Jazz is one of the most popular types of music in the world. It has a rich, complex history, and is still widely influential today. Here are 5 basic facts about jazz sure to give you a truer understanding and appreciation of its legacy and form.

Jazz has History

Jazz is a genre of music created and pioneered by African Americans in the early 20th century. Its roots are in New Orleans, Louisiana, and was spread around the country to cities like New York and Los Angeles by travelling black musicians. Jazz is often considered to have broken out in the 1920s, where it defined the cultural soundscape of the decade.

Jazz has a bittersweet history, but its central tenet is its fundamentally African-American nature. It was born from black American musical forms such as blues, spiritual hymns, and ragtime (pioneered by slaves), and was developed in New Orleans due to its rich, unique culture (boasting strong nightlife, food, and Creole French influence), and a diverse melting pot of people – both of which were highly driven by its African-American population.

The most important part of jazz is that it’s improvisational. While jazz performances are almost always based on a pre-defined tune, the beauty of jazz is that it’s never played the same way twice. This can be subtle (using different instruments or in different keys), or dramatic (playing an uptempo song as a somber ballad).

Jazz typically and historically uses instruments such as brass (trumpets, tubas, saxophones), pianos, drums, and guitar, but as jazz is simply an approach to music, can be played with any instrument.

Jazz has Pioneers

All That Jazz, an art print by Wishum Gregory portraying numerous influential jazz artists.

Notable figures and pioneers in the history of jazz include Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald. Monk was known for his improvisational skill, while Armstrong became noted as a saxophone and singing soloist. Oscar Peterson was a highly acclaimed pianist, and Ella Fitzgerald’s singing and vocal improv made her a force to be reckoned with. Most jazz musicians today are strongly inspired by them.

Jazz is Varied

Jazz has spun off, developed, and inspired numerous other genres, including jazz hop, fusion, and bossa nova.

Jazz hop was developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and is closely related to a larger, looser subgenre known as acid jazz. In its essence, it fuses the music and instrumentation of jazz with the beats and vocals of rap – another dominant genre of African American music. Pioneers of jazz hop include Guru, Dream Warriors, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul. Beyond their style, jazz and hip hop are an excellent marriage because they are both strong, social, and political representatives of the black voice.

Fusion developed in the late 1960s, and in essence is a merger between the improvisational structure and theory of jazz, with the sounds and instruments of funk and rock. Jazz fusion typically uses electric guitars, keyboards, and synthesizers in addition to traditional acoustic jazz instruments. Smooth jazz is a related, commercial-friendly genre of jazz that has no improvisation and is purely melodic. Miles Davis was a key figure in jazz fusion, with Weather Report and Tribal Tech being other well known performers.

Bossa nova, which literally means “new wave”, is a fusion of African-American jazz and Brazilian samba that took root in Rio de Janeiro. As samba is likewise derived from the African slave trade in the same way jazz came to be in America, there is a sense of symmetry in the two genres coming together. Bossa nova is typically played on the classical guitar with one’s fingers, and exhibits a slower, breezier, more melodic feeling than freeform jazz.

The key to all of this is that the theory of jazz is easily applicable to a wide variety of genres and forms. It’s no wonder that many musical fusions are so heavily inspired by the free-spirited and free-form feeling of jazz.

Jazz is Global

R&B queen Lauryn Hill at Montreal Jazz Fest 2016.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival occurs in April, celebrating not only jazz, but “the indigenous music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, so the music encompasses every style associated with the city and the state: blues, R&B, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, folk, Latin, rock, rap, country, bluegrass, and everything in between.”

Even beyond the Americas, jazz festivals exist in all non-Antarctican continents around the world, including Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. The largest jazz festival in the world is typically credited as Canada’s Montreal Jazz Festival, which earned a Guinness Record after cracking 2 million attendees in 2004. Other jazz festivals in Canada include the Toronto Jazz Festival and The Beaches Jazz Festival, held annually in the summer months.

If you’d like to sample some of the different global flavours of jazz, I recommend Jazz Around the World, a compilation album by Putumayo. It features songs by jazz musicians from Senegal, Cuba, Cameroon, French Canada, and more, and is sure to show you just how widely jazz has spread its horizons.

Jazz is Modern

Contemporary British jazz supergroup, Incognito.

Fact and opinion can often be blurred, but it is fact that the following is my opinion, so please consider that!

Some of my favourite contemporary jazz artists include Soil & Pimp Sessions, Ringo Sheena, Incognito, Robert Glasper Experiment, and more. Jazz has spread strongly throughout the world and resonates with many people due to its deep cultural impact, rich musical flavour, flexibility and freedom to be played with. There are a lot of artists today who aren’t strictly jazz musicians, but clearly possess the sensibility of jazz in their hearts. Because of that, it’s no wonder that Jazz in America refers to jazz as the most distinctly American genre.


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