History of Jazz Music – A Detailed Timeline

History of Jazz Music

Most musicians simply follow trends or create songs based on what is currently popular. They may be skilled, but I don’t see any imagination and creativity in that. Only a musical genius can create music on the fly. That is why many people love jazz. This is the kind of music that looks at improvisation as a very important element.

To say that jazz musicians are fantastic creators and artists of moving notes and soul-reaching melodies is an understatement. They are passionate about their musical creations as they are caring for every bit of element that makes up their work.

So, when did jazz start anyway? I’m glad you ask. We’ll stroll down memory lane to learn more about the colorful, and sometimes sad story of jazz.

jazz history

The Foundations: 16th to Mid-19th Century

The 16th century saw many West Africans sold as slaves to wealthy plantation owners of the South. They brought with them their music that is rooted in the musical and cultural expression of their West African heritage. Their music has a simple call-and-response pattern and a basic single-line melody. The rhythm of their songs was counter-metric and reflected the speech patterns of their native tongue.

Slave owners and European settlers began observing how early African-Americans were creating music. Being slaves, they did not have the luxury of using true musical instruments. As such, many of the forebears of jazz used whatever ‘instrument’ they could find.

They also incorporated the rhythms of the songs played during masses in churches. There are also influences from the slaves in the Caribbean.

The emancipation of slaves in 1865 opened many opportunities for African Americans. Many learned how to play European musical instruments, allowing them to perform at clubs, brothels, and bars.

Here are the key figures you need to know about the early days of jazz:

Louis Moreau Gottschalk

This New Orleans composer was the first to adapt the rhythms and melodies of slaves and incorporated them into his piano salon music. One of Gottschalk’s most influential works that included elements of early jazz is ”A Night In The Tropics”. It has the characteristic tresillo rhythmic pattern of Cuban slaves.

Ernest Hogan

Hogan was the first African American to popularize “ragtime” in 1895, one of the rhythm styles of early jazz. You can check out one of Hogan’s greatest hits here.


The Birth of a New Art Music Form: The Blues and Swing of the Early 20th Century

The growth of ragtime in the late 19th century fast-tracked the development of contemporary jazz. However, it is the blues of the American Deep South that provided the foundation for the development of what we call ‘jazz’ today.

The Blues are very easy to listen to because they are the melodic expression of the daily lives of early African Americans in a region that is still reeling from racial tension. Blues has its roots from ordinary work songs, spiritual hymns, and even field hollers that African-Americans of the Deep South used to add color to their social, work, and spiritual lives.

Here are the important things we must know about this period:

William Christopher Handy

The Father of Blues, W. C. Handy established the very first rhythms that would become the standards of jazz. These rhythms included the habanera and is quite distinct in Handy’s 1912 work titled “Memphis Blues”, the 1914 “St. Louis Blues”, and other compositions.


Papa Jack Laine

We always associate jazz with black musicians. However, there are white jazz musicians, too. Laine, who’s also the “Father of Jazz Music” is best known for his inclusion of both white and black musicians in his band. Papa Jack Laine is the originator of “white jazz”.


Original Dixieland Jazz Band

Many of Papa Jack Laine’s players became legendary jazz musicians. Some of them formed the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917 and released their very first masterpiece, the “Livery Stable Blues” in that same year.


Jelly Roll Morton

Composer, jazz and ragtime pianist, and bandleader Morton started his musical career in Storyville. His most influential work was the “Jelly Roll Blues”, which he composed in 1905. Morton emphasized the role of the tresillo/habanera rhythm as an essential jazz element.

If Blues is the fundamental musical form of jazz, swing would be its fundamental rhythm. And it was Louis Armstrong who defined the importance of swing in jazz – you must feel it to know it. Listen to the “Livery Stable Blues” again. Close your eyes and you can begin to “feel” the music and not merely hearing it.


The Jazz Age: 1920s to 1940s

The Prohibition Era did not stop jazz musicians from performing. They found a ready audience in illicit speakeasies. Many of the jazz musicians formed touring bands that travelled as far as Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West. There was also the growth of jazz in Chicago.

The roaring ’20 saw the birth of improvisation. This allowed jazz players to inject their musical solos on the printed music. Improvisation turned out to be the most distinct quality of jazz and it became the essential attribute that differentiated jazz greats from ordinary jazz musicians.

The first decade of the Jazz Age brought us the following greats.

Bessie Smith

If W. C. Handy is the Father of Blues, Smith would be the Empress. Smith was a force to reckon with during this era. You should check out Bessie’s greatest hits here.

Louis Armstrong

Born on the 4th of August 1901 in New Orleans, Armstrong is one of jazz’s most influential musicians. This Rhythm & Blues Hall of Famer was an inventive player of the cornet and trumpet.

His greatest influence is on the shift to solo performance from collective improvisation. Not only was Armstrong solid in instrumental improvisation, he was also a titan in vocal improvisation with his scat singing skills. Armstrong’s guitar improvisation prowess is epitomized in “Savoy Blues” and his legendary vocal improvisation in “Heebie Jeebies”.

Many contemporary singers and musicians have adopted Armstrong’s innovations into their own style. They included Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few.

The second and third decades of the Jazz Age were the Swing Era. It reached it peak in 1935. Jazz music started finding their way to the music charts. The music already featured written arrangements and large ensembles. Improvisation was still a critical jazz element. However, musicians only employed it at certain points in the composition. The focus now is on the performance.

