Lesson 8: Jazz

This week All Around This World is going to explore a genre known to many, because of its unique relevance to our times, its substantial depth of purpose and its reliance on a performer’s virtuosity to provide a means of expression, as “America’s classical music”–JAZZ! Jazz is a multifaceted art form that has so many nuances, so many nooks and crannies, so many ways a music fan can possibly get in and enjoy all it has to offer…and yet so many potentially intimidating elements that could keep a music fan out. Sure, jazz can be complicated to the point of seeming nonsensical–like the most abstract of abstract visual art, sometimes you can only ask “why?”–but for the most part jazz is a genre whose success relies substantially on whether or not the performer or his or her band have connected with the audience. Would a Dixieland band be satisfied if audience members weren’t tapping their toes? What kind of big band would a big band be if it couldn’t make everyone in the audience dance?


Is there any more “American” of an American art form than jazz? True, the roots of jazz, like the roots of all forms of music we explore in All Around This World, are global, and there are also many. You have the millennia-old African-American traditions of call and response, of intertwining rhythms, of improvisation in drumming and singing and dance. You have the European “Western Classical” traditions of melody and harmony, of rich musical theory, of a multi-instrumental approach to arranging and performing music. You also have the Latin tradition of syncopation, taking a straightforward rhythm and twisting it until it feels just right.

“Jazz” has its roots in humanity’s past, but it’s a form of musical art that is unique to America and especially to the American 20th century. When “jazz” emerged from that mix and match of global musics toward the beginning of the 20th century, it had so many identifiable flavors in it, but it somehow tasted completely new.

One element of jazz that sets it apart from many other forms of music, especially from the Western classical art music that gives it much of its form, is its reliance on improvisation. Competent jazz musicians should be able to keep up with an arrangement instrumentally and, because the musical theory behind it is sometimes complex, intellectually, but the best jazz musicians rise above the mechanical nature of music to reach a higher plane by improvising as a form of communication with each other and the audience. The best jazz musicians don’t just seem like they’ve practiced enough to know how to perform a song; they sound like they’re sharing their soul.

Maybe that’s why the most dedicated jazz fans refer to their beloved music not just as a musical pursuit but as an an actual higher calling. When a jazz fan says, “Jazz is my religion…” believe it.


As we discussed in another week while we were learning about folk and country, the complicated and very often tense relationship between the races in America made crossing the racial lines difficult for musicians and music fans, yet at the same time, musicians of one race were always just a bit more curious what musicians were doing “on the other side.” We learned then about “minstrel shows,” popular in the 19th century, in which white Americans demonstrated their curiosity about African-American music in a less than flattering way by dressing up like slaves and painting their faces black. Groups like Dan Emmet’s Virginia Minstrels toured the nation imitating African-Americans in a shockingly racist way. [Learn more about the history of minstrel shows.]

On the other hand, not only did many white Americans get their first taste of African-American music through minstrel shows, but they also got their first chance to see African-Americans themselves perform that music. Many minstrel show troupes included African-American performers, also most often with their faces pained black, singing their own songs while imitating elements of their own communities for comic effect. Some African American jazz and blues performers came out of late 19th century minstrelry, like ERNEST HOGAN, who we’ll meet below.

At the same, late 19th century African-American composers were listening not only to the African-American music that was part of their slave or creole heritage–“Negro spirituals,” early church music, energizing “call and response”–but to Western Classical music that was prevalent in “high society.” Some, like pianists SCOTT JOPLIN and “JELLY ROLL” MORTON, also developed a particular affinity for Cuban and other Latin rhythms.

Joplin and Morton payed particular attention to two different but related rhythms:

— the tresillo, which is a three beat rhythmic pattern that’s common in sub-Sarahan African music, and which had become prevalent in the African-Latin music in the Caribbean (meet the tresillo here), and
— the habanera, which was a Cuban enhancement of the tresillo–basically, the tresillo rhythm plus another beat–and also the creolized version of a French “contradanza.” Morton called this “The Spanish Tinge.” (Learn about the habanera here. Listen to a famous habanera, “La Paloma.”)

Ragtime originated from this mix of African-American, Western classical and “Spanish” forms in the late 1800s and early 1900s, primarily in bars in the red light districts of cities such as New Orleans and St. Louis, as a form of upbeat, dance-style piano music. Inspired by jigs and other dances played by African-American bands at the end of the 19th century, ragtime pianists composed syncopated melodies that fused the confident American marches of John Philip Sousa with the energetic polyrhythms of African music. [What is syncopation? What is polyrhythm?]

