If you ask someone here in the states what America has given to the world, you might get some stereotypical answers like democracy or freedom, “Murica Yeah!”. If you ask someone abroad what America has given to the world you might hear someone say that Jazz was a great gift, a genre that started here and spread. This Jazz isn’t the smooth Jazz stuff played in elevators or hotel lobbies so clear that out of your mind right now. Jazz It is the quintessential American sound. It started here specifically in the south around New Orleans in the Black Communities and its history is tied with the origins of African history and culture in this country.
The term jazz came out of the early 1910s. We don’t really know how it got its name but we think it came from a slang term “Jasm” which meant to be energetic. The sound specifically is also hard to define. It involves so much different styles over so long a period of time that Jazz is a broad umbrella term. It is a form of art, in my opinion more so than others on par with classical music arrangements. Jazz also encompases a 100 years of history and sounds that evolved and morphed. Jazz from 100 years ago sounds nothing like it is today.
Jazz didn’t come out of nowhere either, it had inspirations and like I mentioned before it was heavily influenced by the Black Music scene in the 19th and 20th century. Specifically in the 18th century while slavery was still a part of our society slaves would express themselves with music when they could. The style involved a lot of primitive instruments and things found around the plantation like buckets, washboards, maybe drums, maybe flutes or whistles, and especially singing. The lyrics involved a call-and-response patterns or two lines of lyrics sung in response to each other. Another influence was the church and hymns. The harmonies found in spirituals helped influence folk music later on as well as the blues style of music later one.
Another big influence was spanish and caribbean influences. During the time of slavery drums were outlawed because of fear that they had some sort of code in the drum beats. This over the years made any drum music by american slaves lost to time although we think it survived a bit in traditions of stomping and body beating. (basically slapping yourself or stomping the ground for beats). In the Caribbean however they were not. This influences once the slaves were free bled it’s way into the south especially in New Orleans.
Lets forego the distant past though and get to the building blocks of Jazz. It came out in the early 1900s and 1910s from vaudeville and minstrel traditions as well as ragtime. Blues also made a big part of it specifically because it was created in the south from the same african traditions.
What does the Genre sounds like though, this history is all very interesting but what is the Jazz sound? One thing that the different decades of jazz has in common is a focus on improvisation. If you listen to any jazz band live it is like a bunch of friends just jamming with each other. It is fun, it is energetic, its a bunch of instruments mastered and played with, not played, but played with. I love seeing a guy play his solo and seeing other members of the band smirk and laugh at each other like they are sharing an inside joke through their music with each other that the crowd doesn’t get. One of the greatest things I enjoy about Jazz is this aspect. It is just fun.