Duke Ellington

One of the Swing Era’s most influential composers. While he is best known for being a piano virtuoso, his real passion is in his band. Ellington considers every member of the band as having a distinct set of emotions that give rise to a unique color of tone. He mixes the individual attributes of his band members to produce remarkable music.

In his “One O’Clock Jump”, you can hear the different members of Ellington’s band playing their chops – instrumental virtuosity. While the solos are brief, they do lend credence to the observation of the “Ellington Effect”.

As the Swing Era started to wane, jazz music began entering the world of art music. The 1940s saw the birth of Bebop. It attracted many poets, painters, avant-garde writers, and other intellectuals. The Bebop tempo was exceedingly fast, making it quite impossible for ordinary mortals to dance to. People who aren’t musically inclined often consider the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmical contents of Bebop as very unpredictable.

Bebop was the necessary vessel for jazz musicians to show off their instrumental virtuosity. If Swing pushed improvisation in the background, Bebop returned it to the front and center of the composition.

Charlie “Bird” Parker

A great composer, a magical saxophonist, and a mesmerizing soloist, “Bird” Parker contributed most of his musical ingenuity in the formation of Bebop. He is well-revered for its rapid passing chords, chord substitutions, and innovative variants of altered chords. You should listen to his “Anthropology” to get an idea of Parker’s music.

Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy is to the trumpet as Bird is to the saxophone. Gillespie is another jazz musician known for adding layers of rhythmic and harmonic complexity never before heard in jazz in the 1940s. Check out this Dizzy masterpiece, “Groovin’ High”, performed with Charlie Parker.


Post-War Jazz: 1950s to 1980s

The post-war era of jazz can be categorized into different stages. These stages include the following:

Cool Jazz

The Bebop of the East Coast was fast and furious. The West answered by creating a chilled and more laid-back approach to jazz. This is the very essence of “Cool Jazz”, which lasted 5 years from 1950 to 1955. Musicians wanted to get rid of the constant shredding and head-spinning tempos of East Coast Bebop. One of Cool Jazz’s most influential figures was Miles Davis, with his “Boplicity”.

Hard Bop

Taking cue from the West, jazz musicians between 1955 and 1960 began shifting their instrumental improvisations to vocal. Hard Bop is not the hardcore version of Bebop. Instead, the music is reliant on Blues and gospel music. The improvisations also took a more emotional, a more personal approach. Musicians began exploring different musical scales, including different modes. A good example of this music is “Maiden Voyage” by Herbie Hancock.

Avant-Garde and Free Jazz

The popular misconception that improvisation is whatever the musician decides to play has its roots in the 1960s jazz. Unfortunately, this is not true. If you listen to Ornette Coleman’s masterpiece, “Lonely Woman”, you will note a very different melodic structure. The timbre is more expressive. Newbies to jazz may not be able to comprehend the harmonic content and the sense of form of the music. Jazz enthusiasts, however, focus more on the emotional expression and the exuberance of the piece.

Jazz Fusion

The 1970s saw the integration of different music genres in jazz. There’s the jazz-rock fusion that started in the late 1960s. The fusion called for the combination of jazz improvisation with electric musical instruments, rock rhythms, and the unique vocals of rock artists. Miles Davis was one of the pioneers of jazz fusion, you should out his “In A Silent Way”. There was also psychedelic jazz and jazz funk in the 1970s.


The 1980s to 1990s

The ‘80s saw the rise of different subgenres of jazz. These included Traditionalism, Smooth Jazz, Acid Jazz, Jazz Rap, Nu Jazz, Jazzcore, Punk Jazz, and M-Base. Traditionalism was formed as a major rebuke to the Jazz Fusion that preceded the stage. The following are the key figures in each of the types of jazz in the last 2 decades of the 20th century.

  • Traditionalism – Wynton Marsalis, “Blood on The Fields”
  • Smooth Jazz – Grover Washington, Jr, “Just The Two Of Us”
  • Acid Jazz – Roy Ayers, “Everybody Loves the Sunshine”
  • Nu Jazz – St. Germain, “Rose Rouge”
  • Jazz Rap – Gang Starr, “Royalty”
  • Jazzcore – John Zorn, “Spy Vs. Spy”
  • Punk Jazz – Lydia Lunch, “Queen of Siam”
  • M-Base – Steve Coleman, “Black Hole”


Modern-Age Jazz: 2000s to the Present

Contemporary jazz is now very difficult to define. It is impossible to identify a very distinctive solid style of play. Most musicians of contemporary jazz employ a variety of jazz subgenres to suit their needs. They can combine avant-garde, swing, modal, and bebop, as well as the other subgenres of jazz.

What is clear about contemporary jazz is that there is an extensive use of very odd time signatures. They also love mixing or blending jazz with other music genres. There are also contemporary jazz artists who are not afraid to experiment with the design of the sounds that they create. They can even add new textures to their compositions using synthesizers.

The “Pipeline” of Bill Frisell is one of most popular contemporary jazz pieces. As you get to the 3-minute mark, you will notice Frisell’s excellent use of effects and timbres. Bill is not only playing changes. He is painting a marvelous sonic landscape.

Chris Potter’s “Open Minds”, Jason Moran’s “Earth Song”, and the “These Are The Vistas” of The Bad Plus are also great jazz pieces of the contemporary times.

We could write several volumes of books discussing the history of jazz in greater detail and there will still be some elements of the music that many of us will fail to appreciate.

Suffice it to say, this abbreviated history of one of the most popular music forms in the world should be enough to generate a genuine interest in you to learn more.

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