While popular black minstrel ERNEST HOGAN was the first musician to codify ragtime into sheet music so others could perform it–Hogan’s most popular compositions and performances stereotyped African-American culture in a way that even at the time were considered racist–composer and pianist SCOTT JOPLIN took ragtime from the realm of minstrels and also out of the red light district. His 1899 hit “Maple Leaf Rag” was more musically intricate than any other popular ragtime compositions; his 1902 “The Entertainer” elevated the form to the level of art.

Ragtime became less popular in 1917 when jazz emerged from New Orleans and captured the popular musical imagination, but it never really went away. Ragtime pianists like “JELLY ROLL” MORTON straddled the two worlds for several years, liberally borrowing from ragtime to lay the foundations for his early forays into jazz.

[Learn about the controversial life of Ernest Hogan | Listen to Scott Joplin’s “Solace” | Listen to Jelly Roll Morton perform Fingerbreaker.]


Like Jazz, “the blues” is a musical tradition that developed in the American South in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but has its roots in generations and generations past. Unlike jazz, blues music is based upon relatively straightforward chords and scales that underlie most of its songs, emphasizing less the musical journey than the performers’ deeply felt emotion.

Though we’ll see below how blues sensibilities often intertwined with jazz, we’re going to more fully explore the blues in another week.


By the early 1920s blues and ragtime had fused with the exciting local brass band tradition that had developed in New Orleans become a new form known as “Dixieland” (or sometimes “Hot Jazz.”) Most Dixieland music is instrumental and features basic arrangements of songs that musicians in a group repeat over and over while each instrumentalist takes a turn improvising a solo in turn. Dixieland requires its musicians to be accomplished performers, but it’s far from stodgy and demure. Dixieland is enlivening, playful and FUN.

A Dixieland group might include a banjo, piano, stand-up bass, drums or tuba to keep the bouncy, upbeat tempo going and a clarinet and/or brass instruments like the trumpet, trombone and saxophone to play intertwining melodies. The musicians maintain the structure of the composition but cherish the opportunity to explore.

Dixieland jazz was most popular in the ’20s when musicians like pianist JELLY ROLL MORTON, trombonist “KID” ORY and New Orleans-born trumpet player and band leader LOUIS ARMSTRONG were all actively composing and/or performing, but the music, now often referred to as “traditional jazz” or “trad jazz,” has remained a fixture of the New Orleans jazz scene–and, apparently, of Croatia’s Špancirfest Varaždin–ever since.

[Listen to Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers perform “Hyena Stomp” in 1927 | Watch “Kid” Ory’s band perform “Tiger Rag” in 1959 | Watch Louis Armstrong and his Dixieland band play “Canal Street Blues” in 1962]


The emergence of Dixieland jazz in the 1920s inspired larger bands to form and develop more extensive and standardized arrangements of Dixieland songs. These big bands–which became known, conveniently, as “Big Bands”–were composed of ten or more musicians who sat or stood in rows while they were performing, much more like musicians in Western Classical orchestras than those of the free-flowing Dixieland ensembles.

Because of their numbers the bands often grouped their instrumentalists together, breaking the band into three sections:

BRASS (trumpets, trombones)
REEDS (clarinets, saxophones)
RHYTHM (drums, bass, piano and eventually guitar)

From the mid-’30s on big bands played a kind of music called “swing,” which was bounding, rhythmic and was meant to inspire people to dance…and dance they did!! Even during the darkest days of World War II–maybe because the days were so dark–American youth flocked to nightclubs and danced with wild abandon. In the process they developed steps like the Lindy Hop, which developed in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a big band-era interpretation of the Charleston, which itself was a signature dance of the ’20s. The Lindy Hop is an exuberant partner dance characterized by a “swing out,” during which partners flail outward away from each other and then flail just as enthusiastically back, all the while each holding the other’s hand. The dance is playful and acrobatic, and thrives on improvisation. Check out this contemporary Lindy Hop competition. Holy cow! (Also check out examples of swing dances like the Balboa as performed in the 1943 short film, “Maharaja: With Hal & Betty Takier,” the Collegiate shag and the St. Louis shag.) A side note: though “jitterbug” has come to be accepted as a term that refers to a wide variety of swing dances, technically “jitterbug” is not a form of swing dance, but is actually a term that refers to someone who dances a swing dance–i.e., “that Jay Sand is a real jitterbug!” Band leader Cab Calloway is believed to have coined the term when he described swing dancers by saying, “They look like a bunch of jitterbugs out there on the floor.” That said, if you want to “learn how to jitterbug” you absolutely must watch “Groovie Movie” from 1944.

