Jazz is a musical genre that has its origins in African-American melodies and mixtures of other rhythms, and it all began in the late 19th century in the United States.
The term Jazz was made public in an article published in the “San Francisco Bulletin” in 1913. In it they referred to the music that was played, at that time, in the army.
The main characteristic of jazz is that it is not a structure aimed at a partition, but is based on improvisation and free interpretation. The usual thing, of all forms, is that the musicians are forced to play within a frame, and to let their imagination run wild in order to embellish and modify it according to inspiration.
The most common interpretation of jazz includes a solo instrument (like a trumpet) accompanied by a rhythm section (drums, bass, double bass) and harmonic instruments (piano, guitar). Jazz can be performed by soloists, trios, quartets or the so-called big bands, with multiple members.
Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand Morton) was a New Orleans Creole musician who had received classical training but played ragtime piano in Storyville in the early 1900s, a place full of casinos, taverns and cabarets, where many bands worked every night. He was of a provocative and boastful character and this has influenced the disregard of his figure as an excellent creative musician, perhaps the musician who first codified and transmitted the rules of the functioning of jazz.
When, at 17, his tutor and great-grandmother discovered that instead of being a night watchman -as she had told him- he dedicated himself to the clubs, (he played, danced, played billiards, did comic vaudeville numbers), she threw him out of the house and began to travel with his music, by Memfis, Chicago, N York, Kansas City Los Angeles… It was he who first proposed to transport that music -not yet called jazz- to the piano, mixing ragtime, minstrel music and blues, he said he had invented jazz. Although it is not strictly true, he wrote many melodies that would become the standard of jazz, such as Wolverine Blues. Morton spoke of the Spanish nuance that had to be given to jazz music in order for it to sound authentic. As early as the 1940s, years after his heyday, he recorded at the Library of Congress and those recordings teach us a lot about what kind of musician he was.
Martin Willians (1990: 25) writes that “one of Morton’s best recordings is a track he called Dead Man Blues, made up of the melodies of several different songs, specifically three. Obviously the melodies have to fit well together, they must be arranged in an order that gives musical and emotional meaning to the resulting theme (…). Morton’s recording of Dead Man begins with the echo of a funeral procession, an introduction based on Chopin’s famous Funeral March performed by the trombone with a touch of humor”.
From the first theme, in polyphonic style, the dialogue between trumpet and clarinet accompanied by the bass on the trombone stands out -we summarize Williams’ ideas. The style distances itself from the heavy Dixieland style. After some beautiful variations on the second theme, a solo on the cornet bridges the gap to the third theme and curiously enough it does not lose its beauty and originality. The third theme is a clarinet trio playing a beautiful blues riff melody/harmony until Kid Ory’s trombone enters with a deep counter-melody.
Williams notes the differences between King Oliver’s music and Mortom’s. The greatest virtue of Oliver’s came from the way his musicians played together in an improvisational way (ibidem: 27). In contrast, Mortom’s music was “composed”, thought out, and gave great importance to the orchestral form. Rhythmically it was inferior to Oliver’s but it was more sophisticated, more complex formally, more “modern”. It is a superior development, a step forward from the form established by ragtime composers, incorporating both rhythmic and harmonic elements of jazz and blues: “Morton’s music represents a compendium of all that jazz had achieved before Armstrong’s innovations reinterpreted its basic language” (Ibidem).
Williams establishes a similarity between Mortom, Ellington, Lewis and Monk: they were all pianists or played the piano without being great virtuosos, they were composers, they possessed an orchestral concept of the piano, great accompaniers, they all innovated in the binomial improvisation-form and that of freedom-discipline or individuality-together. And all were influenced by the ragtime piano, which had managed to reinterpret previous folk themes, previous religious music, the themes of marches of the time and previous dance music of European origin.
Around 1910 Morton had begun to extract the virtualities of the ragtime piano and to move away from its caricature, from the easy and superficial exhibitionism to which many ragtime pianists gave themselves. “Ragtime was structural, rhythmic, and emotionally limited, and Morton seemed to realize this” (Ibidem, 29). He had musical knowledge, he knew the European music, the technique of variation, the complex forms… things that he didn’t know for example J Oliver. If we add to this his fine intuition with which he knew how to relate the tonalities and modulate and the addition of the Hispanic rhythms that he mastered, we can understand the richness of his pieces, such as Wolverines, King Porter Stomp, The Pearls, Kansas City Stomps…
To this Martin Williams adds the incorporation of Hispanic rhythms and the blues: Morton’s music would be like an alliance between ragtime and blues (“off-key” notes) with elements of French and Spanish folk music (the importance of syncopations and setbacks), Baptist hymns and marching music.
