Jazz in the USA

Who I am
Joel Fulleda

wikipedia.org, lonelyplanet.com

Author and references


  • What is jazz
  • History 
  • Jazz today


 This “short” history of Jazz has neither the claim nor the purpose of constituting an analytical and complete document of this topic, which would deserve a completely different space and many reflections. More simply, with the following treatment, we want to offer an overall and general framework on the history and evolution of this music; it is in fact indispensable and necessary to know the roots of jazz, which cannot be ignored to understand (but also to appreciate) in depth, and not only superficially, this great and surprising musical genre.

What is jazz

 Il Jazz is a genre of Afro-American music, originally performed only with wind instruments and drums, born in the early twentieth century in the United States: it is characterized by syncopated phrasing, instrumental polyrhythm, mostly solo improvisation on the theme or motif, and from the rhythmic impulse (swing).

In general it is used to indicate the fundamental time of jazz in an even time, of 4/4, but no rule has ever been applied in the performances, which, using the inventive flair of the moment, then determined the different styles of jazz: that of the brilliant improvisations of Louis Armstrong, of the elaborate and refined compositions by Duke Ellington, or the chaotic one of marching bands and single ensembles, often made up of a few instrumentalists.

On the origin of the term, scholars found themselves in conflict:

  • jazz could derive from the name of a black musician, Jazzbo, protagonist of the first events of this kind;
  • from the French jaser (to stammer), from the American pronunciation of the name Charles, gradually reduced to chazuh and then in jazz;
  • from razz band (colored musical ensemble) or, hypothesis not without foundation, from a monosyllable of an African language, the Kikongo, with a sexual meaning (ejaculation).

“Jazz is not about flat fives or sharp nines, or metric subdivisions, or substitute chord
changes, Jazz is about feeling, communication, honesty, and soul. Jazz is not supposed
to boggle the mind. Jazz is meant to enrichthe spirit. Jazz can create jubilance. Jazz
can induce melancholy. Jazz can energize. Jazz can soothe. Jazz can make you shake
your head, clap your hands, and stomp your feet. Jazz can render you spellbound
and hypnotized. Jazz can be soft or hard, heavy or light, cool or hot, bright or dark.
Jazz is for your heart. Jazz moves you.”

Joshua Redman (from “MoodSwing”- 1994).


The black slave trade in America began in the 1500s. Bought in West Africa from indigenous merchants, blacks brought a rich variety of music, dances, instruments, vocabulary, rituals and traditions to the New World. In the Catholic colonies (French, Spanish, Portuguese) these African heritage, tolerated, survived almost intact; at the same time the crossing between black and white music gave birth to new genres. The English colonies (which later became United States of America), Protestants, were more repressive. In the years of slavery (1619-1865) blacks were forbidden to play their own music. Many learned white music, only in the countryside did African traditions survive, transformed into folk songs in English. Only towards the 1830 whites discovered black music: the minstrel show, ambiguous spectacle in which whites wearing black make-up rattled off skits, songs and dances in a grotesque way: a first, slight black influence thus crept into the white music. Famous became the "black" songs of Stephen Collins Foster. The only composer educated to be inspired by blacks was Louis M. Gottschalk, whose pages contain vivid announcements of jazz. After the emancipation (1865) black music exploded: black artists burst into the minstrel show giving it a new lymph, black chorals spread out in cultured transcriptions of spirituals, and black composers and concert performers were born (James Postlewaite, Blind Tom, Blind Boone, John Douglass).

A very fruitful form crystallized in folklore: the blues. But the racist reaction drove all the blacks back into the ghetto, not considered free artists, but jesters of the white man. Their music was thus able to circulate only in taverns, brothels, or in "minor" areas, such as the band. Around 1895 the fusion of cultured and popular black music generated in Saint-Louis the ragtime. The New Orleans, a further cross produced jazz, which was originally ragtime for a band with improvised embellishments.
It is therefore New Orleans to be the undisputed homeland of jazz. This city is located in Louisiana, a region where temperatures are high and the humidity in the air is felt, naturally leading to a kind of complacent indolence. Not for nothing New Orleans has one of the most beautiful nicknames, The Big Easy, which, daring a translation, can sound in Spanish just like “the easy city”, or “the great relaxed one”, unlike the metropolises of the North, active to the point of frenzy, but often closed.

