All products and recordings are chosen independently by our editorial team. This review contains affiliate links and we may receive a commission for purchases made. Please read our affiliates FAQ page to find out more.

What is jazz music?

Destructive or redemptive, degenerate or transformative? Jazz is a phenomenon, a true world music that came of age over a hundred years ago. Here's our guide to the jazz music genre, its origins and pioneers

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Max ROACH and Tommy POTTER and Charlie PARKER; w/ Tommy Potter & Max Roach  (Photo by William Gottlieb/Redferns)

Ever since an outraged Ladies Home Journal demanded, ‘Does Jazz Put The Sin In Syncopation?’, it’s been impossible to feel neutral about jazz. It was written by Anne Shaw Faulkner in 1921 and explained how popular culture was being affected by jazz. Whether you love it or hate it, jazz always seems to provoke strong emotions.

Advertisement

What is jazz music?

Jazz is a genre of music in which melodies are improvised on a particular instrument. It can pinpoint a variety of emotions from sorrow to happiness, achieved by changes in texture, tempo and lyrics.

Certain musical elements are heard in jazz such as ‘call-and-response’, a technique in which one instrument/voice replies to another. Bending notes is another technique used, which often imitates a singer’s voice. These are subtle alterations to the pitch of a note which can momentarily sound out of tune.

For many, jazz is a collaborative art form that centres itself around individual creativity expressed on a musical instrument.

The very first jazz recording was captured by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917 and titled ‘Livery Stable Blues’. By 1919, the group had appeared at Buckingham Palace, and in the thirties, Adi Rosner was leading the State Jazz Orchestra of the Belorussian Republic in Stalin’s Russia.

Today, more than ever, jazz is a global phenomenon.

How did jazz music start?

At the turn of the 20th century, New Orleans was a vibrant port city where musical cultures from around the world would come together. Instruments from across Europe such as the saxophone and trumpet were brought to New Orleans, while rhythms and improvisation came from Africa. This gave a fitting environment for both cultures to integrate into a style which later become known as jazz.

It is not certain how jazz music started as its development began long before it was recorded. A small amount of jazz was written down before 1917, with its sources only vaguely documented. However, statements from people living pre-1917 as well as early recordings suggest the origins of jazz are most likely from various styles of African music, British, French, Irish and Spanish folk music.

Another form of music that heavily influenced jazz was work songs – a folk tune sung by workers that usually matched the rhythm of their labour. Another style of work song is a capstan shanty, sung by men on ships in the middle of the 19th century.

How should I start listening to jazz?

The best albums for jazz beginners

Classic Ragtime
Various artists
RCA 09026 63206 2

Buy from Amazon

The Entertainer: The Very Best of Scott Joplin
Joshua Rifkin (piano)
Nonesuch 7559-79449-2

Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings
CBS 467 246-2

Also buy Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings from Amazon, HMV, WHSmith and OnBuy

Classic James P. Johnson Session (1921-1943)
MD6-262 

Buy from Amazon

How did jazz develop?

Since its beginning jazz has developed many different styles and characteristics over the years. Here we explore some of its key developments, from its early New Orlean days to the post-modern era of the late 20th century.

What are the different styles of jazz music?

New Orleans jazz

With its cosmopolitan culture, New Orleans was a breeding ground for the first jazz stars. At the time, marching bands were a key feature in New Orleans music. Many early jazz musicians, such as Louis Armstrong, played important roles in bands formed for street parades and funerals.

What is New Orleans-style jazz?

New Orleans has always been known for the use of music in its celebrations, with opera, military marching bands and folk music. All these styles could be heard around the city and were eventually brought together into one known as the New Orleans jazz style.

Best New Orleans-style jazz albums

The Definitive by Sidney Bechet
Sony 501 031-2

Louis Armstrong and King Oliver
Milestone MCD 47017-2

Original Dixieland Jazz Band
RCA Bluebird 07863 61098 2

King of the Blues Clarinet 1923-1940
Johnny Dodds
URCD225

Chicago jazz

Although jazz flourished in New Orleans, it was only when these musicians travelled to Chicago that their music was eventually recorded. Generally, there were three prominent categories that Chicago jazz could be separated into.

Firstly, there were black musicians from New Orleans that were continuously performing and recording. The second category was made up of these musicians’ white New Orleans counterparts. A younger group of white musicians born in Chicago who were influenced by these other groups became thought of as the third category. This community of young white musicians modelled themselves on the New Orleans style, though sounding less informal.

Best Chicago jazz albums

Louis Armstrong – The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings
Columbia/Legacy C4K 63527

King Oliver – I’ll Still Be King
ABM MCD 1004

Jelly Roll Morton – Birth of the Hot
RCA Bluebird 07863 66641 2

Jimmy McPartland and Art Hodes – Meet Me in Chicago
MG 20460

New York Jazz

Eventually, musicians from Chicago and New Orleans connected with New York performers, and by the late 1920s, an active scene had developed in New York City.

