The Historical Context of Jazz Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Jazz music has a rich history that is often overlooked. Learn about the historical context of jazz music and how it has evolved over time.

Origins of Jazz

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was then developed in the United States during the early 20th century. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation.

African American music

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is seen by many as “America’s classical music”. Since the 1920s Jazz Age, jazz has become recognized as a major form of musical expression. It then emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all linked by the common bonds of African-American and European-American musical parentage with a performance orientation. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime. As such, jazz has a history of being shaped by cultural interaction.

European music

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It developed from roots in blues and ragtime, and features brass instruments, particularly the trumpet and trombone, as well as woodwinds, and percussion. Jazz was first played in public in the early 20th century by New Orleans bands such as the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Jelly Roll Morton. Key figures in developing the ‘New Orleans’ sound included Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

During the 1920s and 1930s, big band swing was the most popular jazz style in America. Jazz bands usually featured soloists who would improvise on the melody over a set chord progression while the band played structured accompaniment. The danceable nature of many of these tunes led to their popularity in speakeasies during Prohibition, when alcohol was illegal. After Prohibition ended, many big bands continued to play jazz standards such as Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.”

In the 1940s bebop emerged, a more complex style characterized by fast tempos, challenging chord progressions often based on major scales with many sharps or flats, and improvisation based on familiarity with harmonic structure rather than melody or motific development. Bebop musicians often used extended harmonic techniques such as altered ninths and thirteenths chromatic approaches not found in earlier jazz styles; bebop groups featured stature players such as Charlie Parker on alto saxophone or Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet.

Early Jazz

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It emerged in the form of independent traditional and popular musical styles, all of which were created by African Americans. These were developed and performed by professional musicians, who were largely from the Creole class.

New Orleans

New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz. Early Jazz was a combination of African and European music traditions. The African traditions were brought over by slaves who were forced to work on plantations in the southern United States. These slaves would sing and play drums as a form of self-expression and resistance against their oppressors. The European traditions came from the music of white immigrants from England, Ireland, and Germany. This music was often played on brass instruments like trumpets and trombones.

Jazz first gained popularity in the early 1900s in the city of New Orleans. It was influenced by both African American and Creole culture. Jazz quickly spread to other parts of the country, such as Chicago and New York City. By the 1920s, Jazz was being played all over the world.

Some of the most famous Jazz musicians include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday.


The city of Chicago had a profound and influential role in the development of early jazz. Musicians from New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, traveled to Chicago in the early 1900s in search of better opportunities. At that time, Chicago was a thriving metropolis with a growing population and a booming economy. The city’s clubs and theaters were always in need of talented musicians, and the New Orleans musicians quickly found work.

In Chicago, they found that they could build on the foundation of blues music that was already present in the city. The combination of blues and jazz gave birth to a new style of music that would come to be known as “Chicago jazz.” This new sound was defined by its use of improvisation and its emphasis on ensemble playing. The most famous exponent of Chicago jazz was Louis Armstrong, who would go on to become one of the most influential musicians in history.

Swing Era

Jazz music originated in the early 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States. The style emerged in the ’20s and ’30s, and became popular in the ’40s and ’50s. Jazz is characterized by swinging rhythms, improvising, and a focus on collective rather than individual expression. The Swing Era was the peak of popularity for jazz music.

Big bands

The Swing Era was when big band swing music was at its most popular in America between the years 1935-1945. This style of music generally featured a large amount of horns, trumpets, and trombones, as well as a rhythm section made up of a piano, bass, drums, and guitar. The term “swing” in reference to music came from the feeling that this style of playing created on the dance floor, where dancers would feel like they were “swinging” to the beat. Some of the most famous big bands during the Swing Era were led by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington.


Some of the most influential and groundbreaking soloists emerged during the Swing Era. These artists took the exiting template of Count Basie’s big band and pushed it in new directions, often by experimenting with different timbres and playing styles. Musicians such as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie would go on to have careers that spanned decades and influenced countless other artists.

One of the most instantly recognizable aspects of Swing Era soloing is the use of phrasing. Rather than playing straight through a melody, soloists would often break it up into smaller chunks or “phrases” that they could then embellish with their own ideas. This created a more interactive style of soloing that allowed musicians to react to what they were hearing from their fellow bandmates in real time.

Lester Young was one of the first soloists to make use of this style of phrasing, and his distinctive sound had a profound impact on the development of jazz. His solos were characterized by a lightness and delicacy that was in stark contrast to the bombast of many other horn players at the time. He frequently made use of space in his solos, allowing notes to linger in the air before moving on to the next phrase.

Charlie Parker was another legendary figure who made his mark during the Swing Era. Nicknamed “Bird” due to his speed and agility on the saxophone, Parker was one of the first musicians to experiment with bebop, a new style of jazz characterized by complex harmonies and fast tempos. He was also known for his ability to seamlessly integrate quotes from other tunes into his solos, something that would become a staple of jazz improvisation.

Dizzy Gillespie was another bebop pioneer who helped shape the sound of jazz in the 1940s. A masterful trumpeter, Gillespie was known for his moving solos and dizzying high-speed runs. He was also an accomplished composer, and he wrote several well-known tunes such as “Salt Peanuts” and “A Night in Tunisia.”


