood of New Orleans being crucial to its growth. Since the city had the most ethnically diversified population in the South, it resulted in exchanges between people of English, African, French, Caribbean, Italian, German, Mexican, and American Indian descent.

Subsequently, jazz developed through time as a result of the blending of African-American musical traditions with other genres of music, including ragtime, marches, blues, and other music. 

Louis Armstrong

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As jazz musicians are known to play their instruments in their own unique styles, a dozen different jazz recordings might exist of the same composition. Each rendition differs from the others due to the playing styles of the artists and the improvised solos, as jazz is about transforming the familiar into something innovative and about giving a well-known song—something that is shared—a personal touch. The musicians that aren't soloing are usually comping, short for accompanying. Jazz musicians frequently perform solos that they improvise live, which call for substantial expertise. Although jazz has a huge range, the majority of it is fairly rhythmic, has a forward momentum known as "swing," and includes "bent" or "blue" notes. It also regularly makes use of "call-and-response" patterns, where one instrument, vocal, or section of the band responds to another. They convey a wide range of emotions, from anguish to pure ecstasy. This great art form has also come to be considered "America's classical music" and its only authentic art form.

Jazz, at first, was mostly used for dance. Gradually, it became something people would sit and listen to. After the first jazz records were made in 1917, the genre quickly gained popularity and flourished. Skilled musicians, like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis, among others, were instrumental in the advancement and evolution of jazz. Traditional jazz, swing, bebop, cool jazz, and jazz-rock are a few of the many styles that jazz evolved into as it extended from the United States to several parts of the world.

Traditional Jazz

(The Original Dixieland Jass Band)

Image Credit - Wikimedia Commons

The term traditional or "Trad" jazz refers to a variety of jazz musical genres, including the well-known and adored Ragtime Jazz and the vivacious and cheerful Dixieland. The usage of several focal or star instruments is what distinguishes this form of jazz from modern jazz. Some of the main instruments used in this form of jazz include but are not limited to the trumpet as well as a lot of clarinets, with bass created by a trombone. Other instruments include percussion instruments, pianos, guitars organs, and even saxophones among various others. The first and most obvious difference between modern jazz and the older, more traditional is the sound. Where older jazz forms sound softer, soothing, and generally melodious, modern jazz can be faster, and to some, harsher than its traditional counterpart.

Four Main Eras of Modern Jazz

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The four main movements in jazz were between bop and the neoclassicism of Wynton Marsalis in the 1980s. Wynton began his career reacting against fusion (and free jazz to a lesser extent) and reviving hard bop. The four movements, more or less in chronological order:

Cool jazz: Key figures: Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Lennie Tristano and his school, Bill Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and saxophonists influenced by Lester Young. This movement had its moments of greatest popularity in the success of Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, and Stan Getz. It represents the fusion of "white" and "black" forms of jazz in an experimental context. 

Hard bop: Key figures: Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Max Roach and Clifford Brown group, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley. Fusion of jazz with gospel and R&B.

Free jazz: Key figures: Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, etc.

Intersection with Afro-centrism and the black arts movement; popularity of Coltrane. Ornette's use of electronic, fusion-oriented bands. 

Fusion: Key Figures: Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea-many other alumni of Miles's bands, Chuck Mangione. The entire style was based on a fusion with certain elements of rock, especially in terms of rhythm and the use of electronic instruments. Collaboration between black, Latino, and white musicians is the norm.

Miles Davis

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“I have to change, it’s like a curse” 

-Miles Davis

Miles Davis was one of the leading stylistic innovators of modern jazz. In 1949, he led a nine-piece band whose members collectively invented cool jazz. At the end of the 50s, working in tandem with Coltrane and the pianist Bill Evans, he introduced “modal improvisation,” a technique of improvising on scales rather than on chordal patterns that virtually all post-bop jazz musicians embraced. Starting in 1968, he played a pivotal role in the blending of jazz and rock, which came to be known as “fusion.” It is clear that he thought like a modernist, seeking artistic renewal by constantly changing the musical settings in which he displayed his distinctive trumpet playing. 

