What is jazz? It’s such a simple question with such a tough answer. As you’ll soon learn, jazz by its very nature defies easy definition.
Perhaps jazz legend Louis Armstrong summed things up best when he said, “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know.”
Called “America’s Classical Music” and America’s only true art form, jazz emerged in the United States in the early 1900s in New Orleans. The city’s diverse population included people of African, Caribbean, European, Mexican and English descent.
The musical traditions of African-Americans mixed with other styles, and what we now know as jazz eventually developed from a blend of ragtime, marches, blues, brass and other kinds of music.
In the past 100 years, jazz has continued to evolve, led by brilliant musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Today, there are more than two dozen distinct jazz styles, including traditional jazz, swing, bebop, cool jazz, fusion and jazz rock.
A dictionary might define jazz something like this: a style of American music known for its robust, prominent meter, improvisation, distinctive tone, personal performance techniques and syncopated rhythmic patterns. But as any jazz musician will tell you, jazz is so much more than that.
Perhaps the defining aspect of jazz is its unique variety, which is a direct result of its most key component: improvisation. In most jazz music, musicians play solos that they make up on the fly as they play.
In this way, jazz can be seen as a personal language communicated by the musician and fueled by his or her individual dreams, passions, emotions and desires.
Jazz musicians tend to carve out their own sound and style. So, for example, trumpeter Miles Davis can sound very different from trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
Since jazz musicians develop their own unique styles, you can listen to several different recordings of the same song, and each will sound different! Jazz musicians can turn a familiar song into something new with each new improvised solo.
Although improvisation creates great variety in jazz, most jazz is very rhythmic, possesses a forward momentum (called “swing”) and uses expressive notes (called “blue” notes) that are slightly lower in pitch than those on the major scale. You will also often hear “call and response” patterns in jazz, in which one instrument or voice answers another.