Jazz: The Story Behind the Widely Misunderstood Genre

Jazz: The Story Behind the Widely Misunderstood Genre


August 22, 2020

Ya like jazz? Well, if not, then a majority of the world agrees with you. A complex genre filled with musical noodling, loud noises, and unbearably high trumpet screeches, jazz typically gets a bad rap because of all of the elements that I just stated; it's simply just too intolerable. Giant Steps by John Coltrane is probably the best audio representation of what people think jazz sounds like.

The real question is, is jazz really all that bad? The media generally portrays the genre as either one of class and elegance or one of complexity and discomfort. In order to find out the true answer, it is important to first look at the history behind all the "insanity."

History of Jazz: Where Did It Come From?

The original form of jazz was that of the blues. Originating in the South of the United States, according to scholastic.com, the blues is an African-American derived music form that encaptures all of the emotions that erupted out of the discriminatory behavior that one African-American had to face during that time. Not only is it the foundation of jazz, but it is also the prime source of R&B (rhythm and blues), rock 'n' roll, and country music.

New Orleans, a city in Louisiana, helped foster the growth of the blues into the large genre that is jazz today. With the combination of all different types of people and their cultural, musical backgrounds, jazz was born.

What is Jazz?

According to the National Museum of American History, jazz is a kind of music in which improvisation is typically an important part. In other words, a large portion of each jazz song is commonly occupied by solos that are thought of on the spot. Another method of deciding whether a song is "jazzy" or not is by studying the rhythm. The genre commonly includes a feeling of forward momentum, or "swing," which uses "bent" or "blues" notes.

Although there is a steady beat with "swing," it isn't that of a pop song where the downbeat (the heavier beat) is more subtle. Above is an example of what swing sounds like. If you notice, there is a stronger, more distinct background beat; if you find yourself nodding along, that means you're following along with the swing!

Jazz Pioneers and Idols

Since the birth of jazz in the late 1800s to early 1900s, there have been several individuals and pioneers that have further developed the genre into what it is today. Here are some examples of famous, influential musicians that have revolutionized the jazz scene. To listen to any of their songs, you can either Google their name or search them up on YouTube!

1) Louis Armstrong

Known as one of the most influential artists in the entire history of music, Louis Armstrong, the master of the trumpet, essentially perfected the concept of jazz improvisation. Before he appeared professionally, the style of Dixieland featured collective improvisation where all of the musicians played simultaneously. Armstrong, however, transformed this concept by developing the idea of individuals playing during the breaks of the song. This process later expanded so that each person could take separate, singular solos.

2) Duke Ellington

One of the most significant figures in music history, Duke Ellington was a well-known pianist, composer, and bandleader who fundamentally created the big band sound, which initiated the "swing" era. Until his death in 1974, he continued to conduct and compose for his jazz orchestra.

To celebrate his accomplishments and his amazing musical career, there is an annual jazz competition called the "Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival". It highlights 16 high school jazz bands across the United States, where they ultimately compete against each other for an award and a cash prize.

3) Dizzy Gillespie

Known for his speedy, high trumpet runs, Dizzy Gillespie is one of jazz's legendary icons. Not only was he a trumpeter, bandleader, and composer, but he was also the pioneer and inventor of the bebop style along with Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk, two renowned sax and piano players, respectively. In addition to creating bebop, Gillespie also helped to introduce Latin American rhythms to modern jazz through his collaborations with artists Machito and Chano Pozo.

Many people can easily identify Gillespie because of his puffed-out, "bullfrog" cheeks and his upwardly bent trumpet. In terms of his cheeks, Dizzy had laryngocele, a medical condition where a person has an empty sac alongside his or her larynx. Due to his constant playing, his neck and cheek muscles became more and more deformed and stretched, so they were never "healed" to their original flattened form.

As for his trumpet, according to Gillespie himself, things got a little chaotic at his wife's birthday party, and a pair of dancers tripped and fell on his instrument, causing it to permanently bend upwards. He finished playing the performance for the night with the damaged instrument, and found that he liked the new sound that it produced. The next day, he got it straightened but couldn't forget the special trumpet's tone. Thus, he commissioned a reproduction of the bruised trumpet which was what he played for the rest of his career.

4) Charles Mingus

Virtuoso bass player, pianist, bandleader, and composer, Charles Mingus helped to revolutionize the jazz scene by integrating lengthy, emotional bass solos and gospel influences. Although he was chosen to be the bassist in Ellington's band, his stay there wasn't long as he was fired after having altercations with one of the members. Being the motivated person that he was, he picked himself up and decided to create a band of his own, the Mingus Big Band, which still exists and performs to this day.

He proceeded to compose, record, and tour around the world until he was confined to a wheelchair due to being diagnosed with a rare nerve disease. Mingus' legacy is still prominent and celebrated as there is annual high school competition, similar to Essentially Ellington, where high schools from all over the nation come together to showcase their skills via Mingus' own songs.

There are much more, including Bill Evans, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald, but the ones here are probably the more well-known of them all.

Different Types of Jazz

Contrary to popular belief, there are different types of jazz; subgenres, if you will. Ranging from avant-garde jazz to bebop to big band to dixie to latin to smooth jazz, the subgenres are endless. From my personal experience, when someone says that they don't like jazz, they are most likely referring to bebop or big band style jazz.

Something like Spiritual by John Coltrane below. I'm not an avid fan of this style either, especially Coltrane's selections, but it really depends on the song.

Styles like bossa nova and smooth jazz are much more accepted in society because of their lack of busyness and chaos. These subgenres are mostly heard at cafés and calmer jazz clubs. If you were to search up "café music" or "studying music" on YouTube, you'd most likely be roaming around the bossa nova side of jazz. Here's an example of smooth jazz below.

The Latin side of jazz is also one that the general public enjoys because of its groovy rhythms and instrumentals. Musicians and artists like Chick Corea and Machito have great musical examples of this funky style. Typically, songs of this style feature a clave (a high-pitched clicking, woody sound) and sometimes a steel drum. Below is an example of the Latin influences on jazz.

Should You Listen to Jazz?

To put it simply, yes. There are so many different subgenres and types of jazz, so the options are limitless. Ultimately it's up to you and your preferences.

I like jazz because not only is it diverse, but it also enables me to mentally transport myself to different places depending on the style. Listening to it may seem unpleasant, but I can assure you that taking a sip out of the jazz cup will not make you regret anything (and this is coming from someone who's been listening to and playing the genre for years on end)! Give it a try and see for yourself!

Gwun Yi Wong
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Writer since Mar, 2020 · 10 published articles

Gwun Yi Wong is a college freshman. She loves dancing, immersing herself in music, and obsessing about fashion. She has a strong passion to spread the thoughts and voices of teenagers. When she's not at school studying economics and Japanese, she is often seen catching up with her friends, playing instruments, and pondering about life.