Jazz and American Modernism

Approaching the topic of jazz and modernism, one might begin with the emergence of bebop, which was routinely called “modernist” in the 1940s.  Jazz here is regarded as a conspicuous feature of modernity, as it was manifested during and after the Great War. In that capacity, jazz unquestionably informed modernism as an intellectual challenge, sensory provocation, and social texture. 

Around World War I, because of widespread uncertainty about what it was – a kind of music, an attitude to life, a mannerism, cheap vulgarity, or a spirited emotional impulse – the social career of jazz was launched with opportunities for interested parties on all sides of the issue to hold forth. 

It is also important to stress the role of ragtime during the period when Americans were introduced to modernism. The famous Armory Show occurred as the nation was in thrall to Irving Berlin’s hit tunes like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Everybody’s Doin’ It Now”. That is to say, the thematic aura of popular culture was unavoidably ragtime as the crowds surged through Armory Hall, gazing in bewilderment at the optical assault engineered by French painters (often several decades earlier). Among the numerous American artists transformed under its impact from realists to modernists, Stuart Davis recalled that the Armory Show challenged him withan objective order in these works, which I felt was lacking in my own.” [1]

The perceptual bewilderment occasioned by Armory Show pieces like Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” presaged the response. Jazz and American modernism to jazz at the end of the war, when the public was confronted by what seemed an aural onslaught commensurate with the cognitive dissonance of modern art. What initially seemed the acoustic counterpart to Duchamp’s “explosion in a shingle factory” proved easier to assimilate once the initial novelty wore off and the apparent barrage of noise turned out to adhere to danceable measures. Assimilation of noise being relative, many refused to acknowledge that jazz was anything more than calculated rudeness. In Europe, where the Futurists advocated an “art of noise” and the Dadaists had recently pioneered a repertoire of activities for delivering noise with enviable precision, jazz was understood to be part of an avant-garde continuum. In its homeland, by contrast, jazz was greeted as an unprecedented torrent of commercial licentiousness ravaging the population with the same viral insistence as the influenza epidemic of 1919.

For those of songwriter Hoagy Carmichael’s generation, jazz and modernism were variants of the same experience; somehow, the music of African Americans and the European avant-garde were both intuitively accessible. Whether his memories are accurate or not, it is significant that Hoagy Carmichael portrays a basic reciprocity between jazz and modernism, since both represented for a white Midwesterner the allure of the renegade, the dissident, the upstart. 

Another issue of lasting importance to jazz was the question of musicianship. American symphony orchestras were dominated by Europeans (particularly Germans) well into the twentieth century, and the need for musical approval from abroad hampered efforts to legitimize serious American composition. Wartime nationalism had the unpremeditated consequence of momentarily tarnishing European cultural authority, and lending a certain credibility to indigenous music. What emerged in the form of jazz was not what the musical establishment expected, but its source in the  African-American minority went unnoticed except by the more righteous moral crusaders.  Of greater concern was its lowbrow aspect, and after several years of an uninhibited jazz binge provoked an escalating public outcry, its reputation was in need of the ultimate sweetener. Escalating public outcry, its reputation was in need of the ultimate sweetener. Debate about jazz took a serious turn in the wake of Paul Whiteman’s famous New York recital, “An Experiment in Modern Music,” on February 12, 1924, in which he sought not only to establish jazz in the concert hall but to vindicate his belief that the rough edges of the music represented a passing phase. It helped immeasurably that Whiteman had commissioned a work from Tin Pan Alley veteran George Gershwin. Thus Whiteman’s “Experiment” succeeded with the public and the critics, mainly on the strength of Rhapsody in Blue, vaulting its composer into national prominence and lending credibility to Whiteman’s legislative claim to be the King of Jazz. Jazz historians have invariably chosen the Duke and the Count over the King as authentic jazz royalty, but Whiteman’s role, like that of white men in general, is central to the intersection of jazz with modernism. While the debate about jazz was rampant in the press from the moment the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded its million-seller in 1917, Whiteman’s “Experiment” changed the nature of the discourse, first by soliciting a highbrow response, and second by placing jazz in a more general debate about modern music. These terms readily, but not invariably, abstracted jazz from its black roots. 

