Open Your Ears

Out of the rich pain of the blues, the rhythm of the slaves, and the traditional harmonies of Europe was born a unique style of music that was as much Americana as it was African, as complex as a symphony and as popular as any dance tune, permeating society with syncopated rhythms and a beat that made you want to move your feet. What are we talking about? Jazz. We are talking about jazz.

A Complex History

From the days when African slaves – compelled to twist their native scales and rhythms to European instruments – combined church music and chant with their own centuries-old traditions, to the intertwining of Prohibition, drugs, and sex with the first early strains of this new exciting musical style, the history of jazz drips with the cries and struggles of a people seeking to transcend their oppression:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees …

From a regional style to America’s popular music

While jazz developed in several American cities in the early 20th century like New York City and Chicago, many place New Orleans as its birthplace. From a prolific flowering of varied regional styles – including ragtime, blues, barrelhouse, dixieland, tin pan alley, and more – gaining popularity among both black and white audiences and musicians, New Orleans emigré musicians led the way in coalescing a new American popular music.

Heralded by the trumpeting virtuoso Louis Armstrong, many of the groundbreaking early recordings of jazz were from Armstrong and his “Hot Five” all-star players as he made his way from New Orleans to other parts of the US. “Satchmo” continued to develop his musical style throughout the mid-20th century. With a distinct gift for musical expression, a voice that could be recognized on any radio, and a network of talent that included everyone from pianist Earl Hines to “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Armstrong’s influence on the genre helped the style gain popularity beyond the brothels and speakeasies.


Armstrong ushered in the Swing Era of the 1930s and ‘40s, when jazz was America’s pop music.

From Dance Hall to Concert Hall

As r’n’b, rock’n’roll, and country took over the pop scene, Jazz emerged as a high art music. By the mid 20th century, jazz had exploded into several different distinct genres, becoming a worldwide musical phenomenon. From Afro-Cuban jazz to Charlie Parker’s bebop to classic swing and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to cool, free, fusion and acid jazz: jazz stands on its own as a distinct musical style, a uniquely American export, that continues to influence contemporary music.

Breaking Down Jazz

Derived from the Blues, European classical music, African folk music, and other styles, jazz borrows heavily from its historical past. While jazz today varies immensely, there are a few key musical elements that characterize the genre.


True to its roots in the work-chants of the slaves and the blues, many jazz tunes comment on the human condition. Lyrics sometimes center on the difficulties of everyday life, love and romance, or sometimes provide levity in an otherwise depressing world. This first stanza from Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin” is both sad and hopeful, the singer sitting alone saving his love for a woman that may or may not be coming home:

No one to talk with
All by myself
No one to walk with
But I’m happy on the shelf
Ain’t misbehavin’
I’m savin’ my love for you


While many jazz standards today have been written down, with sheet music available for anyone to download, improvisation still plays a key role in jazz music. Improvisation stems from the original African musical traditions, included storytelling through song and creativity in vocal performance. The chants and call-and-response tunes evolved into the blues and eventually jazz. Both vocal and instrumental jazz music encourage improvisation and virtuosity in live performance.


Jazz is known for its syncopated rhythms and its distinct swing rhythms, often playing over a “walking bass line” that simply plays right on the beat. In jazz the eighth note rhythms are often “swung”, and what is written on the page is not exactly what is executed. The emphasis is on beats two and four.


When African scales met European instruments, the blues scales were born. These in turn opened up a Pandora’s box of new chromatic harmonic understandings. While the fundamental harmonic progressions in jazz often lean heavily on permutations of the tonic and dominant chord progressions (I and V), there are unique qualities in jazz music like pentatonics and  “blue notes”, incorporating a myriad of scales and modes, and the use of seventh and ninth chords with altered pitches.

Listen to Jazz Examples

Listen to these classic jazz examples. As you listen to the musical tunes, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I hear the swing rhythm?
  • If there are lyrics, what are they about?
  • Can I hear the walking bass line?
  • Is there any improvisation in this tune?
  • What other musical elements make this tune uniquely jazz?

As an additional exercise, try snapping or clapping along on beats 2 and 4 or tap your toe to the basic bass line. Pick up your instrument and improvise with the song or try some scat singing on vocal syllables.

Cool Jazz

Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Chet Baker, and Anita O’Day were all performers of the slower and subtler “cool jazz” that was popularized in the mid-20th century.

Hard Bop

In response to the “cool” and smooth sound of Miles Davis and other cool jazz musicians, bands like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers borrowed from bebop and created the more energetic Hard Bop jazz.

Musical Theater

Jazz impacted musical theater, and in 1934 George Gershwin produced the opera Porgy and Bess. The impact of this poignant tale with an all African-American cast can be still felt today. Other works like Bernstein’s West Side Story, incorporated jazz elements into the musical score.

Latin Jazz

Beginning with hispanic communities in New York city, Latin jazz took the Caribbean and Latin America by storm. Brazil, Cuba, New York City, the Caribbean – every place felt the rhythm and swing of jazz. Adding in a touch of traditional music, local rhythms, and instruments like the congas and bongos, Latin jazz developed its own flavor.

Pop Permutations

Jazz music had a far-reaching global impact in the 20th century. While the form itself has long since enjoyed its golden age of popularity and now can be found in R&B, hip hop, classical music, and pop music, musicians today like Christina Aguilera and Alicia Keys still spread the joy and energy of jazz music today.


From the backstreets of New Orleans to a truly global art music, many musicians today see jazz as the ultimate combination of musicality, creativity, and virtuosity. Characterized by its flexibility in absorbing any musical influence, jazz in turn has penetrated into almost every popular music on the planet today.

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