even the Mississippi (the "Great Father of Waters", to be in the Indian definitions), which flows here to throw itself into the Gulf of Mexico, arrives almost "tired" after traveling thousands of miles, gets lost in dozens of loops, even forms a lake, crosses an area of ​​great swamps, and finally, but only when he can no longer avoid it, ends his journey at sea. As for the effervescence, or if we want a certain bizarre, a congenital "atypical" of Louisiana compared to the rest of North America, it is found above all in the production mixing of races that have always distinguished this area of ​​America; and it is precisely with the arrival of the blacks, through slavery, that that touch of "Africa" ​​arrives that is still breathed in the air.

 New Orleans in the early 1900s had already consecrated several "King of jazz”: People like the legendary Charles Buddy Bolden, Bunk Johnson and, above all, the trumpet player Joseph “King” Oliver (it is he who discovered and launched Armstrong). However, the first jazz record (1917) was recorded by chance by a quintet of whites, l’Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the value of which is still debated. Since 1923 the jazz discography becomes richer, and shows us the expansion of jazz in Chicago, New York, Kansas City; while New Orleans, abandoned by its heroes, becomes impoverished.

Frenchmen Street, New Orleans.

This is the classic period of jazz. With Louis Armstrong (trumpet player, whose daring solos and raucous singing made him the idol of black audiences and musicians) and sidney bechet, New Orleans jazz reaches its climax and dies, transforming itself into a new, more solo and aggressive style. With Bessie smith blues singing is combined with jazz soloism, while with James P. Johnson ed Earl hines the jazz piano touches the top of concertism; with Fletcher Henderson e Duke Ellington the language of the jazz orchestra is outlined. TO Kansas City a more rhythmic and articulated style develops (Bennie Moten). Whites find this music thrilling, but they don't understand it: it's just a new dance genre for them. They are raving about the clumsy “rhythm-symphonic” orchestras: especially for Paul Whiteman which, commissioning a George Gershwin while it is splendid Rhapsody in Blue, spreads colossal misconceptions about jazz. The major white soloist of the period is Bix Beiderbecke, introverted poet of the cornet.

The revival of jazz

The 1929 Crisis swept everything away, but jazz survives, almost secretly: during the Depression (1930-34) emerges Duke Ellington (he was the one who elevated jazz to the rank of "serious music", whose daring compositions, which far exceeded the scarce three minutes allowed by the old seventy-eight rounds, his suites articulated in different movements and, finally, his sacred concerts, written in the autumn of his existence, had invariably aroused strong criticism before being accepted and valued for their value), the greatest jazz composer.

The economic recovery opens the door to the revival of jazz, now called swing, included in the decade 1935-1945 (rhythmic rocking effect that causes the audience to stamp their foot, snap their fingers or swing in time; in jazz it became a desired effect and artfully intensified: accentuating the weak tempos of the bar, making the rhythm scan more fluid and smooth, just dilating the duration of some notes to the detriment of the others and pronouncing them idiomatically). On the wave of the success of the white Benny Goodman, jazz conquers world audiences, in a danceable, often insipid, orchestral form. The swing, however, also sees the flowering of great black improvisers (Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Lester young, Charlie christian) and a lonely European genius, Django Reinhardt (Gypsy jazz guitarist and composer, who developed a flamboyant, skilful style on the guitar, in which jazz improvisation blended naturally with Gypsy, Spanish, Hungarian and Balkan moods).

