charlie parker

What Is Jazz? A Beginner’s Guide To The Great American Artform

ed lozano



What do we think of when we think of jazz? How do we define the style? Those are loaded questions and difficult to answer when it comes to jazz music. It is easy to say that jazz has cultural and aesthetic elements attached to it; but, defining the style is not as easy as it seems. Let’s take a simple look at some of the periods that are important when we talk about jazz.

what is jazz music all about

Jazz of the Roaring 20’s

The New Orleans style was at the forefront of this movement and Louis Armstrong and His Hot 5 of the late 1920s (check out “Fireworks” on YouTube) were the ambassadors. However, that style of jazz was more representative of the Chicago sound. So, then what does New Orleans Jazz sound like, exactly? Here’s a great explanation of this style by Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz Academy and I encourage you to watch the video because they do a phenomenal job of explaining and playing the differences.

Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, 1926. Left to right: Louis Armstrong at piano holding trumpet, Johnny St. Cyr with banjo, Johnny Dodds, Kid Ory, Lil Hardin Armstrong. American jazz band.

The Big Band Sound of the 1930s

The 1930s brought with it format changes that included the switch from smaller combos to larger ensembles (or big bands) that focused more on composition and arrangement. Here’s an example of the Big Band Music of the 1930s that I’m talking about.

harry james and band hershey park ballroom 1945

The jazz of the 1920’s had a more improvised approach. This new style of jazz used improvisation but only in certain parts of the song. The composition and arrangement (or the written music) was more prominent.

And, that leads to another question: Does jazz have to be improvised to be jazz?

The Birth of Bop and Birth of Cool

During the late 1950s and early 1960s jazz was continually evolving. There were so many changes going on at the time that the musicians themselves were divided into traditionalists and modernists. Smaller combos were in vogue again and jazz was becoming a style of music that you sat down and listened to rather than danced to.

Bebop was born with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie leading the way and taking the new sound into a direction that was driven by improvisational virtuosity. Take a listen to “Hot House” for an example of bebop.

charlie parker

Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, Miles Davis was experimenting with a new sound. A more laid back sound that wasn’t so harmonically complex.  “So What” is the opening track of the legendary Kind of Blue album that explored the modal side of jazz while launching a movement.

miles davis birth of the cool

Bop vs. Cool

Bebop has a certain way that the musicians play. From the notes that they choose to their rhythmic interpretation. The same should be said about the Cool style. Also, as you compare both recordings, notice the change in the function of the rhythm section; i.e., the high-hat on 2 and 4 or the ride cymbal on all quarter notes, the walking bass, and the modern piano style of accompaniment, etc. Both styles changed the way that jazz was played.

dizzy gillespie teaching be bop

The 1960s and More Change

The musicians of 60s began adding rock, pop and motown styles into jazz creating a fusion of genres. Check out “Bitches Brew” by Miles Davis and see how that changed the face of jazz. In addition, there were other players who were experimenting with more unorthodox structures and song forms. Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders and Charles Mingus were prominent players that contributed to this movement.

charles mingus live

So, What Is Jazz?

I’m not avoiding answering this question. In this very brief overview I’m proposing that the only constant in jazz is change. And, although there are specific formulas that define different styles of music, they would only serve to describe the sub-genres of jazz.

What about today’s music scene where it gets even more complicated? There are so many additional sub-genres: latin jazz, acid jazz, smooth jazz, trad jazz, soul jazz, etc. How do we begin to define those styles and substyles as they relate to jazz?

acid jazz live simplistic scientists

It would be easy to say that jazz is improvised and improvisation is a big part of it. But, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton created pieces that didn’t include any improv. And, that’s the thing with jazz. Just when you think that you’ve got it figured out… jazz does something, unexpected.

Jazz Is…

American music, and American music was created by mixing elements of African-American Folk music of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries with European influences. And, just as American music is constantly evolving, so is jazz.

The big difference between jazz and other kinds of music is that improvisation is a big part of it. When an improviser plays the same song every night, every night that song is different. The same cannot be said of a classical concerto or a pop tune.

Jazz is simply a way to play music. And, that music is ever evolving and ever changing. Also, whatever the future holds for jazz, I’m quite certain that jazz will continue to do what it does best—the unexpected.

Thanks for reading.

Senior editor for Ultimate-Guitar, passionate about good music and quality gear. Bassist. King Crimson fan. Travel enthusiast.
1 comment
  1. Muy buenos artículos!!

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