Jazz – The history of a lifestyle

What we play is life”

is a famous quote of jazz legend Louis Armstrong and says, that this music is more than just a simple genre, it’s a lifestyle. Freedom, detachment of norms, fun and spontaneity are thereby the key elements. The rhythm is sometimes very frisky and totally different from classical genres. That’s why many jazz musicians say, you have to feel it to be able to play it. However how did this style of music, which shaped almost the whole 20th century, even develop? Where does it come from and why are there nowadays still people who claim to “life” this music?

It all started with the marching bands in the USA in the second part of the 19th century. These very popular street and festival bands where the first to mix different genres, like Blues and even afro American gospel with classical European music. Hence the so called “archaic jazz” arose, which was still very unmelodic and chained to scores especially in the beginning. Another precursor of jazz music was the around 1890 invented Ragtime. Characteristic thereby is, that the left hand in the piano part plays the rhythm and bass and the right hand is responsible for the melody. Because of the syncopal melody (on two and four) everything became a lighter and got a more swing like feeling. A worldwide famous piece is for example Scott Joplin’s “The entertainer”.

Whether or not Jazz has a forefather isn’t clear, but it was probably mainly Buddy Bolden, who shaped the first Jazz Scene, the so called “New Orleans Jazz” since 1900. However soon the new music form spread across different big cities in the US, which led to the development of new styles, like the Dixieland Jazz around 1910 and the Chicago Jazz in the 20s. At first melody and harmonics became smoother and rounder and later with interprets, like Louis Armstrong and his band Big Five, solo improvisations began to supersede the general improvisations of the group. Trumpets and Saxophones rose in popularity and since 1928 in Germany Jazz music was also taught in conservatories. Around this time the famous “Swing” (30s till mid 40s), an advancement of the “Chicago Jazz”, was invented. Because of the radio it soon distributed far beyond America and gained worldwide popularity. Reason for this was probably the dancelike character and the free melody, “Rhythm and Blues”. Bigband leaders, for example Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington as well as many other composers and interprets, played this style and shaped a new nightlife. When the demand of “Swing” began to decrease, in the middle of 1940, it was time for a change.

Photo by Konstantin Aal on Unsplash

The following new Jazz forms, like “Bebop”, with its extreme tempo and looseness of melody, “Latin Jazz”, influenced by Cuban music, “Cool Jazz“, mainly of Miles Davis and “Hard Bop”, a mix of Bebop with Blues and Gospel (e.g. drummer Art Blakey), are assigned to the “Modern Jazz” genre. Noticeable thereby is, that pieces, especially in the bebop era with “scat singing”, became more and more difficult. Artists where really challenged and had to deliver enormous performances. That’s why people like the famous singer Ella Fitzgerald were also called “voice acrobats”. However even pieces of the Cool Jazz epoch in the 1950s, with it’s cool and calm style, were still very complex and demanded a lot of skill.

Dave Brubeck – Take Five

In the 60s two different styles of Jazz, the musically fully emancipated “Free Jazz” and the “Soul Jazz”, a fusion with the new “Soul” genre, arose. Further mixes with other kinds of music, like Pop, Rock or Blues where made in the “Fusion Jazz” era between 1966 and 1980. Finally the development was exhausted and even though composers tried to fuse more music genres with jazz and regress old ones, the focus of the public was on a different kind of music, Rock, Disco Dance, Rap and electronical music.

Nowadays there are several festivals, where you can still hear Jazz music and especially in several bars, some kind of “Cool Jazz” is played in the background, but according to the worldwide charts, the mainstream is a mixture of Rap, electronical music and Pop. Nevertheless, under a more precise observation, many Jazz and especially rhythmic Swing elements can be found in modern music, which create a freer and dance like feeling.

Furthermore this music genre withstood the different big threats of the 20th century, weather the world wars, the financial crisis 1929 or the Cold War. The free, energised form, away from strict norms proved itself and this way you have understand the mentality of Jazz fanatics, which simply “life” it.    

Photo by Philippe Mignot on Unsplash

featured image by Chris Bair on Unsplash


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