We will continue in a next post writing about the importance of the blues in early jazz music and Morton’s use of riffs and breaks. What is clear is that Mortom was “the first great master of form in jazz,” comparable to a Duke Ellington, a John Lewis or a Thelonious Monk.
Jazz is a musical genre born among African-American musicians descendants of former slaves, who added to their own tradition, characterized by a strong emphasis on rhythm and improvisation, some elements of European music.
Improvisation: is one of the essential elements of jazz. To improvise is to compose the music while playing it, but not starting from scratch, it is improvised on melodies, harmonies and rhythms that are known in advance.
The rhythm: jazz is characterized by its rhythmic richness and complexity, based on the polyrhythm in the upsets and above all in the use of syncopation which is the accentuation of the weak beats of the beat.
Use of the “blue” notes: which consists of interpreting the third, fifth and seventh notes of a diatonic scale in a more serious semitone.
The instrumentation is characterized by: the way of interpreting in the instruments imitating the vocal singing, the revaluation of the brass instruments, the incorporation of the saxophone and the use of the mutes.
Well, I have already briefly explained what Jazz is; we can now know its different sub-genres, that is, how many “types” of Jazz there are and what they are.
It’s not a subgenre of jazz as such, it’s more a term used to refer to all the styles that developed in jazz before 1930, that is, it includes the styles of jazz from New Orleans, Chicago and New York.
It is also known as traditional jazz.
Emerged around the beginning of 1930, it is an eminently orchestral style of jazz, influenced by music of European origin. It retains important elements of Hot Jazz, but had innovations such as the increase in the number of musicians in the band (hence the name “Big Bands”), established a rhythm of its own, focuses much on a “vertical” harmony and usually repeats a short phrase or “riff” with a crescendo (increases the intensity) at the end.
Also known simply as “Bop”, it was developed in the 1940s, chronologically succeeding Swing.
Frustrated by the limitations of playing in large groups, musicians sought new and original forms of expression; and as a result, musicians were dispersed into an infinite number of small groups.
The rhythmic section is individualized, the phrasing becomes fast with a nervous, cold and totally improvised aesthetics, tuned more in the European style, with fast tempos, individual solos and an impulse in the harmony.
Developed around 1950. When Bebop began to stagnate in the early 1950’s, one of its stars, Miles Davis, began to experiment with new sounds. He moved away from Bebop’s furious rhythms and improvisation and recorded with a 9-instrument band, moving away from the roots of the blues and towards European classical music. The result: his album “Birth of the Cool”.
As its name indicates, it is a calm, equable and imperturbable style.
It started in the mid 50’s, succeeding Cool Jazz.
Due to the great approximation of Cool Jazz to European music, many black musicians felt alien to this style. In order to revitalize jazz, its tendencies oscillated from a combination of blues and gospel, which would give rise to Funk and Soul; to a revised form of Bebop with a return to expressionism: Hard Bop.
The rhythmic section is more homogeneous and lighter than in Bebop, melodically more elaborate than Bebop and closer to the Blues, it has a more complex harmony and the strength of Bebop is taken up again in the phrasing.
Already in the 60’s, it was developed as part of the “jazz avant-garde”.
The main characteristic of Free Jazz is its leap towards atonality, that is to say, the chords and the melodic-harmonic structure are confronted with spontaneous invention, the rhythm is extended to all the instruments and is interrelated with the melody, the concept of phrasing is lost and an autonomy of the different sounds is reached, and the tempo is conceived in a heretical way with respect to Western orthodoxy.
In short, and as its name indicates, it is a totally free jazz.
It appeared in the early 1970s, stylistically influenced by Rhythm & Blues, Funk and Pop.
It has a low or slow tempo, with a “programmed” rhythm, leaving space for the leading instrument (commonly saxophone, piano or guitar) to interpret a melody.
It is generally considered to be “background” or ambient music.
It originates in the late 80’s in England and emerged as an innovation and fusion of mainly African-American genres, mainly Jazz, Funk and Hip Hop.
It was presented as an alternative in the dance scene, in discotheques.
The sub-genres I spoke about earlier are in chronological order; but I did not want to include the style I will talk about next in the list because it is not a genre of jazz itself, it is rather a natural tendency of jazz:
In music, Fusion is called the “conjunction of two or more different styles, to produce a unique and separately identifiable form of them”; therefore, we speak of Jazz Fusion when one of these styles is jazz.
