What is Jazz?

Jazz is a diverse genre encompassing a huge variety of styles. Of all the genres of popular music, jazz is the most musically complex, and it has a reputation for being hard to follow, especially for people accustomed to more musically straightforward pop music. Jazz was born in dance clubs and now is performed in symphony halls. It was invented by people on the margins of society and is now studied intensively at colleges and universities all over the world.

Jazz was one of the first truly global art forms. It was first played by African Americans in the early 20th century, especially in the city of New Orleans, Louisiana. At that time, New Orleans was a bubbling gumbo of mixed cultures – African, European, Caribbean, and Native American traditions all mingled together in the city where the Mississippi River meets the Atlantic Ocean. So it’s no surprise that New Orleans musicians were inspired to create a unique blend of musical styles. Dixieland jazz is upbeat and eclectic, dominated by brassy sounds and soulful harmonies. It also employs a lot of improvisation, or musicians making up the tune as they go, riffing off each other and coming up with new ideas in the middle of a performance.

Over the next several decades, New Orleans musicians migrated to other parts of the country and soon jazz ideas had spread all over the world. By the 1960s, you could find jazz bands everywhere from Tokyo to Kinshasa, and the humble New Orleans sound had evolved into a dazzling diversity of regional styles.

In the 21st century, jazz is one of the most highly-respected musical art forms, and major music schools today offer degrees in jazz performance just like the traditional degrees in classical music. Because of this trend, a lot of modern jazz is “academic” in its sound – it’s extremely inventive and complex, but no longer appeals to everyday people as much as it once did. This has led to a movement of jazz traditionalists who play a more popular, dance-focused brand of jazz.

Jazz also inspired the development of “smooth jazz,” which is a form of pop music that has some similarities with jazz. Smooth jazz uses many of the same instruments as jazz – saxophones, pianos, double basses, etc. – but musically it’s quite different. Smooth jazz has little or no improvisation and limited poylphony, which are the defining features of jazz. It also has much simpler rhythms. If you listen to the drums in a smooth jazz song, you’ll notice that the beat is very straightforward. Critics find this boring, while fans of smooth jazz find it easier to listen to. But they agree that smooth jazz is musically distinct from “real” jazz.


Musical Features of Jazz

The one musical feature that unites all forms of jazz is an emphasis on free expression. By definition, that can take a lot of forms! Jazz musicians often express themselves by improvising, making spontaneous changes to the melody and creating new musical ideas in conversation with one another. The result is a loose, rollicking sound that rides right along the edge of chaos without ever falling in.

Rhythmically, jazz tends to be heavily syncopated. Syncopation is what you get when the musicians emphasize “off” beats rather than “down” beats. The result is a kind of jumping sound that immediately gets people on their feet dancing. In more modern jazz styles, this syncopation is taken to such an extreme that it might be difficult to find the beat at all! This kind of rhythm isn’t so much designed for dancing – it’s more of a musical adventure, an attempt to explore the outer limits of what jazz can sound like.

Lastly, jazz is often highly polyphonic, meaning it uses many sounds simultaneously – many layers of harmony are built up over a basic melody. In some jazz subgenres, this is accomplished by adding large numbers of musicians, each of whom can carry a slightly different tune (this is known as “Big Band”). In others, it’s accomplished by a few musicians playing a complex arrangement of notes. Think of a piano player using all his fingers at once to build an extremely complex chord while a fast trumpet player bounces around from note to note – these two musicians by themselves can achieve a lot of polyphonic complexity even without a big band. As with the rhythm, jazz polyphony can be taken to extremes in some avant-garde jazz. The melody can become difficult to find under all the layers of dissonant harmony!


Subgenres and Examples


Unnamed street band:

New Orleans Dixieland on Street

Dixieland jazz is the original jazz sound. It’s raucous and lively, with a thumping backbeat and catchy melodies. Because most of the musicians are improvising at the same time, Dixieland jazz can sound chaotic, but that’s where the excitement comes from – shut your ears for just a second, and you might miss some incredible melodic phrase never to be repeated. You never know what’s coming next!

Dixieland is easy to recognize by the frenetic rhythms, but it also uses a very different set of instruments from most other jazz styles. There are many shared instruments – for example, the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone are common to many styles of jazz. But Dixieland bands also use banjos, kazoos, and small portable percussion instruments (in the video, notice how the kazoo player is using her kazoo and paper roll as a percussion instrument). The tuba is also a common player in Dixieland jazz but less common in other subgenres.

Most of the original Dixieland artists are lost to history. Today, bands that play Dixieland are often known as “traditionalist jazz bands,” and many are still active in New Orleans today. But we’ll never know the names of the African American artists who created the sound in the first place.


Fletcher Henderson

Fletcher Henderson - Wrappin' It Up - N.Y.C. 12.09.34

Jazz came into the mainstream in the 1920s and 30s, now called the “Jazz Age.” The popular subgenre in those days was swing music, a smooth, upbeat dancehall style using big bands, heavy emphasis on brass instruments, and usually a piano and drum kit to keep the rhythm and harmony consistent.

With the larger bands of the swing era, it wasn’t possible for each musician to improvise all the time. Instead, lots of swing bands emphasize individual soloists. While most of the band plays a set melody/harmony, one spectacular individual will stand up and play an improvised solo around the melody. As a result, swing jazz has produced some of the great virtuosos of jazz – sublimely talented players like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman.

Important Artists

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Duke Ellington
  • Count Basie
  • Bix Beiderbecke
  • Benny Goodman


Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker- Confirmation

If the word “jazz” makes you think of guys with long hair and sunglasses playing highly dissonant music in underground New York clubs, you’re probably thinking of bebop. If swing was what brought jazz into the mainstream, bebop was the genre that deliberately brought jazz ought of the mainstream. In the 1940s and 1950s, African American musicians started to feel like jazz was becoming too glitzy and cheap, lacking the deep soul and complexity of its roots. They dropped the big bands and started playing in small ensembles, which freed them up to improvise more as the first jazz musicians had done. At the same time, they started pushing out into uncharted musical waters, using a level of dissonance and complexity that swing-era musicians never would have tried. Bebop gained the respect of musicologists and avant-garde artists, but lost the mainstream popularity that swing had enjoyed.

Important Artists

  • Charlie Parker
  • Thelonious Monk
  • Dizzy Gillespie
  • Sonny Rollins