Jazzy History: Louis Armstrong
Instruments | Music Education

History of Jazz

The question with jazz history is where to begin and which artists to include. After all, it is not the easiest subject to condense down into a simple but informative and fun article. There is so much to cover and discuss that a documentary filmmaker like Ken Burns should make a movie about jazz history.

Oh wait, that’s right! Ken Burns already made a 10 part series about jazz for PBS! The next time you are looking to binge-watch a tv show, you can’t go wrong with that PBS documentary on jazz. Especially if you like to dive a little deeper into the aspects of jazz history and music theory that are discussed here. In the meantime, we will do our best to at least touch on the major aspects of jazz history and a few of the musical ideas that make jazz such a unique genre.

The Roots of Jazz

Another difficult aspect of dealing with jazz history is that it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Unfortunately like much of the history involving the USA it is fraught with complications of just how bad people can be to one another.

Some of the best music we all love was born in cultural melting pots of slavery and oppression, not an easy topic to deal with, but the reality of the situation. When anything is described as all American, we can guarantee it has a complicated and cringe-inducing history. Jazz probably couldn’t have happened anywhere else. This mix of cultures, persecution, and even the industrial age led to the perfect storm to create a whole new genre of music.

There are a few different cultural factors that helped lead up to this storm of new music. European music was based on the beat; one and two and three and four and. While Sub-Saharan African rhythms are more focused on the offbeat. This focus on the offbeat could come in a variety of ways, by accentuating the spaces between each beat or mixing various rhythms.

Cross Rhythm and Polyrhythms

This is known as a cross rhythm and is just one of many polyrhythm methods. We can think of our rhythms the same way we think of note intervals. A note has very little musical meaning until another note is played, our ears respond to the intervals, not the notes themselves. That is why intervals sound the same regardless of the key. Rhythms work in a similar fashion and as we begin to mix and layer them, the whole feel and vibe of our music changes.

Polyrhythms are essentially what makes you want to dance and move. Try counting “one and two and three and four and”, it is not exactly a rhythm that makes us feel too groovy. Now try counting “one and a two and a three and a four and a”, notice how it immediately makes us snap, bob our heads, and tap our feet.

This is one reason these Sub-Saharan beats were often banned or feared, wanting to get up and shake your behind was seen as an evil temptation. Regardless of religious attitudes over time this mixing of beats and rhythms luckily prevailed. There are lots of polyrhythms out there and any student of music would be wise to study as many as possible. You can play almost any genre when you master polyrhythms.

Influence of musical Genre’s

By the time the slave trade began much of Africa had also been influenced by Arabian and Islamic traditions and music. All these styles and rhythms were mixed with European music in the new world, in some cases openly and others in secret.

One reason Afro Cuban music seemed to jump ahead of the mainland styles is because the US outlawed drumming by slaves. Thus these traditions were lost in the US but continued in the Caribbean.

A generation after the Civil War these rhythm styles made their way back from Havana to New Orleans. And it was there that it all came together to form an entirely new genre of music. New Orleans is the historic epicenter of many music genres, it was in the perfect geographical location to become a melting pot of cultures.

The First Beats of Jazz

One of the most popular polyrhythms to come out of Sub-Saharan music is the tresillo, this is the most prevalent and fundamental rhythms of African music. Here you can see it is counted as “one a two and,” a triplet pulse pattern over a two pulse.

This, of course, was not the only polyrhythm however it became so popular because it could be adapted to European music. The march was well known to European peoples, and the march at 2/4 time could be easily mixed with rhythms like the tresillo. Remember the more these foreign styles could be molded with European sensibilities the better chance they would have of catching on with the masses.

When the triplet or tresillo is played over a two beat pattern we get the Cuban style known as habanera.  This rhythm fit with European music so well that it became quite popular and many of us know it today for the opera Carmen. The habanera was the first African rhythm to spread in popular use.

Soon the tresillo became so big it was embellished to become another rhythm known as the cinquillo. By playing them one after the other you can see the similarities, yet how they both can give a song a slightly different feel. These two played together are the backbone to a lot of early jazz pieces.

The key to all these rhythm patterns is syncopation, taking the focus away from the beat and putting it on the offbeat. If you noticed in the cinquillo video there are also clave examples. These are also rhythmic patterns, patterns that happen to be the backbone of Afro-Cuban music. And this is where history begins to separate the two styles, the clave patterns for Afro-Cuban jazz and the tresillo and its embellishments for the early American jazz.