Jazz itself has the characteristic of absorbing characteristics and influences from other styles in order to modify and “evolve”, but it is in Jazz Fusion where this characteristic is central.
Some examples of Jazz Fusion are Latin Jazz, Jazz Rock, Bossa Nova, Jazz Rap, Soul Jazz, Ska Jazz, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Nu Jazz (also called Electro-Jazz or Neo Jazz), to name a few.
The drums: at the beginning it was a secondary instrument that accompanied the solo instruments, but it was acquiring a more leading role, in the 20’s, the first drum solos began, but it will not be until the 40’s with the be-bop when it becomes one of the most important instruments . The most famous drummers are Dave Weckl, Alex Acuña and Dennis Chambers.
The Double Bass: it was incorporated in 1911, using the pizzicato technique (playing not with the bow but with the fingers), later it became one of the basic instruments of the rhythmic section. There were great double-bass players such as Miroslav Ladislav, Gary Peacock and Charles Mingus.
The piano: it is an important instrument not only from the melodic point of view, but also from the rhythmic point of view. The most famous pianists are Art Tatum, Earl Hines and Thelonious Monk.
The trumpet: it is one of the king of jazz instruments, at least until the 40s, when its importance was displaced by the saxophone. The most famous trumpet players are Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie.
The saxophone: it was used in the first bands, it became fashionable in the 30’s, it became the main soloist instrument from Charlie Parker’s revolution, with the be-bop.
The clarinet: used from the first bands and one of the instruments that stood out in the Swing era. There were great clarinetists like John Surman and Louis Sclavis.
The banjo: the most popular instrument in American music, it was used until the 1920s, when it was displaced by the guitar.
Jazz and blues are the musical genres or styles that can also be considered as two different American musical traditions. They are most likely related to each other due to the fact that they originated in the southern United States. The confusion in the discernment of the two genres may be due to the numerous mixes of music that artists make these days.
Originally from New Orleans, jazz was known as “jass”, but then the two “ss” were changed to “zz”, and it came to mean “cool”. During the latter part of the 19th century, jazz took shape in several bands. Its style at that time was marked by the use of the saxophone, piano, cornet and trombone.
The area with the greatest preference for jazz since its beginnings has moved northwards, towards Chicago and New York. There is an interracial mix in jazz, many of the people from the North embraced this music, so it is very popular throughout the country. Contrary to the popularity of jazz, the blues had a pocketful penetration in Texas and Chicago. And so this latter musical genre found its own range of followers making it the most urban style of music before the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s.
Originally from southern Mississippi, the first recorded blues occurred in the 1920s. At that time, soloists stood out, as opposed to the groups that abounded in jazz. Although the blues has grown a lot since then to use intricate bands, the first soloists only used a slide guitar as their main musical instrument.
In short, jazz was more instrumental than blues, which was mostly vocal.
As for the featured artists, the pioneering jazz album came from Edward Ory with the Orquesta Criolla. Other popular and outstanding jazz musicians on the scene were George Lewis and Louis Armstrong. However, it was not until the 1960s that jazz icons such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis became overly successful. On the other hand, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson were the supporters of the blues front line. BB King with his electric blues also became a very influential figure for modern day blues musicians.
Jazz originates from New Orleans, while the blues originated in Mississippi.
Jazz was and still is more popular than the blues.
The blues is more vocal, while jazz is more instrumental.
Jazz tends to be considered as a select musical genre and for intellectuals but anyone can enjoy its most historical records.
Jazz is a complex musical genre because of its ability to encompass other genres and sub-genres that come together to create all kinds of musical pieces. Of Afro-American roots, it began to be related later to select or intellectual circles, but in reality anyone can enjoy its swings and rhythms. Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong were some of the maximum exponents of this genre that captivates by its variety of sub-genres and fusions with own personality.
Trumpeter Miles Davis is considered the best jazz artist of all time and Kind of Blue is his best album. This album recorded in 1959 is the best selling album in the history of this musical genre. In it, Davis perfects the style of modal jazz, which becomes a trend from this moment on. The songs on this album are the product of improvisation and are themes that became standards. A record for true jazz lovers and for those who want to discover the best valued album of the genre.
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The saxophone is the instrument most associated with jazz and one of the artists who best mastered it was Sonny Rollins. His record Saxophone Colossus, published in 1956, is a reflection of the jazz skills of this musician. In it you can appreciate the beauty and grace with which he played his pieces that made him become a prestidigitator of the alto saxophone.
