And all that Jazz

Immoral, degenerate, daring, transgressive, compassionate—jazz has been called many things in its century of existence. 

If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know“—comes Louis Armstrong’s cryptic reply. Jazz is characterised by its swing and blue notes, call and response, syncopated polyrhythms and improvisation, but listing jazz’s musical traits does little to elucidate its true character.

Louis Armstrong, 1953
Louis Armstrong, 1953

From its beginnings on the street in 1920s New Orleans, to Prohibition speakeasies, to roaring ‘20s Parisian music halls, to the cabarets of Weimar Berlin, jazz was the indiscriminate soundtrack of revolution. And although its spirit of rebellion was cradled on an international bandstand, it remained rooted in its African-American origins.

Throughout history, jazz has played at the frontiers of hatred, and today, its influence can be felt across the gamut of popular music. From RnB to musical theater, jazz’s long arc of influence extends far beyond its grass roots, and remains a vital part of American cultural heritage.

So here’s all some of that jazz.

Duke Ellington's Jazz Orchestra, 1925
Duke Ellington’s Jazz Orchestra, 1925

The Jazz Age, so named by F. Scott Fitzgerald, began with Buddy Bolden and Dixieland “jass” around 1916. This energetic music drew inspiration from creole folk music, ragtime, and marching band tunes, and with the arrival of talented trumpeter Louis Armstrong, it began to make (radio)waves across the country.

Louis Armstrong made a reputation for himself as the first true jazz soloist, setting the score for countless jazz virtuosos after him. Here’s one such worthy successor…

“Blues is feeling. Jazz is feeling and accuracy.”—Wynton Marsalis

Around the same time, in New York, George Gershwin was fusing popular and classical music with foot-tappingly good compositions such as his groovy-before-its-time Rhapsody in Blue (1924), played here by a jazz piano legend…

“Jazz is the spirit of openness.”—Herbie Hancock

The next jazz era to be ushered in was ‘30s Big Band Swing. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and the “King of Swing” Benny Goodman, were notable pioneers of this trend, giving soloists turns at step-out improvisations, backed up by the band. The rhythm section provided an anchoring pulse, whilst the brass and wind had a party on top—think dissonant fanfares, outrageous slurs, and vocal pyrotechnics… Here’s Duke Ellington’s iconic big band number “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing…”

From Harlem’s Cotton Club back to the bright lights of Broadway, Ellington and Gershwin were practically finishing each others’ sentences…

Next up in the Hall of Fame are Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, leading lights in ‘40s and ‘50s jazz that was hotter, cooler, and altogether more Latin in feel…

“Don’t play the saxophone, let it play you.”—Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker, Carneige Hall, New York, 1947

Parker’s saxophone improvisations saw jazz reach new break-neck speeds and melodic complexity, whilst Gillespie’s Afro-Cuban inspired composition proved influential in forging a new energetic style of jazz: bebop. Here’s Jamaican-born jazz pianist Monty Alexander and his band grooving to a strong Caribbean beat, their musical vocabulary rooted in blues and bebop…

“Don’t fear mistakes. There are none”.—Miles Davis

Cool jazz followed in a more laid-back style, fronted by legends such as trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Dave Brubeck of Take 5. By this point, however, jazz was coming to the end of its 35-year reign. Despite various ‘60s renaissances and the advent of free and experimental jazz, associated with the likes of saxophonist John Coltrane and bassist Charles Mingus, its popularity was undercut by a new boy in town: Rock’n’Roll Elvis Presley.

Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock, 1957
Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock, 1957

But the flame of jazz was by no means extinguished. Jazz’s influence is still keenly felt in American culture, where the conversation continues. From Thelonious Monk, to Keith Jarrett, to Wynton Marsalis, plenty of musicians are still nurturing the art form, with classical crossovers (André Previn’s musical A Streetcar Named Desire or Joyce DiDonato’s recent Song Play) more popular, and potent, than ever. 

Leonard Bernstein sets the record straight in this wonderful Omnibus feature: The World of Jazz, as well as incorporating jazz’s equal parts joyful and transgressive spirit into much of his composition. Looking at the orchestration of his iconic West Side Story—the marimbas, trumpets and saxophones—it’s clear that Bernstein was just as enamoured of jazz as he was of Mahler’s symphonies…

So what is jazz? A life force, a conversation, a philosophy, a democracy. And we’ve only just scratched the surface. 

On that note, we’d highly recommend watching the talented young Americans who are keeping the spirit of jazz alive in the 21st-century! NYO Jazz, Sean Jones, and Kurt Elling treat us to a fantastic all-American program of big band standards and jazz classics.


  1. I think you mean “Count Basie” and not “Count Daisy” as appears in your paragraph: “The next jazz era to be ushered in was ‘30s Big Band Swing. Duke Ellington, Count Daisy, and the “King of Swing” Benny Goodman,”

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