“The Swing Era” lasted for almost two decades, throughout the ’30s and ’40s, during which thousands of big bands performed all over the United States, featuring America’s best jazz musicians, both white and African-American–though rarely in the same bands. Band leaders like PAUL WHITEMAN, who some revere as “The King of Jazz,” but who others criticize as a Western classical orchestra leader who co-opted African-American music, BENNY GOODMAN and DUKE ELLINGTON developed enthusiastic followings in the U.S. and remained popular internationally through the ’60s.

[Watch Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in an early performance (1928), featuring coronet player Bix Beiderbecke (A link mainly for grownups: Learn the sad story Bix Beiderbecke in “Wake Up Bix“) | Watch Benny Goodman perform “Sing Sing Sing” at Carnegie Hall in 1955 | Watch Duke Ellington and his band live in the Netherlands in 1958]

After World War II big band music became even more popular, giving a war-weary nation the opportunity to enjoy itself through dance. Those who weren’t able to make it to “big city” dance clubs would listen to big band radio broadcasts from ballrooms in New York City like the Savoy and Roseland. Band leaders like TOMMY DORSEY, GLENN MILLER and COUNT BASIE, and vocalists like BILLIE HOLLIDAY, ELLA FITZGERALD and FRANK SINATRA were as popular at the rock stars of today.

[Watch Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra play “Bugle Call Rag” and “Ole Miss” in 1940 | Watch Glenn Miller and his orchestra perform one of their greatest hits, “In the Mood,” in 1941| Watch Count Basie’s band featuring Joe Williams on “The Kraft Music Hall” performing “Blee Blop Blues” and “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” The music starts at 1:39 after the vintage Kraft ad | Watch Billie Holliday and Louis Armstrong perform “The Blues Are Brewin’” | Watch Ella Fitzgerald sing “For Once in My Life” live in Berlin in 1968 | Watch Frank “The Chairman of the Board” Sinatra at the top of his game, performing, “That’s Life.”]

In the ’50s big band fell increasingly out of favor as genres that focused on individual musicians like bebop, cool jazz and even rock became more popular. (Though Benny Goodman was certainly still all the rage in the Netherlands in 1959.) Some bands adapted, weaving these new forms into their compositions, but for the most part the big bands that continued primarily kept playing the greatest hits of the ’30s and ’40s.
Big band drummer BUDDY RICH, who started with Tommy Dorsey’s band in the ’40s, was one of the more popular band leaders of the time, backing “comeback” recordings of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, though he did play the majority of his late career big band shows at colleges and high school gyms rather than in dance clubs.

[Watch Buddy Rich perform with a not-so-big band on The Lenny Bruce Show in 1959 | Watch Buddy Rich drum like crazy with the Muppets in 1980]


In the 1940s a new jazz style called “Bebop” emerged somewhat as a counter-movement to Big Band. Bebop ensembles were small–five or six musicians at most, most often featuring drums, bass, piano, trumpet and sax–and performed complicated arrangements that often featured irregular rhythms. These compositions were fascinating to hear but were not made for the dance hall.

Bepop’s virtuosic musicians communicated with each other and with audiences through fast and frenzied improvisation. Trumpeter DIZZY GILLESPIE–he of the amazingly stretchable cheeks and alto saxophone player CHARLIE “BIRD” PARKER, who first came to epitomize the intellectual/”hipster”/artist of the Beat Generation, then, sadly, the intellectual/”hipster”/artist who succumbed to substance abuse (PBS introduces you to the life and times of Charlie Parker), pioneered bebop, taking advantage of the improvisational freedom the style afforded them as instrumentalists to bring the deep emotion of the blues back into jazz. Other jazz pioneers like idiosyncratic pianist and “High Priest of BebopTHELONIOUS MONK advanced the genre with their unpredictable compositions. [Learn about Monk by watching the documentary “Straight, No Chaser.”|

Bebop as a jazz form came to maturity in the 1960s and then morphed and developed into other subgenres. For example, musicians like ART BLAKEY and the THE JAZZ MESSENGERS added a groovy, slightly more danceable edge to Bebop, weaving blues and gospel into their tunes. This genre became known as “Hard Bop.” Jazz heavyweights MILES DAVIS and JOHN COLTRANE, as well as trailblazing jazz guitarist WES MONTGOMERY, adopted this style and continued to harden the bop.