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Louis Armstrong is one of the greatest legends of jazz. His music became very popular in the general culture. Hot Fives and Sevens is an album made up of 4 CDs that include a total of 89 songs that the famous trumpeter and singer recorded with the bands Hot Fives and Hot Sevens between 1925 and 1927 and that have been remastered with the best sound quality. An album with which to appreciate how Armstrong marked a before and after in the improvisation and the concept of swing.
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The Dave Brubeck Quartet released Time Out in 1959, a risky record that experimented with unusual jazz beats such as the use of the waltz and the double-tempo waltz. It broke with the established rhythms that were common in jazz music at the time. Although it received varied reviews, the album soon became one of the best and most sold albums of all time, becoming considered a timeless masterpiece.
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A Love Supreme, from 1964, is one of the greatest albums of all time. Its author, John Coltrane, was one of the best saxophonists along with the aforementioned Sonny Rollins. This album is characterized by a series of pieces that speak about the deep spirituality of its author and meditation. Coltrane recorded this album putting into practice all the innovations and techniques that he had previously learned during his career.
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Thelonius Monk dominated jazz with the piano as few did with an unconventional style full of moments of great percussion, unexpected stops or silences, among other techniques. His ways make him one of the most special artists to listen to, and Brilliant Corners is one of his best albums. Published in 1957, this album is a sample of his way of understanding music and his sometimes indifferent and eccentric attitude that made him develop a very personal style that captivated a multitude of fans who were looking for something different.
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Again a Miles Davis album. On this occasion, Bitches Brew became a historical landmark and one of the best jazz albums of all time for being the compilation with which jazz fusion was born. In 1969, Davis broke the established molds in the genre by combining jazz and rock and surprising everyone. A record that influenced many artists who later dared to combine other styles.
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In the rich history of jazz, both traditional and contemporary jazz, there were and are great singers, who delight us with the beautiful sounds of their voices. Each of these artists has a unique style and register, which makes them unrepeatable. That is why we created this list of the best jazz singers of all time. The criteria are not at all competitive, those that appear here are because their styles and their influence on the genre is significant.
The labels are hateful, however, there is a style boundary that separates what is the side of jazz more attached to the traditional roots that gave it birth, and another more modern one, which we call modern or contemporary jazz, which fuses other rhythms and styles. That’s why we put together two separate lists.
Ella Fitzgerald: born on April 25, 1917, she is without a doubt the female voice of reference for all jazz singers, and of the ears that enjoy her unmistakable voice. In her artistic career, she harvested the names of Lady Ella, and the undisputed Queen of Jazz. Among her performance successes are the classics Summertime or A Night In Tunisia.
Billie Holiday: the most heartfelt and visceral voice of traditional jazz. The lyrics with social backgrounds that she knew how to choose, and her life experience made her a classic of world jazz. Strange Fruit is, without a doubt, her undisputed success.
Louis Armstrong: also known as a trumpet player, he marked thousands of jazz singers by fire, and unwittingly defined how this style should be sung. The song What A Wonderfull World is his great success, which led him to immortality, with an authentic and unmistakable voice.
Nina Simone: American singer and pianist committed to various social movements, left her native country after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Her influence on African-American music is such that she is known as High Priestess of Soul.
Nat King Cole: A jazz pianist and singer, he composed the song Straighten Up and Fly Right based on stories that his father, a pastor in a Baptist church, used for his sermons. Father of the singer Natalie Cole.
Frank Sinatra: nicknamed The Voice, is the benchmark for performance for all male jazz singers. His popularity transcended style, he became a movie star and his legacy can still be seen today in all kinds of artistic expressions.
Al Jarreau: born in the United States, he earned his place thanks to his unique style, his vocal range, and the incorporation of diverse styles in his work, such as soul, pop, and blues, among others. Owner of an extensive discography, his interpretations of the songs My Favourite Things and Stockholm Sweetnin stand out.
Chet Baker: singer and trumpet player, he stood out for his unmistakable style within the so-called cool jazz.
Esperanza Spalding: owner of a privileged voice, she also plays the double bass and the electric bass. A native of Portland, USA, and with little more than 30 years of age, she is one of the most outstanding female singers of today.
Diana Krall: pianist and jazz singer born in the United States. With more than 15 million albums sold worldwide, she is, without a doubt, one of the leading voices of the genre at an international level.
Eliane Elias: is a pianist of Brazilian origin who has her roots in classical and popular music, with clear influences from jazz and the fusion of world music. She was part of several groups as a leader, among which passed musicians of the stature of Randy Brecker, Michael Brecker, Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, among other greats of contemporary jazz.
The list is endless within the extensive and, fortunately, rich history of jazz.