Blue Notes

It wasn’t just specific rhythms out of Sub-Saharan Africa that allowed for jazz to be born, the musical notes used had a major influence as well. In Arabic music traditions, one is more likely to find notes that are wavy or have very unstable pitches. These days in western music this is very common so it’s easy to forget that original European music didn’t like certain sounds and notes.

The commonly used African pentatonic scales mixed with the Middle Eastern and Asian pitch changes brought about a unique form of music in America. The chants, work songs, and spirituals of the time had a tendency to lower the third and seventh notes of the scale. This is of course what we now call the blues scale. These blue notes are now so common we see them across the board in music genres, but back then it was a new idea.

One of the first styles of music to mix the syncopation, tresillo patterns, and blue notes was Ragtime. Thus called because it had a “ragged” rhythm that put the focus on the offbeat. It showed the exact purpose of syncopated music; to get people to dance. Ragtime became a national sensation, many homes having ragtime sheet music by the turn of the century. While Blues music has its own separate historical arc it still occasionally collides back with syncopated rhythms to later create rock n roll, R&B, funk, and many other genres.

Swinging with Jazz

Jazz History: If you ain't got that swing.

The rhythms of ragtime could be rather rigid, they were syncopated but not very relaxed. The next step towards jazz was the addition of swing. Even though swing has a specific musical definition, it is not an easy concept to define. Normally when playing a beat in music we keep all the subdivisions the same. When we swing the rhythm, we are slightly changing those subdivisions up, lengthening some and shortening others. In reality, playing swing is not an exact science it is all about the feel.

If you follow the music theory instructions of swing, you will still have to find that right vibe. When a trained musician tells a student that you either get it or you don’t, that is, of course, the last thing one wants to hear. The truth is it is simply not easy to show someone how to swing a rhythm. However, without that swing, we don’t have jazz. As the line goes “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Dixieland Bands

In New Orleans at the start of the 20th century, dance and funeral bands were always found in the Storyville district. These bands, often brass and drums, began to loosen the ragtime rhythm up by swinging the notes. By not being so rigid in playing they were able to put more emotion and improvisation in the music.

These Dixieland musicians mixed the 12 tone European scale with syncopation, tresillo, blue notes, and swing to create a whole new style known as jazz. Well at least once this style began to move around the country was it referred to as jazz. A couple of well-known names to come out of these New Orleans bands were Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong.

Early Years of Jazz

If you listen to “New Orleans Blues” by Jelly Roll Morton you will hear his left hand playing a tresillo and his right a variation of the cinquillo. He played both ragtime and jazz and was a leading innovator in the switch.

Louis Armstrong started in New Orleans but found fame in Chicago. It was in Chicago where we first find the word jazz being used. However, all across the country, it was developing in places like St. Louis, Kansas City, NYC, and Baltimore. They all played this basic New Orleans style which became known as “hot jazz” and became the predominant definition of the style. Hot jazz is now known as traditional jazz or Dixieland. As jazz began to form into what we know it as now a couple of major events occurred that weren’t exactly musical.

Ragtime: It’s the devils music

Jazz History: Ragtime

During 1910-1920 ragtime relaxed further into jazz and the music was spread far and wide thanks to vaudeville shows and sheet music. However, it still had a reputation as being the devil’s music and was still more likely to be heard at bars and brothels.

In 1920 the US declared alcohol to be illegal and all this did was cement jazz as the embodiment of the prohibition era. Underground bars and speakeasies became more popular than ever and if one was going to break the rules of society, why not also listen to jazz! It was fun, taboo, and of course, made you want to dance, and strong homemade or smuggled booze only added to that feeling.

It wasn’t just a society turned on its head that helped make jazz big, technology was also a huge factor. Finally, the ability to record music and get it to the masses was an affordable and easy process. Out of nowhere we could suddenly own and share music without having the band already there playing.

Yes, recording technology had been around for a while, but it was finally accessible to more Americans. This mixture of prohibition and technology helped bring jazz to audiences outside of major cities. Despite having its roots in ancient cultures and their rhythms, jazz had become a purely American idea and innovation.

Jazz Bands Get Bigger

As mentioned, the main point of syncopated beats is to get people to dance, and jazz did its job so well it just kept growing. As the status quo began to accept jazz music, more white jazz musicians and bands were in demand. It might not seem like a major step now but throughout the tumultuous American history, music seems to be one of the major factors that push cultures together rather than apart. As the 20’s and 30’s progressed jazz moved away from small bands relying more on improvisation to larger orchestras that had fully planned pieces and even solos.  

