What Music Influenced Jazz?

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Jazz is a genre of music that was heavily influenced by the music of the African diaspora. In this blog post, we explore some of the key musical influences that helped shape the sound of Jazz.


Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States. It emerged 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 well as European military band music. Although the foundation of jazz is deeply rooted within the black experience of the United States, different cultures have contributed their own experience, intellectuals to the craft of jazz. Intellectuals such as Ralph Ellison and Stanley Crouch have heavily influenced not just jazz criticism, but also the socio-political aspects surrounding race relations in America.

The Birth of Jazz


Ragtime music was one of the earliest forms of jazz and was extremely popular in the early 1900s. It is characterized by its syncopated (off-beat) rhythms and its catchy, repetitive melodies. Some of the most famous ragtime tunes include “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin and “Maple Leaf Rag” by James Scott. Ragtime was usually played on piano, but it was also sometimes played on banjo, drums, and other instruments.

The Blues

The Blues is a style of music that was created by African Americans in the Deep South of the United States at the end of the 19th century. It is a style of music that is characterized by its use of blue notes, which are notes that are played at a slightly lower pitch than usual. The Blues has been a major influence on many different genres of music, including Jazz.

New Orleans

New Orleans is a major port city on the Mississippi River in Louisiana, and it’s known for its French Quarter, music and colonial-era architecture. The Jazz Age began in New Orleans in the early 1900s. Jazz is a genre of music that originated from African American communities in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was developed from roots in blues and ragtime.

Early Jazz

The first jazz was created around 1895-1905. It was a combination of many different music styles from around the world. The music that influenced early jazz was from Africa, Europe, and the Americas.


Dixieland, also known as Traditional Jazz, was the first style of jazz. It originated in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century. The earliest jazz bands were made up of Marching Band musicians who played in brass bands and dance bands. These bands played a mix of popular songs and original compositions.

The most important contribution of Dixieland to jazz was its focus on improvisation. Improvisation is when a musician creates new melodies on the spot while they are playing. This was a new concept in music at the time, and it is what sets jazz apart from other genres.

Dixieland was also known for its syncopated rhythms. Syncopation is when the accents in the music fall on unexpected beats. This gives the music a “lilt” or “swing” feel that is unique to jazz.

The earliest Dixieland bands were made up of African American musicians, but the style quickly spread to other parts of the country and world. Some of the most famous Dixieland bands were The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers.


Swing is a style of jazz that started in the early 1920s and 1930s. The word “swing” came from the ‘sense of rhythm’ felt by the performers and listeners alike. The ROOT of this sense of timing, or rhythm, was based on African-American vernacular (everyday) music. This music had a certain ‘groove’ or ‘feel’ to it that was different from the European classical music tradition. The term “swing” was first used in dance halls and clubs where people were dancing to this new kind of jazz.

Swing was the predecessor to bebop, another style of jazz that developed in the 1940s. Swing is still played today by many big bands and small groups. Because swing is based on African-American vernacular music, it has a sound that is unique from other styles of jazz.

Bebop and Hard Bop

Bebop and hard bop were the two main styles of jazz that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s. Bebop was characterized by its fast tempo, complicated harmonic structure, and improvisation featuring altissimo (very high) notes and extended chord progressions. Hard bop was a reaction to bebop, featuring a return to simpler melodies and a focus on the groove. Both styles were influenced by Blues and Gospel music.

Cool Jazz

One of the first styles of jazz to gain popularity outside of African American communities was “cool jazz.” This style developed in the early 1940s and was influenced by artists such as Lester Young and Miles Davis. “Cool jazz” was typically played at a slower tempo and featured lighter improvisation than other styles of jazz. The use of bebop scales and modal harmony also helped to create a more relaxed feel in cool jazz recordings.

One of the most important things that influenced the development of jazz was the use of mode instead of tonality. “Mode” refers to a set of pitches organized into a hierarchy. The most important pitch in the mode is called the “tonic,” and all of the other pitches in the mode relate to the tonic. The second most important pitch is called the “supertonic,” and the third most important pitch is called the “mediant.” You can think of these names as indicating how close each pitch is to the tonic. The fourth and fifth most important pitches are called the “subdominant” and “dominant,” respectively. These are not named after their distance from the tonic, but after their function in music. The subdominant is usually thought of as being lower than or weaker than the tonic, while the dominant is usually thought of as being higher than or stronger than the tonic.

Free Jazz

Free jazz is an approach to jazz music that was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. As its name implies, free jazz is characterized by a lack of prescribed structure or harmony, and by an improvisational style that emphasizes the individual expression of the player over the collective interpretation of the group. While earlier forms of jazz were often based on preset chord progressions or blues forms, free jazz players typically eschew such structures, instead relying on their own instincts and abilities to create both melody and harmony.

While free jazz can be traced back to such pioneering figures as saxophonist Ornette Coleman and trumpeter Miles Davis, it was in the 1960s that the style truly came into its own. This was due in part to the increased availability of recording technology, which allowed artists to experiment with new sounds and techniques without being constrained by the need to please a live audience. But it was also due to the influence of avant-garde classical composers like John Cage, who helped break down the barriers between different genres of music.

Today, free jazz is seen as one of the most important movements in jazz history, with its emphasis on creativity and individual expression continuing to inspire musicians around the world.

Jazz Fusion

Sometimes called simply “fusion”, jazz fusion is a subgenre of jazz that developed in the late 1960s when musicians began blending aspects of different musical styles, including rock, R&B, and world music. Notable jazz fusion artists include Miles Davis, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny.


Though it is impossible to identify one single genre or style of music that was the exclusive forerunner of jazz, we can identify a few key genres and styles that were major influences on the early development of jazz. These include blues, ragtime, and brass band music. All of these genres were popular in the American south during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and all helped to shape the sound and feel of early jazz.

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