The birth of jazz represents the first major turning point in the popular music of the 20th century, and as a style it has
spawned almost as many sub-categories as that other milestone, rock & roll
origins lie in the blues
, the minstrel show
, and the music of
cosmopolitan white America, particularly European dances and marches, all of which came together in late 19th century
It was from white military bands that early black jazz bands, usually consisting of five to eight players, took both their instrumentation
and their strict 2/2 or 2/4 tempo. What made the sound so new and exciting was the tension that existed between that strict tempo ( also
present in ragtime
) and the flexibility of the blues-based melodic lines of the soloist, often incorporating
syncopation ( placing the accent on a normally unaccented beat ) and the famous "blue note" ( a flattened 3rd or 7th note of the scale ).
While jazz is central to the story of popular music, and it's pioneers - King Oliver, Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong
etc. - are now legendary figures,
it's significance in relation to the popular song lies more in informing the songwriting of more mainstream styles
- i.e. infusing other styles with a jazz feel - and in the interpretation of songs written within other genres e.g. musical theatre
For this reason, jazz songwriters, writing within and for jazz, are fairly rare.
Early names might include Jelly Roll Morton
, who claims to have invented jazz but wasn't really a songwriter; Clarence Williams
who wrote or co-wrote many blues-influenced jazz numbers for Bessie Smith
; James P. Johnson
, one of the true greats of stride piano,
who wrote "The Charleston"
, a song which seems to capture the spirit of the Jazz Age, and his protege Fats Waller
One name, however, stands above all others as a true master - Duke Ellington
- whose sublime creations remain at the
heart of Big Band jazz. His collaborations with Billy Strayhorn
, another giant in this field, produced some of the finest music of the 20th century.
The Big Band era saw jazz at the heart of popular culture and the rise of the great jazz cabaret singers, amongst whom Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald,
Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra
and Tony Bennett
After the Second World War new styles superceded Big Band swing, taking it away from the mainstream. The first was the harder sound of bebop,
pioneered by Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie
and Bud Powell
. Then came the cool and free jazz of the 1950's and 1960's, developed by Miles Davis,
Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane
and others. This was followed by early 1970's jazz-rock fusion, centred around players such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock
and the band Weather Report
, and more recently "crossover", a pop-influenced jazz closer to the style of Grover Washington, Pat Metheny
and David Sanborn
There are of course many more sub-categories of jazz - latin, modal, acid etc., but the ones mentioned probably represent the centre of the movement,
which continues to change and develop, driven by the forces of it's essential nature - exploration and innovation.