[Charlie Parker’s 1945 “Ko-ko” is widely considered to be the first bebop recording. (Dizzy Gillespie joins him on trumpet.) | Watch Charlie Parker on alto sax and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet perform “Hot House” in 1952 | Watch the Theonious Monk Quintet perform Monk’s composition, “Straight, No Chaser” in 1965 | Watch Art Blakey (on drums) and the Jazz Messengers performing Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” live in 1958 | Listen to John Coltrane’s hard bop classic, “Moment’s Notice” | Watch Miles Davis perform bebop classic, “Walkin” in 1967 | Watch Wes Montgomery’s wonderful performance of “I Love Blues“]

Bebop was primarily instrumental but every so often musicians sang their melodies, or variations on their melodies, in an improvised form of singing that mimicked their instruments. This type of singing, known as “SCAT,” uses vocables to play with and even enhance the melody. Among the conflicting accounts of the origin of the term “bebop,” is a theory posits that “be” and “bop” were common scat syllables that often appeared together. Popular band leaders like CAB CALLOWAY used scat as a way to involve the audience in the vocal part of his compositions often through call and response. Jazz vocalists like ELLA FITZGERALD developed their own version of scat singing, using the voice to imitate jazz instruments.

In class we’re going to try a little scat singing, improvising sounds, imitating instruments and calling and responding ’til the cows come home.

[Listen to Cab Calloway sing “The Scat Song” and also “Zaz Zuh Zaz,” which sounds a whole lot like the more lyrically bawdy, and more famous, “Minnie the Moocher” | Watch Ella Fitzgerald perform her scat-arific “One Note Samba” in 1969, a version of which we’ll hear in class.]


Another subgenre of jazz that developed throughout the 1940s was “Cool Jazz.” It was quieter, more subtle and more harmonic take on jazz than bebop; it took more cues from 20th century classical “art music” composers like Stravinsky and Debussy.The two main “cool jazz” pioneers were trumpeter MILES DAVIS and pianist/bandleader GIL EVANS, both of whom were undeniably cool.

Listen to “Jeru” from “Birth of the Cool,” a 1957 release of Davis recordings from 1949 and ’50 that epitomized “cool jazz.” | Watch Miles Davis (on trumpet) perform with the Gil Evans Orchestra in 1959 | As a bonus, watch Gil Evans perform in a funkier era, in Umbria, 1974. The song may not be “cool jazz,” but it’s definitely cool jazz]

Others of the many subgenres of jazz that developed in the ’50s and ’60s included MODAL JAZZ, in which musicians based their compositions not on a progression of chords, but on the relationship notes have to each other in “modes,” which are types of scales–“So What,” with Miles Davis on trumpet and John Coltrane on saxophone, a song you may recognize from class, is a prime example–and THIRD STREAM, which more overtly blended jazz with Western classical music than other forms of jazz. Much of the early work of bassist Charles Mingus, such as the 1954 release, “Minor Intrusion,” is considered to be Third Stream. (Though you will also enjoy later, bluesier Mingus, such as “Devil Blues,” which we can see him and his band perform live at Monteaux in 1975.)


In the 1950s and ’60s American dancehall bands, which had for decades mainly performed dances and compositions that originated in the U.S., began to actively communicate with Latin musicians and add Latin dances like the mambo, samba and cha-cha-cha to their repertoires. Bebop band leaders like Dizzy Gillespie also wove Latin elements into their music, and in turn American jazz began to appear all over Latin America, fusing with Latin rhythms to become “Latin Jazz.” Latin jazz was syncopated like American jazz but didn’t emphasize the same beats, giving the music a different feel. The form introduced Latin instruments into jazz bands such as congas and bongos (both Afro-Cuban), the claves, the timbales and even the cowbell.

Latin bandleaders like TITO PUENTE, ARTURO SANDOVAL and PAQUITO D’RIVERA became popular in the U.S. in this time, as did a new trend, one that blended Brazilian samba with jazz, called “bossa nova” (which, conveniently, literally translates as “new trend.”) American saxophone player STAN GETZ performed with Brazilian bossa nova musicians such as ANTONIO CARLOS JOBIM and JOÃO GILBERTO and receives due credit for popularizing the style in the U.S.