The bepop replaces the swing

Finally reduced to a mechanical dance gear, the swing is buried by the bebop, a decidedly black, harsh, rebellious and tumultuous style, created by great soloists like Charlie Parker (saxophone), Dizzie Gillespie (whirlwind), Bud powell (piano) e Thelonious Monk (piano) and others. Bebop, a capricious, catchy style, of enormous playing difficulty, based on intricate rhythms, daring harmonies, tortuous melodies, or sung on grotesque scat spielings, immediately became connoted as a rebellious, protestatory music, understood by a few initiates; the musicians themselves underlined it by assuming mysterious and ironic ways. Bebop was attacked from many sides, but it was also hailed as a turning point in jazz, which thus freed itself from any misunderstanding of the dominant taste of the white bourgeoisie. It also marked the affirmation among blacks of a clearer awareness of their own dignity and cultural strength. The aforementioned heads of bebop are among the greatest musicians of the 20th century: their art expresses with unmatched depth the restlessness of modern man in the years of the atomic nightmare. In its pure form it flourishes for a few years (1945-1950), but is then found at the basis of all the following styles.

With bebop, jazz becomes pure listening music and loses much of its audience, which turns to traditional jazz, or to melodic singers (Frank Sinatra), o al rhythm and blues (genre of popular Afro-American music, city, with a marked, motor and danceable rhythm, sung with blues inflections and with the use of tenor sax, electric guitar, organ Hammond). In these intense years, whiter and more intellectual variants stand out from bebop: for example the diaphanous cool jazz di Lennie Tristan(piano) and of Miles Davis (trumpet), and the progressive (Stan Kenton) indicates a white variant of bebop: it has a precedent in the quiet, flute style of the black tenor sax Lester young, who was the first to propose a jazz not already fiery, but subdued and light; when bebop exploded, some white musicians combined it with Young's lesson, making it more controlled and chamber music; meanwhile Ellington enters the phase of the large suites.

A new crisis

The hostility of the public, the transition from 78 rpm record to long playing and the social climate, poisoned by McCarthyism, throw jazz into a new crisis. To reconcile him with the public (1952) is white Gerry Mulligan (saxophone), whose modern and original but caressing music enters all homes. However, since 1955 the vogue of the rock and roll makes jazz the private passion of an elite of bourgeois lovers. The bebop is transformed into the most square, aggressive and monotone hardbop (Max Roach, Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins); the formula of Mulligan decays into the dull and smooth Californian jazz, the ideal background for Hollywood comedies; the cool is renewed in the precious masterpieces of J, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, sometimes arriving at explicit intersections with modern European music. In this it stands out George Russell, a singular figure of theorist whose Lydian Chromatic Concept lays the foundations for new developments.

Meanwhile, racial resentment is growing, which since 1956 has led to marches, sit-ins and clashes to obtain equality of rights. Blacks become more determined, proud and aware of their cultural roots, and Russell's theory offers them the tool to make jazz less European and more black: modal jazz, practiced in various ways by Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Davis, Roach Bill Evans. The listener accustomed to European harmony is perplexed, and jazz sees its audience vanish, which the easier rock erodes little by little.

The last hit (1959) was given by the saxophonist Ornette Coleman devising the free jazz (took its name from a disc-manifesto by Coleman himself; the latter advocated an improvisation freed from traditional hooks to famous songs and the usual turns of tonal chords, in place of which there were more elastic, often modal structures), in which the references to harmony seem completely suspended and to the listener it appears as a cacophonous chaos.

After 1960 the racial conflict flared up, and with it the music: soon they also approached free jazz Taylor, Dolphy and, lastly, Coltrane, who becomes the charismatic leader of the new generation, that of the furious Archie Shepp e Albert Ayler. But soon the fire goes out: Coltrane dies (1967), the student protest explodes and the rock it is living its golden age, becoming an interpreter of young people's anxiety for rebellion. In 1969, jazz suddenly looks like a fossil. 

Miles Davis, Francesco Barutti.

Miles Davis is the first of the greats to accept the fact, and points the way to jazz-rock, combining the art of improvisation and the harmonic wisdom of jazz with the colors of electric instruments. In Davis's electric group there are young musicians (Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Grossman) who make up some of today's jazz stars. Many modal school musicians and some veterans (Rollins) follow him, but masterpieces are rare: while jazz is an individual art, rock is a mass ritual, in which the individual is shipwrecked and annulled. In the seventies, the free flag was held high above all by theA.A.C.M., a movement from Chicago that proposes a daringly eclectic music, mixes styles and genres, opens up to embrace traditional music from Asia and Africa, gives space to composition (Art Ensemble of Chicago, M. Richard Abrams, Leo Smith, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton). In Europe, up to now a feeble province of American jazz, schools of random improvisation flourish, which at times overflows into theatrical pantomime (Misha Mengelberg, Evan Parker, Trio Ganelin).