During this time jazz kept its swing but made way for larger and more complicated arrangements. Larger bands with the best talent playing the most danceable music defined the era. This big band swing was popular for so long because that is the music that sold the best. These days jazz isn’t popular, but in the 30’s it was pop music!

After the stock market crash, many recording artists were dropped so only those who stuck to the formula were kept around. That style played by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and many more dominated jazz for much of the thirties and into WWII. It was Duke Ellington who finally started to move from this popular swing jazz back into more complex rhythms that the earlier jazz was known for including.

Post War Jazz

Jazz went from being a mix of musical ideas played by minority cultures to mainstream national success in less than 50 years. As always, when something becomes popular, there are those who will hate it. Before jazz hit it big in the 20’s there was more innovation with potential musical ideas.

Once the public and recording industry got wind of it, well they stuck to a big swinging formula. After the war, this big swing died down and jazz became more about innovation and new techniques. It followed the same formula as a lot of music. It’s new and only the hep crowd is in the know, then it gets big and all the masses love it, and then it falls back to its roots were only a select group is into it.

Intro to Bebop Jazz

This new form of jazz was called Bebop, and was meant for listening, not for dancing. Bebop became known for complicated and altered chords, odd and irregular meters, improvisation, and dissonance. In modern times people often joke that jazz is all about “playing the wrong notes.” It is humorous but more a definition of later Bebop jazz. During this period jazz developed its reputation for being a genre for musicians.

Many saw this as the ultimate goal of jazz. Music that is not hindered by specific rules that many other genres religiously adhere to, but instead able to branch out into new territories. This also was the period of the Beat generation who took this freestyle jazz and incorporated it into their poems and books. For them, rock n roll was mass-produced garbage, they preferred the freedom and individuality of bebop jazz.

Dwindling popularity of Jazz

Jazz History: Dizzy Gillespie
Jazz Musician Dizzy Gillespie

Jazz may have lost its status as popular music after the war, but most fans of jazz would likely say the 50’s and 60’s created some of the best jazz around. The most well-known artists of this period being Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach. In the world of vinyl record collecting, it is this era of jazz artists that are sought after the most.

Unfortunately not as many recordings exist of the first jazz artists, but the 1940s-1970s produced a huge amount of recorded jazz. For the modern listener, this means there is always some “new” music waiting to be discovered from that era.

Modern Jazz

The longer we travel down the timeline of a musical genre the harder it gets to define it. It eventually mixes, matches, and morphs with new genres and new technologies, leaving few distinct differences. After the heyday of jazz, it landed comfortably in the position that it still rests in today. It is a genre that is most popular with musicians and those in the know.

Let’s face it the modern lover of jazz tends to have a better understanding of music history and theory. Like classical music lovers they know more than just WHAT songs they like, they know WHY they like those particular songs. They are often not impressed with normal pop music structure and seem to prefer more improvisation. Playing a strange and foreign note sounds better to some rather than playing a tried and true interval.

However, that is more Bebop style jazz that most interpret in that fashion. Older jazz and swing are a lot more structured just like pop music. That is one reason why swing music makes regular comebacks, the masses love it. It was popular in the late 90s and now it is back again in the form of electronic dance music and swing. T

he fact is that over the past 100 years jazz has branched out so much it has fused with every other musical style. Maybe you don’t like bebop style jazz, but there is no doubt some aspect of jazz is in the current music you listen to. Here is an example of one of the first songs in jazz. About 20 years later we have this song. And approximately another 20 years later, we have this song! Those are unique styles of music for what should all be the same genre!


Jazz didn’t just bring about more genres of jazz. When we think about modern jazz, we think fusion, experimental, rock-jazz, but there is way more to it than that! Jazz helped bring about rock n roll, funk, soul, R&B, garage, ska, punk…. Almost every modern genre of music can trace some of its roots back to Sub-Saharan African beats and the blue notes that created jazz. It was this syncopation in a variety of rhythms along with flattened notes, that keeps us coming back again and again to the music we love.

We mentioned in the beginning how hard it is to write even a brief history of jazz. It encompasses so many cultures, periods, and innovators that even a 10 part PBS series doesn’t do it justice! So don’t stop here, there is plenty more to learn about jazz. You may find that with so many sub-genres you have liked it this whole time without knowing!

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