[Watch Tito Puente (on timabales) perform live in Montreaux in 1980 | Watch saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera perform live in Bern 1992 | Watch Arturo Sandoval and his band play, “Mam Bop,” in 1998 | Watch saxophone player Stan Getz share bossa nova with California in 1983]


In the 1960s an experimental, seemingly chaotic form called “Free jazz” became popular among jazz musicians, though not as much among the general population. Free jazz was challenging and unhinged, a style of jazz in which all musicians in an ensemble may be improvising wildly at the same time with little regard for a chord progression. The horns in particular made jarring squeaks and squawks, and the drums very rarely kept everyone’s beat. (AVANT-GARDE JAZZ is a similar subgenre, though it features a more predetermined chord structure over which improvising takes place than free jazz.)

“Free jazz” musicians seemed to understand what other free jazz musicians were doing, affording leaders of the movement such as Texas-born, New Orleans and then Los Angeles-based saxophone player ORNETTE COLEMAN great respect for their mastery of the form. Others questioned whether there was a form at all to be found in Coleman’s expansive and, critics claimed, indulgent musical exploration. Coleman himself only claimed to be following the music he found in the world around him.

[Learn about Ornette Coleman’s energizing–and controversial–arrival at “The Five Spot” in New York City’s East Village in 1959 | Watch Ornette Coleman (on saxophone) and his Sextet perform in Germany in 1978 | Listen to Coleman explain his approach to music in this recent infterview: “Sound is to people what the sun is to light.”]


In the 1970s and ’80s jazz met rock in a modern form called “fusion’ or “jazz rock.” MILES DAVIS, pioneering yet another jazz genre, was essential in laying the groundwork for fusion by adding rock beats and electric instruments to several of his albums in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, causing much consternation among jazz purists. Pianists CHICK COREA and HERBIE HANCOCK, guitarist PAT METHENY and the jazz-rock ensemble WEATHER REPORT didn’t express consternation at all, embracing and advancing fusion by adding synthesizers, keyboards and highly processed woodwinds.

[Watch Miles Davis perform early fusion compositions “Sanctuary” and “Spanish Key” in 1970 | Watch Chick Corea and his band Return to Forever perform “Vulcan Worlds” in 1974| | Enjoy Weather Report’s “Birdland,” performed live in Germany in 1978 | Watch Pat Metheny perform “As It Is” | Watch Herbie Hancock perform “Cantaloupe Island” with Pat Metheny on guitar.]


Today’s jazz is a “restless” genre that both infuses other genres such as rock, funk and hip hop and envelops them to expand its own horizions. Jazz may just as likely blend with hip hop to make both genres, unbelievably, even more cool–DIGABLE PLANETS‘ 1993 “Rebirth of Slick” is a great example of an uber-cool genre that became known as “ACID JAZZ“–or infiltrate elevators and grocery store sound systems everywhere, like the universally palatable–and therefore uncool?–SMOOTH JAZZ. (You’d disagree with the “uncool” label if you love KENNY G., seen here performing live with his son–clearly, his son–Max G.) Some contemporary jazz performers, such as avant-garde composer and saxophonist JOHN ZORN, blur boundaries between jazz and other genres, simultaneously mashing them all together and ripping them apart (watch Zorn perform “Karaim” in 2010)–while others, like jazz greats Barnford and Wynton Marsalis, return to jazz’s foundations as a base for their own work. (Watch Branford Marsalis perform “Cherokee” in 1991 | Watch Wynton Marsalis perform
Embraceable You.”) Since the late ’90s the term NUJAZZ has become a blanket term for jazz that eagerly blends with other styles, such as soul, electronica, house or hip hop. (Curious about NuJazz? Learn about the artists featured in the 2011 Toronto NuJazz Festival.)

We’re going to end our class by listening to “Radio Song” by bassist and vocalist ESPERANZA SPALDING. In 2011 Spalding was the first jazz musician to win the “Best New Artist” Grammy, surprising not only fans of Justin Beiber but also contemporary jazz fans who rarely see their favorite artists hit the mainstream. Spalding’s jazz is of many jazz genres at once and therefore doesn’t fit neatly into any of there. Where do you think Spalding will land? Decide for yourself after watching her perform “Radio Song” live on David Letterman in 2012.


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