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The Eras & History Of Jazz Music

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

A style of music that is sometimes hard to define because of its range and versatility, Jazz (sometimes referred to as American classical music) as we know it today has evolved from as far back as the 1860's during the time of Jim Crow Laws. Although Jazz wasn't known as "jazz" until almost the 1920's in New Orleans, its origins are in the blues, gospel, as well as the field and work songs of the slaves in the United States. It is important to note that it was originally developed as a uniquely African American art form, born out of the tension, suffering and segregation of black Americans. Improvisation is a central theme/device used in Jazz that is not as prominently heard in other styles (classical for example). Often the composition serves as a vehicle for the soloist's improvisation or interpretation of the melody/chord changes and is often the main feature of a live performance. This differs from classical music where the goal is to recreate exactly the intent of the composer of any given piece of music. In jazz, the individual player's interpretation can often be the feature of the music. Another unique concept in jazz is the swing feel. A lot can be said about what it means to swing, but essentially it can be explained by subdividing each beat within a bar into groups of three or triplets, instead of twos or fours (eighth or sixteenth notes) Learn more about improvisation and swing feel with your instructor at Greater Toronto Music School. The evolution of jazz can be classified into eras that often last around a decade up until the 1980s where the direction and diaspora of jazz becomes so widespread that it's evolution is exponential while also borrowing from the first 60-80 years or so of its history.


Jazz saxophonist offering music lessons in Toronto

Early Jazz / New Orleans (1920's)


Having evolved out of the music of marching bands and ragtime, much of the music heard in this earlier period of jazz has similar instrumentation (drums, trumpets, trombone, sax etc) and feel. Also the influence of Afro Latin rhythms from places such as Cuba can be heard (from music as far back as the 1880's). The tresillo rhythm is heavily used in the New Orleans Jazz of this time and can be directly linked to the music of the Caribbean. Dixieland bands played rag style music but also incorporated collective and solo improvisation within their performances which was something that hadn't been done before in traditional marching,ragtime or vaudeville bands. In Chicago, a different more soulful and vocal oriented jazz developed with artists such as Louis Armstrong, who played trumpet and popularized the use of scat singing. During the 1920s and prohibition, Jazz existed in the darker parts of society in brothels and speakeasies and was heavily racially segregated. Some notable artists of this time are Jellyroll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden. Music to check out:


Jellyroll Morton


Louis Armstrong


Buddy Bolden


Swing and big band (1930s)


By the 1930s, rules of segregation began to relax and the mixing of races in big bands became more commonplace. Along with the end of prohibition, this caused jazz to come out of the dark and onto the big stage and mainstream. Big band composers paved the way for a new era of music with repertoire ranging from what would become known as jazz standards as well as American songbook and other original compositions. Some notable composers of this era are Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman. It was also during this time that virtuosic style musicians/soloists began to emerge in various bands as feature soloists as well as vocalists both singing melody and improvising using scat singing (previously used by Louis Armstrong). It was this evolution that began to lead us into the next era known as Bebop. Some classic swing and big band music from the 1930s:


Benny Goodman


Duke Ellington


Count Basie


Bebop (1940s)


The bebop era began to develop in the early to mid 1940s and unlike much of the swing/big band era, it was characterized by much faster tempos and more complex chord changes. This is where a lot of the concepts of improvising really developed. Virtuoso soloists on almost every instrument began to emerge. Compositions were less focused on vocal arrangements and lyrical melodies and more focused on technical facility, syncopation and complex melodic phrasing. This new phase in jazz was started by the younger generation and became synonymous with "hipster" culture of the time. There was more focus on smaller ensembles that started to use the rhythm section in new ways. Big band music required the more steady pumping quarter note swing feel in order to drive the the larger ensemble and sheer volume of the horn section. In bebop, the rhythm section began to play more broken and syncopated rhythms and could be more expressive and interactive in their accompaniment. Some of the more prominent artists of the Bebop era are:


Charlie Parker


Dizzy Gillespie


Cool Jazz (late 1940s-1950s)


After world war II a new style of jazz began to emerge that featured a more relaxed feel and tempo as well as more formal arrangements and even began to incorporate elements of classical music. The role of the improviser began to evolve and incorporate more tonal textures and color that contribute to the more relaxed mood of cool jazz. This was a departure from the Bebop era that was very focused on improvising and virtuosity. It could be said that the intensity of the war was reflected in its music (bebop) and the development of cool Jazz was simply an evolution or thirst for a more relaxed sound. Some of the notable artists that contributed to the birth of cool jazz are:


