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Updated: Dec 10, 2021

Jazz developed in the United States in the very early part of the 20th century. New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, played a key role in this development. The city's population was more diverse than anywhere else in the South, and people of African, French, Caribbean, Italian, German, Mexican, and American Indian, as well as English, descent interacted with one another. African-American musical traditions mixed with others and gradually jazz emerged from a blend of ragtime, marches, blues, and other kinds of music.

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Jazz musicians place a high value on finding their own sound and style, and that means, for example, that trumpeter Miles Davis sounds very different than trumpeter Louis Armstrong (whose sound you can hear in Louis's Music Class.) Jazz musicians like to play their songs in their own distinct styles, and so you might listen to a dozen different jazz recordings of the same song, but each will sound different. The musicians' playing styles make each version different, and so do the improvised solos. Jazz is about making something familiar--a familiar song--into something fresh. And about making something shared--a tune that everyone knows--into somethingpersonal. Those are just some of the reasons that jazz is a great art form, and why some people consider it "America's classical music."


Early 1900s: Music historians trace jazz music to early twentieth century New Orleans, where musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong borrowed heavily from ragtime, blues, and second-line horn sections from parades. Even New Orleans funeral music inspired early jazz musicians. Southern jazz from New Orleans eventually became known as Dixieland jazz.

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1920s and ’30s: Other early jazz capitals included Chicago and Kansas City (where Count Basie based his orchestra for a long period of time), but it was New York City that established jazz as a touchstone of American culture. Big bands led by bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson performed for nightclub audiences. Ellington in particular was famous for his original compositions, which drew from classical music and highlighted soloists within the Ellington Big Band.

1940s and ’50s: In the 1940s, New York musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Art Blakey developed a jazz subgenre called bebop. This style of music involved lightning fast playing, prolific soloing over chord changes, and routine syncopation. Musicians like Ornette Coleman and the Modern Jazz Quartet challenged the harmonic rules of traditional jazz. Coleman, in particular, is credited with creating a genre called free jazz that largely disposed of the song form that guides most jazz standards.

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1960s: Post-bebop (or post-bop) slowed down the tempo and added harmonic sophistication. Musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis cut their teeth in bebop but became better known for their post-bop compositions. Davis developed a genre called cool jazz, which emphasized slower tempos, more minimal textures, and modal playing. Virtuoso saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins were equally skilled in bebop, cool jazz, and even post-tonal improvisations like Coltrane's Ascension album. Meanwhile, musicians like Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul merged jazz with funk and rock to create a new genre known as fusion. Others, like Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, found inspiration in folk music and added that genre to their jazz performances.


Drums: Drums anchor a jazz rhythm section. Usually jazz drummers play a four- or five-piece drum kit. Latin jazz ensembles may include hand percussion or cajon in addition to the drum set. Famous jazz drummers include Art Blakey, Max Roach, and Billy Cobham.

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Bass: Nearly all jazz bands use either a double bass or a bass guitar. Famous jazz bassists include Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, Dave Holland, and Gary Peacock.

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Keyboard: Jazz keyboard (either a piano or a digital keyboard) is a classic part of a jazz combo. Bud Powell, The lconious Monk, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Jason Moran are just a few of the many legendary jazz pianists and keyboard players.

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Guitar: Guitar is second only to keyboard as the most common chordal instrument in a jazz ensemble. Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny, and Mike Stern are among the many well-renowned jazz guitar players.

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Trumpet: From the very early days in New Orleans, jazz bands featured a trumpeter. Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wynton Marsalis are all iconic jazz trumpeters.

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Trombone: Although not quite as flashy as the trumpet, the trombone has been a fixture in jazz big bands and modern ensembles. Robin Eubanks and Turk Murphy are stars of jazz trombone.

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Saxophone: Saxophone's lightning fast capabilities and the relative of ease of playing in tune make it an excellent lead instrument in jazz. Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, and Michael Brecker are among the most renowned saxophonists in jazz history.

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Lead vocals: Compared to other forms of popular music, jazz is less dependent on a lead vocalist. Nonetheless, many jazz vocalists achieved worldwide fame, including Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald.

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