by Jazz Editor Mark Sanderlin
Given its status as the only art form to have truly originated in the U.S., it’s no surprise that jazz occupies a unique place in the landscape of American music. It is as diverse a genre as the United States is a country. Disparate elements from late-19th century classical tonality and Negro spirituals merged at jazz’s genesis, and over the last century, the genre has morphed countless times, as both a source and a reflection of the broad scope of popular and serious music.
Around the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans became a breeding ground for a brand new sound emanating from marching bands and dance halls. Black musicians transformed the traditional Negro spiritual ethos into the syncopated ‘swing’ beats that defined what came to be known as Dixieland. From New Orleans, Dixieland made its way north to hotbeds of new music like Chicago, Kansas City and eventually, New York City. Along the way, that syncopated sound was transformed into something that closely resembles our modern definition of jazz, and moving into the 1920s, became the dominant force in American music.
The 1920s and 30s marked the height of jazz’s popular appeal, with big band leaders like Count Basie and Duke Ellington traveling across the country with their danceable sounds. The 1940s gave way to bebop with its dedication to elevating the form to level of ‘serious’ music with more complex harmonies and virtuosic players like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.
Bebop gave way to hard bop in the early 1950s, which infused bebop with more gospel and blues sounds. With the advent of rock & roll in the late 1950s, jazz was pushed to the side. It was out on the edge of culture where the cliche of the avant-garde ensemble in a smoky club was born. Artists like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Miles Davis pushed the boundaries of tonality and improvisation while the rest of the world pushed the boundaries of cultural norms and social activism.
Ever evolving with the culture surrounding it, jazz survived through the 1960s, 70s and 80s by fusing elements of rock & pop with the improvisational structures of jazz (hence the terms ‘jazz rock’ or ‘fusion’). Along the way, the genre also picked up a variety of influences from Latin traditions and other ‘world music’, which helped bring jazz to the far reaches of the globe and solidified its reputation as ‘America’s music’.
Today, there are often misconceptions about what jazz is. It is often thought of as merely background music in elevators; cerebral, inaccessible atonal noise; or even as veritable museum pieces lifted from a different time and place. We encourage you to take a brief glance at the sheer volume of jazz listings here at ArtsAmerica to see that none of those is (entirely) true. Jazz is still a vibrant and ever-evolving art form in the United States and there are often scores of opportunities to see and hear jazz of all kinds in every major city across the country on any given night, and often, for quite a bit less than the price of a movie ticket. The chance to see live jazz is an opportunity to take part in a grand American tradition and perhaps, to catch a glimpse into the future of American music.
Top 10 American Jazz Cities
Top Jazz Festivals
Chicago Jazz Festival
Newport Jazz Festival
Blue Note Jazz Fest
Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Festival
Burlington Discover Jazz Festival
Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Monterey Jazz Festival
San Jose Jazz Summerfest
Books — Moving to Higher Ground—How Jazz Can Change Your Life by Wynton Marsalis is a joy to read, especially when complemented with the more informational History of Jazz by Ted Gioia or What Jazz Is: An Insider’s Guide to Understanding and Listening to Jazz by Jonny King.
Autobiography fans should check out Miles (Miles Davis), Music is My Mistress by Duke Ellington or, for a more colorful read, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday & William Dufty. Biography fans might want to read Coltrane—The Story of a Sound by Ben Ratliff, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn by David Hajdu or Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings by Peter Pettinger.
DVDs — Jazz–A Film by Ken Burns is 19 hours long and spends too much time on Armstrong and Ellington and too little time on more modern artists, but it’s still the most enjoyable way to learn about jazz. Also check out the new Jazz Icons box sets featuring live performances of the greats.
Websites — All About Jazz is just that—news, reviews, background stories and forums. DownBeat magazine’s website is another good choice. Jazz At Lincoln Center also has an extensive archive of concerts, interviews and master classes in its Online Education section that provide the public with an invaluable resource for learning about the history of jazz as well as what’s new and exciting in the genre.