What is a Jazz? Ah the age old question that leads to so many arguments, debates, and discussions in the jazz world.   I addressed this question in one of my earlier blog posts breaking down the key elements of jazz and how to listen to them. I feel the reason this question is so hard to answer is because throughout time, “What is Jazz?” constantly changes.  So today I would like to delve into the different genres that are in jazz music. Now before I begin I have to give this disclaimer. I will not address each and every possible genre and sub genre in Jazz. There are books written on this topic and musicologist who still debate on the nuances of each and every genre and sub genre. My goal here is not to push an agenda on you but to just give you a better understanding on the different styles that exist. Hopefully by doing so you will have a better understanding of the different styles that exist, widen your musical palette, and find the genres you are more interested in.

The origins and beginnings of Jazz are not definitive. Though we may argue about exactly the time, date, and place where jazz was born I think we can all agree that it began with the blues. The blues came before and was adopted by jazz music. It had a simple progression only using three chords and it was in a short 12 bar form. When the blues are played well it has an earthy and honest component that is ineffable. You can’t fake the blues. Jazz music has forever been influenced by the blues with new compositions of blues songs still being written by Jazz musicians today. There are hundreds of Jazz/ blues standards that any competent jazz musician must know. Since it’s the foundation for Jazz if you cant’t play the blues it brings up the question “What can you play?” Here is an example of early blues music.

Following the blues came Ragtime music. Ragtime music was known for incorporating African rhythms and syncopation into the music. Ragtime music was popular and used in marches and waltzes. This style of music, because of it’s intense rhythmic movement, was very popular in bars and parties throughout New Orleans in the early 1900s. This style even to this day is very difficult to play on the piano. You have to have dexterity to play ragtime music accurately and not mess up the groove. This music was made to dance to so keeping time and accuracy was vital. Here is a classic tune I’m sure all of you have heard before. Did you know it was Ragtime? Did you think of it as jazz when you first heard it?

Big band music is one of the most popular styles of Jazz music around. Big band is exactly that a big band. A big band group will have large sections all playing important roles in the compositions. In early big band music everything was written down with precise notes being required to play. Solo sections were later added as jazz music evolved and changed (as was the style of songs played). Big band music is no longer as popular as it was in it’s hey day but it is still very much alive. Most colleges have big band groups that perform throughout the country and there are still a few notable clubs and big bands that still and play on a consistent basis. Big band music continues to adapt and change with the times making it one of the most loved, recognized, and durable jazz styles we have. Here is the Duke Ellington Orchestra performing the jazz standard “Take the A Train”.

Big band, Ragtime, and the blues. These styles helped establish and grow jazz music during its humble beginnings in New Orleans. From these styles Jazz music grew to be become the great American music that it is today. There are still a multitude of styles I would like to discuss, but they will have to wait till next week. Next week I will delve into genres including latin jazz, fusion and be bop among others. Also don’t forget to check in later on in the week for my weekly Jazz album review.


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