Bands were expanding to fill the huge halls where young people did the turkey-trot and the Charleston.

Best New York jazz albums

Harlem Jazz: The 20s
Various artists
ABM MCD 1153

Paul Whiteman – Music for Moderns
Naxos Nostalgia 8.120505

Fats Waller – Ain’t Misbehavin’
Giants of Jazz CD 53078

Red Nichols – The Sound of New York, Vol. 4
Rca PM 43179

Swing Era

With the addition of a string bass and swung rhythms, jazz began to swing and become a style of music that could be danced to. This gradual change started in the late 1920s and continued through to the 1940s. The swing era brought with it the creation of the big band, an ensemble comprising ten or more musicians.

Most of the music in the swing era was not improvised and instead written down, but hundreds of jazz improvisers were still employed and a crucial part of the swing scene. Bandleaders such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson became well known through the late 1930s and early 1940s. As big band music developed, more ensembles were being recognised, including the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra and the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band.

The swing era is one of the few periods of history in which jazz attracted widespread popularity.

Best Swing Era jazz albums

The Definitive Benny Goodman
Sony Jazz 501 035-2

The World of Swing
Various artists
Sony Jazz CK 66080

Glenn Miller – The American Band of the AEF
Delta CD 53288

Dizzy Gillespie – Birks Works: The Verve Big-Band Sessions
314 527 900-2

Bebop to Free

With the arrival of a rhythmically and harmonically experimental style, jazz moved out of the dance hall and into the club. The term bebop is derived from a Gillespie tune of the same name. Bebop was seen as a rebellion to the swing era by musicians like Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Bebop musicians would take a standard song and transform it into something almost completely unrecognisable, by adding extra harmony and adjusting the rhythms of the melody.

On the other end of the spectrum came free jazz. Developed in the 1960s by pioneers such as Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, this style of music challenged the boundaries of musical expression. Although the term may suggest otherwise, free jazz is often formulaic in structure with memorised melodies and consistent tempos. It is known as ‘free’ jazz because musicians are allowed to play whatever they want without having to follow any predetermined chord sequences.

Best Bebop and Free Jazz albums

The Definitive Charlie Parker
Verve 314 549 084-2

Ornette Coleman – Free Jazz
Atlantic 8122-72397-2

Miles Davis – The Complete Birth of the Cool
Capital Jazz 494 550-2

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Moanin’
Blue Note BST 84003‎

Jazz Fusion

During the late 1960s, jazz started to combine other musical elements from neighbouring genres including rock, hip-hop, funk and RnB. Jazz fusion blends acoustic and electronic instruments such as synthesizers and electric pianos, which could be regularly heard in progressive rock bands at the time.

Although he is widely credited as a major pioneer of bebop, modal and cool jazz, Miles Davis helped transform jazz fusion into what it is today. By the time he recorded Miles in the Sky, Davis had discovered new textures by adding extensive harmony. He also experimented with different instrumentation by including additional percussion but still encapsulating the essence of improvisation. This led to future musicians following his footsteps, including Herbie Hancock, Weather Report and Chick Corea.

Best Jazz Fusion albums

Miles Davis – Bitches Brew
Columbia VG2K-40577

Herbie Hancock – Head Hunters
CA 32731

Mahavishnu Orchestra – Birds of Fire
Sony Jazz CK 66081

Weather Report – Heavy Weather
Sony Jazz CK 65108

Postmodern Jazz

As jazz music approached the 1990s, there was an emphasis on drawing influences from a wide variety of styles. Although the peak of jazz-rock and jazz fusion came about in the 1970s, technology had advanced, giving musicians like John Abercrombie, John Schofield and Pat Metheny a chance to excel in their musical ambitions.

Suddenly, jazz found itself with a multitude of new listeners as it slowly began to incorporate different styles, in particular progressive rock, to its overall sound.

Best Postmodern jazz albums

John Scofield – Hand Jive
Blue Note ‎– 7243 8 27327 2 3

Joe Lovano – Rush Hour
EMI Blue Note CDP 8 29269

Wynton Marsalis – Live at Blues Alley
Sony Jazz 487 323-2

John Abercrombie – Current Events
ECM 1311

 

10 most famous jazz musicians

  • Duke Ellington (1899-1974)
  • Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) – we named Armstrong one of the best jazz trumpet players ever
  • Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
  • Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
  • Art Blakey (1919-1990)
  • Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
  • Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) – we named Brubeck as one of the best jazz pianists ever
  • Miles Davis (1926-1991)
  • John Coltrane (1926-1967)
  • Herbie Hancock (1940-present)

Words by Thomas Fletcher

Advertisement

Top image credit: Getty Images