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How Jazz Got Started

Jul 15, 2008
Though many associate the birth of jazz music with the city of New Orleans, its origin may be a bit more ambiguous. Like many other musical forms, jazz evolved over a period of years. Many believe its evolution took place over decades. It's widely agreed, however, that jazz music as we know it today was born in the southern United States. It is also accepted that it developed from a variety of different influences, culminating in a style that became its own genre.

Jazz's major influence probably came from African slaves brought to the United States in the 1800s. In fact, African music influenced many styles of music, including rock and roll. The form that evolved into jazz consisted specifically of call-and-response singing, syncopation and improvisation. Ragtime, which may be considered a precursor to modern jazz, drew upon many of these elements.

Ragtime music originated after the emancipation of African slaves. The newfound freedom of slaves was bittersweet. Though freedom was deserved and appreciated, there were few job opportunities for freed slaves. Many had no means of self-support, and some simply stayed on with their former owners. Others supported themselves through musical performance. Often, this meant performing in dubious locations, like brothels and minstrel shows.

It was these types of venues that gave rise to ragtime, which enjoyed a brief period of popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century. Talented ragtime musicians like Scott Joplin were generally recognized much later for their contributions to modern jazz.

Though ragtime only graced the music scene for a few years, it influenced what would become referred to in 1915 as jazz music. While the actual origin of the term is uncertain, the name stuck. Cities like New Orleans have since become synonymous with jazz. This is not necessarily because it originated there, but because its musicians have added a distinct flavor to jazz music. Dixieland jazz bands still largely dominate the musical culture of New Orleans. Thanks to modern artists like Louis Armstrong, Winton Marsalis and Miles Davis, Dixieland-style jazz continues to enjoy mainstream popularity.

Once jazz music became labeled as such, more variations developed. Swing was one of those, which saw its height in the 1930s. Swing greats like Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller are still covered by today's musicians. Although swing isn't the genre it once was, it still has a big following today.

Because of its early association with brothels and speakeasies, jazz music had a stigma to overcome in its early years of development. Eventually, jazz became an accepted art form. Today jazz is embraced and taught as its own branch of music.

Jazz music is most distinguished from other musical forms for its reliance upon improvisation. The best jazz musicians have gained notoriety for their ability to play without the aid of written music.

They are able to make up music on the spot and off-the-cuff. It's entirely possible for a song to be different every time it's performed. This may be one reason that jazz fans believe that the most talented of the world's musicians are not classical musicians, but purveyors of jazz.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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