The place of jazz was cemented in modernism by its representation in popular fiction and non-fiction literature of its period through major works such as The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, Dark Laughter by Sherwood Anderson, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein, and The Professor’s House by Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway’s story collection In Our Time, T. S. Eliot’s Poems 1909–1925 and Ezra Pound’s Draft of XVI Cantos, e. e. Cummings’s, XLI Poems & Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues.

Ishmael Reed shrewdly depicts jazz in Mumbo Jumbo, his novel of 1920s Harlem, as the Jes Grew virus

 For if the Jazz Age is year for year the Essences and Symptoms of the times, then Jes Grew is the germ making it rise yeast-like across the American plain. [2]

If jazz was a symptom, what was the disease? If it was an essence, what was there to be proud of or inspired by? The choice between symptom and disease mirrored a generational divide rendered conspicuous by war as a historical threshold.

“What contributions has jazz made to modernistic music?” [2] asked Alain Locke, of the same generation as Pound and Eliot, in his anthology focused on the Harlem Renaissance in 1936. For him, the best that could be said of jazz was that it “ushered in the first wave of the new modernistic harmony”. Consequently, “European musicians, on the lookout for a new modernistic style in music, seized eagerly upon [early jazz]”   As with white boosters, Locke was interested mainly in what jazz could offer serious music composition. But, unlike them, he was well-informed about African-American music in general.  Locke took a sociological view: “Instead of blaming it on jazz, the vogue of jazz should be regarded as the symptom of a profound cultural unrest and change, first a reaction from Puritan repressions and then an escape from the tensions and monotonies of a machine-ridden, extroverted form of civilization”. Locke’s diagnostic stance involves little concern with the commercialization of African American folkways by white entrepreneurs. Instead, he prudently remarks that without white participation there would be no “jazz age”, and the Jazz Age means modernism:

In some important way, he suggests, jazz has become diluted and tinctured with modernism. Otherwise, as purely a black dialect of emotion, it could not have become the dominant recreational vogue of our time, even to date, the most prolonged fad on record. [2]

Jazz and modernism were thought of as labels for any deliberate distortion of the conventional. In its contemporaneity with the disfigurations of The Waste Land and Manhattan Transfer, early jazz seemed to incarnate skyscraper primitivism, affirming machine-age progress driven by atavistic sources of revitalizing energy.

Macdonald Moore judiciously explains, jazz was one more key to “the secret of modernism”: 

like a guide to the perplexed, ‘jazz’ lent perceptual coherence to phenomena as discrete as European musical avant-gardism, bureaucratic and scientific rationalization, and even contemporary faddism. [2]

To talk about jazz or modernism was to talk about novelty even if novelty proved symptomatic of substantive change.

 Ellison and others present a practical image of jazz (as/and) modernism as a deliberate response to modernity as lived experience. Jazz and modernism alike were “post-war”: a combination of cynicism and hedonism that came out of it like a cloud of gas they can’t issue masks for. [2] But jazz was also historically timed to accompany two decisive technological phenomena: records and radio. It is this conjunction of new media with artistic novelty that made jazz the pre-eminent bearer of cultural modernity in the 1920s.


[1] Rasula, Jed. Jazz and American Modernism (Chapter 6) - the Cambridge Companion to American Modernism. Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press.

[2] Appel, Alfred. Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce. Yale University Press, 2004. 

[3] What Is Jazz? National Museum of American History.

[4] What Are the Different Types of Jazz Music? Music Education & Piano Lessons. Anselmo Academy School of Arts. USA

[5] Mayhew, Jonathan, et al. Four Movements in Jazz. Stanford Humanities Center. 

[6] Jazz. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

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