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.


26 Join the Discussion

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  1. I really liked the game Be the Bandleader. I conducted about three different songs, and each time they sounded different! My background knowledge about jazz was that it was created in New Orleans. While reading the article, I learned that Louis Armstrong was a BIG jazz player, and that jazz got created in the 1900’s. I can’t wait to see what’s coming tomorrow. (I think it’s something to do with kites.)

    • Hello, Sabian! Jazz music is AWESOME! Thank you for checking out this Wonder and letting us know a cool fact you learned! :-)

    • We really like your description of jazz music, Amondria, and we agree with you! You have inspired us to go listen to some soothing jazz right now! :-)

  2. Jazz can be ok when I’m sick, but just yesterday Mr. Miler made us listen to jazz. I hated that song because the song went on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on by the same thing! I love jazz because dad’s dad’s step-grandpa’s uncle’s cousin’s brother’s wife’s cousin’s sister’s friend’s uncle loves jazz! (that took a breath outta me!).

    • We know there are some AWESOME jazz songs out there that you would LOVE even when you’re not sick, Chris! We like to explore different bands and songs in different music styles and then pick our favorites. We don’t care for some kinds of music, but we LOVE other kinds! Everyone is different and has different tastes in music! We really liked your comment…THANKS for sharing it with us today! :-)

  3. I think jazz is an interesting piece of music…it can be very good at times. I like to hear the way all the instruments come together.

    • That’s a groovy way to look at jazz, Reggie! We like how sometimes you can hear each individual instrument although they are all playing together! :-)

    • We think that’s really cool, too, Alan! We also think it’s cool that you visited this Wonder about jazz and left us an AWESOME comment! Thank you for doing that! :-)

    • Hi there, Zya! Thanks so much for sharing your opinion of jazz! We really appreciate your comment and want to say THANK YOU for visiting Wonderopolis today!

    • WOW, Logan, we think you are a Wonder Champion with all the reading and WONDERing you’ve been doing! Keep up the GREAT work and thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

  4. Madison’s 2 favorite jazz musicians are Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Lauren’s 2 favorite are the same as Madison’s

  5. We have found this passage very interesting. We have been reading about jazz in class and really enjoyed it.Maggie plays Piano and found Thelonious Monk interesting, Clara finds Ella Fitzgerald interesting.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is jazz?
  • Where did jazz develop?
  • What is improvisation?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

Jazz music is inspired by the life experiences and emotions of its musicians. As some jazz historians have noted, it is in the creation of jazz music itself that one truly finds jazz.

To that end, make some jazz music of your own today! You can be the bandleader as you choose a unique combination of instruments to create your own personal jazz style.


Still Wondering

There’s no better way to learn about jazz than to listen to it. Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s Groovin’ to Jazz online exhibit, which features more than a dozen jazz pieces to listen to.


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