History of Jazz

African Spirituals Jazz would not exist if it weren’t for the sounds of traditional African spirituals and the thematic elements of oppression and deliverance they contain. Brought from Africa to America and born in the belly of the South, jazz soon grew legs, and with them, would run through many different generations, times of war, times of depression, and major cultural changes, all the while maintaining its influential force. African spirituals found their place among the slaves as they harvested the crop, cleaned the homes, tended the cattle, and kindled the heart and soul of America. The songs would become deeply ingrained in the culture of folk songs and tales, with influences of its music occurring and reoccurring for years to come.

Ma Rainey Georgia Jazz Band posing for a studio group shot in the mid-1920s, with Thomas A. Dorsey at the piano.

One African folk song that many have associated specifically as being the seed from which jazz grew is “Wade in the Water”.Birthplace of Jazz and Other Cities By the 20th century, jazz is alive and well in New Orleans, a city where some of the greats would gain their sound and recognition – Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Each musician signified a varying genre of jazz, whether it was ragtime, trad, or dixieland, indicating its growth and popularity.

As time went on, jazz would find a home in several other corners of America – Harlem, where Billie Holiday moved audiences with her haunting performance of “Strange Fruit”, Chicago, where the future “King of Swing” Benny Goodman would find stardom, and Los Angeles, where the contemporary genre of cool jazz would find its beat. But jazz wasn’t just for America, it became widely popular in Europe as well, creating pockets of culture that today are considered historic. In Paris, Josephine Baker, despite her American nationality, entertained thousands with her dancing and singing, accompanied by jazz orchestra, and in Brussels, guitar musician, Django Reinhardt recorded several of his lively tunes, inadvertently inventing gypsy jazz. WWII and Jazz As jazz evolved with the changing world, it manifested more deeply with drinking and dancing culture.

Famous jazz clubs sprung up, such as the Savoy and Cotton Club, where greats such as a young Ella Fitzgerald would gain their start to stardom. Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington created hits that people are still familiar with today. “In the Mood” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” had audiences flocking to night joints to not only hear the swing, but dance the swing. The beautiful brassy glow of the instruments, the same that were carried during New Orleans funerals as traditional brass bands were now beginning to entertain the masses with a new and contagious sound. The ’60’s,’70’s, & Today Following the swing came the days of the Rat Pack and jazz moved, subtly, from its origin in New Orleans and settled deeply into bustling New York City.

Just as quickly as the likes of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby could croon in mellow ballads as well as belt in boisterous, orchestrated tunes, other figures of jazz began to reclaim the genre from mainstream popularity. Leading this group was, what some would term, the anti-Rat Pack, jazz pianist, Thelonious Monk, bullfrog-cheeked trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker. They invited the improvisation most of us are familiar with today in modern jazz as a base quality for the genre.

This new jazz was not for everyone, but it would pave the way for more genres (hard bop and avant garde) and more musicians (Miles Davis and Sun Ra). Today, many wonder about the future of jazz and if it, indeed, has lived out its time. More contemporary works include more emphasis on electric guitar as well as a call to ethnic roots. No matter the future of the genre, the history itself of jazz will long not be forgotten.