Bebop was a style of jazz that developed in the 1940s. The style is characterized by fast tempo, complex chord progressions, and improvised solos. Bebop was a reaction to the big band swing style of jazz. The fast tempo and complex chord progressions of bebop made it difficult to dance to, which was one of the reasons it was not popular with mainstream audiences.


Bebop arose during a time of great change in the world of jazz. Big bands were on the decline and smaller groups were on the rise. Bebop musicians were some of the first to truly experiment with jazz, and their innovative style quickly caught on.

Bebop is characterized by complex harmonies, fast tempos, and improvisation. Many bebop tunes are based on standard chord progressions, but thesolos are often very complex and involve extended techniques such as chromaticism, altered chords, and “false” relationships between chords.

Bebop was pioneered by a handful of talented musicians, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and pianist Thelonious Monk. These pioneers set the stage for a whole new era of jazz music.


Bebop emerged in the early 1940s and represented a major shift in jazz. Bebop eschewed the smooth, danceable rhythms of swing in favor of a more difficult, avant-garde sound. Bebop was characterized by fast tempos, intricate melodies, and altered chords. Bebop musicians also began to experiment with improvisation, more specifically with soloing. This marked a departure from the collective improvisation style of earlier jazz ensembles. In bebop, each musician was responsible for his or her own solo. This shift from group to individual improvisation would have far-reaching consequences for the future of jazz.

Hard Bop and Modal Jazz

Modal Jazz began in the late 1950s as a reaction against Hard Bop. It was often called “the music of the space age”, because it made use of extended modes and scales. Modal Jazz tunes were usually based on a single mode or scale, which gave them a more static harmonic structure than Hard Bop tunes. pianist Bill Evans was one of the first Modal Jazz musicians.


The hard bop and modal jazz of the 1950s and 1960s was a direct reaction to the bebop style that preceded it. Hard bop was characterized by a heavy groove, often with a backbeat, and featured more complex harmonies than bebop. Modal jazz was based on improvisation over modal scales, rather than chord progressions. These two styles of jazz laid the foundation for much of the jazz that followed, including jazz fusion and funk.

Some of the most influential hard bop and modal jazz musicians include Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley, and Wes Montgomery.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new style of jazz emerged that combined the rhythmic feel of bebop with the modal approach to harmony of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959). This “hard bop” style was epitomized by Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, and Sonny Rollins. Albums such as Horace Silver’s Song for My Father (1963) and Art Blakey’s Moanin’ (1958) are considered hard bop classics.

Other important hard bop musicians include: Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Jimmy Heath, Wynton Kelly, Philly Joe Jones

Late Jazz

Late jazz is a musical style of jazz that emerged in the early 1960s and came to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is characterized by complex, sometimes dissonant harmonic structures; extended, often chromatic, melodic lines; and rhythmically complex, often syncopated rhythms. It also often incorporates elements of other genres, such as rock, funk, and African music.

Free jazz

Free jazz is an approach to jazz improvisation that was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. It often features a strong element of experimentation and is considered to be a loosely defined style, rather than a specific genre.

Free jazz is sometimes seen as a reaction against the constraints of bebop and other forms of jazz, which were seen as being too restrictive. Instead, free jazz musicians would often improvise freely, without strict rules or guidelines. This approach was often seen as being more in line with the spirit of jazz, which is about creativity and self-expression.

Free jazz can be difficult to categorize, as it can encompass a wide range of styles and influences. It is often seen as a bridge between traditional jazz and more avant-garde or experimental forms of music.

Avant-garde jazz

In the 1960s, many jazz musicians began to experiment with ways to “free” themselves from the constraints of conventional harmony and traditional instrumentation. This movement came to be known as avant-garde jazz, or simply “free jazz.”

Though there are important precursors to free jazz (such as Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking work in the late 1950s), the style truly came into its own in the 1960s. Notable exponents of free jazz included saxophonists Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, and Pharoah Sanders; trumpeters Don Cherry and Bill Dixon; trombonist Roswell Rudd; pianists Cecil Taylor and McCoy Tyner; bassist Charlie Haden; and drummer Sunny Murray.

Free jazz was also influenced by contemporary developments in classical music, such as serialism (a compositional technique that uses a fixed set of pitches organized into a particular order) and experimentalism. In turn, free jazz would go on to have an impact on classical music composers such as Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, who would incorporate elements of the style into their own work.

While free jazz is sometimes seen as a purely American phenomenon, it actually had a global reach. In Europe, for example, British saxophonist Evan Parker was a major innovator in the style (often working with other European musicians such as guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist Barry Guy), while Japanese trumpeter Toshinori Kondo made significant contributions to the idiom.

Jazz fusion

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, jazz musicians began fusing elements of rock music and soul into their work. This new style of jazz, which came to be known as “fusion,” was a response to the declining popularity of traditional jazz. Some purists criticized fusion for its supposed lack of “jazziness,” but the genre went on to achieve mainstream success.

Fusion artists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock blended electric instruments and complex harmonies with the improvisational spirit of jazz. Their work paved the way for a new generation of jazz musicians who would continue to experiment with different styles and sounds.

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