Coleman Hawkins


Bix Beiderbecke


Hard bop/modal jazz/Latin jazz and Brazilian (late 1950s-1960s)


The hard bop era of jazz was a partial return to the fast tempos and angular nature of bebop, fused with a heavy gospel influence and incorporation of African and Latin rhythms. Sometimes called souljazz or funky jazz, (famous label of the time as well as a reference to the sound) a strong connection to the blues can be heard in its mostly minor key and mode compositions. A lot of the sounds and concepts that were developed in this time can still be heard in today's jazz. Another form of jazz known as modal jazz also emerged at this time. The Seminole Miles Davis album Kind of Blue is a great example of this sound. Another iconic figure of this time is John Coltrane. He came up through Miles Davis's band and began to make a name for himself as a composer as well. Having previously played through the hard bop and cool Jazz era, Trane was both a sensitive, lyrical player as well as one of the most fiercely angular and complex players. His classic album A love supreme has heavy spiritual themes fused with soulful writing and both dynamic and virtuosic playing, fusing elements of bebop, modal jazz and souljazz. The modal style is characterized by less complex chord changes (sometimes only one chord or longer duration spent on each chord), giving the soloist more time to explore different scales and modes creating different textures and sounds. Modal Jazz and elements of this style are still very much present in today's jazz music.


Also at this time, the rise of Latin jazz and Brazilian jazz became prominent with artists like Diizzy Gillespie and Sergio Mendes fusing elements of jazz and either African / Cuban rhythms or Brazilian rhythms such as the Bossa Nova and Samba. As with other styles of music, jazz became popular in other parts of the world and fused with their own cultures and became the jazz music of those places. Alternatively, musicians from abroad such as Flora Purim and Airto Morreira spent much time in the US and began working with such notable composers such as Chick Corea. Some notable music from both the hard bop and Latin jazz / Brazilian Jazz are:


Miles Davis


John Coltrane


Sergio Mendes


Avant garde/fusion (late 1960s-70s)


In this era of jazz, the use of electric instruments and rebellion of what was considered jazz began to expand quickly. Artists such as Sun Ra, Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock began to make music that was meant to stretch and push the boundaries of what jazz was. In avant-garde jazz elements of classical music and the use of atonal and arrhythmic concepts were used to broaden the palette of what is considered acceptable. Miles Davis incorporated similar elements as well as a more Rock oriented rhythm section with the album Bitches Brew. At this point the use of electric guitar and bass or electric organ or piano became much more of a feature and with bands like Return to Forever and Headhunters, the use of synthesizers and other electronics. Notable composers and music to check out from this era are:


Miles Davis


Herbie Hancock


Return to Forever (Chick Corea)


1980s to present


From the 1980s until present day Jazz continues to evolve and reflect both the sociopolitical and musical trends of the time. Jazz continues to borrow elements from other styles of music ranging from classical to hip Hop and electronic music. The styles and traditions of past eras of jazz can still be heard in their traditional forms as well as borrowed from and re-contextualized and revamped. Icons of jazz such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter who have lasted through many eras have continued to evolve as well as train and mentor a myriad of others who continue to contribute to the evolution and tradition of jazz. Having accumulated such a rich pool of history and resources, Jazz continues to borrow from itself and morph and adapt to its surroundings. Some more modern Jazz recordings to check out from the last 40 years include:


Herbie Hancock


Chick Corea


Kenny G


Avishai Cohen


Are you interested in studying more of the history of jazz? Do you want to learn how to play jazz music? Did you know that Greater Toronto Music School is a great resource for finding the best in-home music lessons in your area? Are online music lessons more of interest to you? Let us as Greater Toronto Music School help find the right instructor for you!


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The emphasis on improvisation and the swing feel are indeed two of the defining characteristics of jazz that set it apart from other music genres. The ability for individual musicians to interpret and contribute their unique voice to a piece of music is what makes jazz performances so dynamic and captivating.

Exploring the different eras of jazz provides valuable insights into the genre's development and the diverse styles it has encompassed over the years. It's a testament to the creativity and innovation of jazz musicians that the genre continues to evolve and thrive today, continually pushing boundaries and incorporating influences from various musical traditions. This music must be popularized through SoundCloud Promotion: https://artistpush.me/collections/soundcloud-promotion

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