Then & Now: Jazz

We’ve covered such an incredible range of music in the “Then & Now” series: Everything from punk and electronica to modern classical and funk (though ideally, not all of them playing at the same time). Together, the articles are designed to present an overview of the ways in which musical genres develop, change, splinter and recombine over time.

But there’s a subtext to many of these stories. While music may be the world’s common tongue, many of the genres we discuss—like hip hop and soul—could only have come from the United States. They took root in the unusually fertile soil of 20th-century America only to find resonance and eager fans all across the world. And of all these genres, there may be none more quintessentially American than today’s topic: Jazz.

Complex, propulsive, swinging and morose and hot, jazz is an impossibly broad river running through the American musical landscape. When it first exploded onto the worldwide stage roughly a century ago, many hailed it as America’s first great cultural contribution, its own “classical music.”

That’s no stretch. If its cousin the blues would always be relegated to the status of “simple” and “unrefined” folk music, jazz quickly developed an expansive and fully realized written vernacular, which makes it something of an oddity in the musical world. If jazz was written in standard musical notation, preserved and edited and propagated just like classical music, it also leaned heavily on—even demanded—improvisation, free expression and spur-of-the-moment inspiration.

It’s a unique and singular contradiction, and it’s a key reason that jazz, even if it no longer occupies the place of primacy it did in 20th-century music, is still one of the world’s great musical genres.

The Big Bang: New Orleans at the Turn of the (20th) Century

It’s not always we can pin a major art form on a specific time and place. But if jazz draws upon several major threads for inspiration—the aforementioned blues, the syncopated rhythms of late 19th-century ragtime, and the ritual underpinnings of the West African genres that informed jazz’s African-American pioneers—it all came together more or less at once: In the city of New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century.

If jazz is an anomaly among musical genres, then New Orleans is surely an anomaly among American cities. Blending elements of French Cajun, West African, Caribbean and deep Southern cultures, it’s simultaneously the most and least American city there is.

Not only is there a specific time and place jazz sprang up; there may be a specific person from which it sprang. As we discussed in the “Then & Now: Funk” article, the cornetist Buddy Bolden led what was perhaps the city’s preeminent musical ensemble, playing what probably sounded very much like raucous, blues-inflected proto-jazz. We can’t say for sure, as Bolden never saw the inside of a recording studio. Tragically, he never received his fair due; the last decades of his life would find him institutionalized. Needless to say, we’re keenly anticipating the imminent release of Bolden, a biopic featuring music by Wynton Marsalis, perhaps the most recognizable jazz musician currently active.

Jazz had the good fortune to coalesce around a couple of historic moments. For one, the nascent recording industry was growing in leaps and bound in the early 20th century, and jazz was primed to take advantage. In a sadly familiar story, the first jazz recording, 1917’s “Livery Stable Blues,” was made by the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band, who largely played material written and popularized by African-American artists.

Then, in 1921, after the Victor company’s patents on disc technology were successfully challenged in court, a flood of independent labels began to release an increasing number jazz recordings.

What’s more, the rest of the world was ready for the joyous, liberating sounds of early jazz. Several million American servicemen had gone to France in the closing year of World War I, and they brought with them the newest and hottest jazz recordings. Now, the war over, Western Europe was ready for a breath of fresh air, musically speaking. In an era when much of the United States was still racially segregated, many early jazz musicians—including Louis Armstrong, perhaps the most influential jazz musician of all—found a rabid and welcoming fanbase abroad.

Louis Armstrong—known variously as Satchmo, Satch, and Pops—deserves special mention here. In a career spanning from the 1920s to the 1960s, his name, his broad and often smiling face, and his rich and distinctive voice became synonymous with jazz. But it was his trumpet and cornet playing that brought him his initial fame, and it’s here that he added most to the language of jazz.

In Armstrong’s hands, jazz changed from an ensemble-led genre to one dependent upon soloists. His style was intensely rhythmic and swinging, relying on syncopation, slurring and accents to give his playing a uniquely sophisticated, nuanced and almost conversational character. Even if jazz itself would change radically through the decades, everyone who followed Armstrong—whether they consciously followed or shunned his lead—owed at least something to this titan of the genre.

Mid-Century: Jazz Moves to the Top, Then to the Side

Making its way through Harlem dance halls, Kansas City speakeasies and Paris cafés, jazz seemed unstoppable; many historians still call the 1920s - 30s the Jazz Age. By the end of the 30s, swing—a style of jazz designed to be made danceable with a characteristic emphasis on the off-beat—had become America’s dominant popular musical genre, in the process morphing and blending with seemingly disparate genres like country.

But with the turn of the 1940s, this began to change. Spurred by the harmonic and compositional sophistication of figures like Duke Ellington—a musician whose best work both defines and transcends “jazz”—and the challenges wartime conscription presented to the preeminent big bands of the day, the genre was moving from being a hugely popular dance music format into something more rarefied and heady.

The 1940s would see the birth of bebop—characterized by a wider melodic and harmonic palette, faster tempos, and overall a growing musical complexity—and its stylistic counterweight, the so-called cool jazz characterized by slower tempos, lighter and less intense arrangements that owed as much to classical music as to swing.

But perhaps more impactfully, jazz musicians were beginning to reimagine their cultural role. If earlier figures like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were perceived merely to be polite entertainers, the new generation of artists—many of them African-Americans shut out by the United States’ obstinately entrenched institutional racism—was increasingly interested in challenging rather than upholding cultural norms.

The 60s: Splintering, Reforming, and Going Underground  

Jazz would continue to change and complexify in the ensuing two decades. For many Americans of the Baby Boomer generation, this period remains the genre’s artistic peak, seeing the rise of such icons as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Ornette Coleman.

But jazz artists had paid a price for disrupting the status quo with increasingly esoteric, complex and challenging music. If jazz had become the music of the cultured classes, of academics and the intelligentsia, it was on the wane as a dominant commercial force. Rock and roll was ascendant now, and jazz would increasingly be relegated to smaller and smaller shares of the public’s attention.

This was despite the efforts of fusion pioneers such as Larry Coryell, Chick Corea and Miles Davis, who attempted to infuse jazz with rock’s propulsive power. The blend left many unimpressed, with jazz organist Jimmy Smith declaring “Fusion is confusion.” By the dawn of the 1970s, jazz was by and large another “genre” music, preserved in treasured institutions such as the Newport and New Orleans jazz festivals, but increasingly hard to find in the wild.


Of course, this wouldn’t be a “Then & Now” article without the “now.” If it’s safe to say jazz will never again be a true “youth genre,” as it was during the first half of the 20th century, it’s hardly dead and gone.

For one thing, jazz—like many other originally American genres—is alive and well abroad, in Europe, Asia and Africa, where it often takes on fascinating native inflections.

For another, if more or less “pure” jazz disappeared from the charts, its influence had already permeated much of popular music. You can hear it in the work of experimental rock bands such as Radiohead—who’ve had many of their songs covered in jazz idioms—and Prince, who was hungrily absorbing the influence of Miles Davis around the time he was touring his epochal Purple Rain.

And just as with ‘60s-style soul and funk, jazz is constantly being refreshed by new cohorts of young admirers and firebrands. Some are eager to honor its history, while others are determined to subvert its flow and alter its DNA. Neither are “wrong”; by adding their voices to the story of jazz, they’re ensuring that this most individualistic of musical genres will continue to live, to flourish and to grow into the future.

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Access what you’re due.