But the scene is dominated by historical jazz styles, which audiences have discovered late. Since 1972 bebop and modal jazz become more and more familiar to the mass, often coming to jazz from rock. Great festivals, jazz schools, films about jazz heroes are spreading. As millions of people re-read a century of history, recent developments in jazz appear too advanced. In the retro eighties, even the AACM fades; the artificial dominates fusion (a term that came into use in the Eighties, to indicate a variant of jazz based on rhythms and electric instruments of rock, with an artificial, impersonal and mechanical taste, and easy to take on a young audience), no new styles appear. In any case, in the mid-XNUMXs, there was a renewed interest in jazz.


Among the protagonists of this new flowering are the two brothers Marsalis: the trumpet player Wynton, also acclaimed for his classical music performances, e branford, saxophonist more open to rock suggestions. Even if jazz remains an essentially American product, its international audience has led to the formation of very interesting musicians and schools even outside the United States: in this sense, the experiences of the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and that of the Scandinavian school, from which refined musicians have emerged, such as the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek or the guitarist David Torn. In these years, the development of jazz in Europe was possible thanks also to a series of events such as Festival jazz of Montreux, Switzerland, and above all Umbria Jazz, one of the most important events worldwide. The jazz of the last fifteen years presents a jagged panorama that is very difficult to categorize.

Some musicians, like the guitarist Pat Metheny, pursue an elegant blend of jazz language and consumer music; others, such as the tenor sax Michael Brecker, take up the experience of electronic jazz of the seventies and eighties; still others, like Garbarek, have developed a very lyrical style that blends jazz, Nordic traditions and atmospheres "new age“; finally the pianists Hilton Ruiz e Chico Valdes draw from the heritage of Afro-Latin rhythms. The main difficulty of this musical genre is, today, that of finding, in the wake of the improvisational tradition, an identity made more and more problematic by the changing historical and social conditions of the culture that generated it.

From a specific language of African American blacks, mirror of a culture characterized by otherness (if not by extraneousness) compared to a consolidated social order, jazz has undergone transformations that have profoundly changed its appearance: first of all it has known literacy, with the introduction of written scores, and a growing theoretical elaboration; again the Europeanization and the contribution of the “white” tradition, and finally the contact with cultured music and the pressures of the recording market.

Keith Jarrett, Francesco Barutti.

Jazz today

Today jazz is an international language, open to many influences and full of potential, but also exposed to the suffocating risks of a tradition that has become history. A series of musicians is still in full swing and moving along established and still vital coordinates: this is the case of the pianist Keith Jarrett, one of the most exceptional jazz interpreters of the contemporary music scene, whose versatility is manifested both in the range of instruments played and in the musical genres practiced; we remember the saxophonist Steve Lacy and the pianist Cecil Taylor, which lucidly integrates the energy of African roots, European tradition and contemporary cultured music. For the others, the problem arises of rethinking tradition, drawing from the awareness of the past the reasons for a music of the present. The music of the pianist Cedar Walton is a landmark of a trend, the modern mainstream, aimed at reworking materials and idioms of the historical heritage at the service of a new expressive project. Related to this trend is the phenomenon of the schooling of jazz music, whose language is progressively rationalized, exposed in systematic methods and treatments, and made the object of teaching.

In any case, the “bet” is to always play something different but at the same time recognizable: the elusive mystery of jazz is all here, in the subtle balance between improvisation and unity of style.

Among the rising stars of today's jazz we remember, among others, Brad Mehldau (piano), Esbjorn Svensson (piano), Simon Nabatov (piano), Uri Caine (piano), Joshua Redman (saxophone), Mark turner (saxophone), Roy Hargrove (whirlwind), Regina Carter (violin).

Jazz is letting the light shine, not trying to heighten it - letting it be (Keith Jarrett).

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