The History of Jazz Music

U.S. History Tutorial

The History of Jazz Music


Jazz music is regarded as America’s only original art form. Other fine and performing art forms such as painting, sculpture, and ballet have their roots in Europe. Jazz is a blend of ragtime, blues and classical music.

Sample Problem

Many jazz musicians contributed to the development of the art form. What do we know about the invention of jazz music and its pioneers?


The Pioneers of Jazz
Jelly Roll Morton
Thirteen year-old piano prodigy Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe better known as Jelly Roll Morton,wrote and performed the first set of jazz piano compositions between 1904-1917.Morton’s piano composition The Crave, is a prime example of classical piano intertwined with the folk ragtime music pioneered by Scott Joplin.

The Crave is both elegant and percussive; this is the hallmark of jazz. Jelly Roll Morton composed the first recorded jazz piano piece, Jelly Roll Blues in 1915. Morton made his living by performing live in Storyville. Storyville is the New Orleans red light district full of brothels and seedy bars. Unfortunately, Jelly Roll died of respiratory infection in his early fifties.

Duke Ellington was a virtuoso pianist from Washington D.C. who moved to New York City to perform at the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem. Ellington accompanied jazz vocalist Billie Holiday at the Cotton Club. Duke Ellington came of age in the heyday of swing jazz that was dominated by big band leaders Benny Goodman and Chick Webb. The big band style of jazz catered to the dance craze that swept across America during World War II.

Ellington was a classical pianist who envisioned an elegant style as the true path of jazz. Hence, Duke split from the big band music scene and formed his own orchestra.When Ellington left the swing scene,he poached Chick Webb’s female vocalist Ella Fitzgerald,and added her to his group. Ellington and Fitzgerald went on to become the preeminent jazz artists of their time,while swing music and big bands faded into obscurity.

The Modern Era of Jazz

The Modern Era of art was exemplified by abstract paintings. Similarly,the Modern Era of Jazz featured less structure and more freedom. This freedom paved the way for Miles Davis a trumpet virtuoso who studied at the prestigious Julliard music conservatory. Davis dropped out, but created the modern jazz sound known as “The Birth of the Cool”.

The post-modern 1960s ushered in social change and the Golden Age of Jazz. Nina Simone was the great jazz vocalist of the Golden Age. Her bluesy jazz sound was infused with lyrics that spoke to the fight for racial equality in America. Ostensibly, In the 1960s, America was awash with the greatest jazz musicians of all time. From this sea of talent at the Newport Jazz Festival emerged the greatest jazz musician in history;master saxophonist John Coltrane.

Coltrane’s influence on jazz is immeasurable,and remains the standard bearer of the genre in the 21st Century. Coltrane’s jazz compositions are staged in movements,the way symphonies are composed. Blue Train for example, is an elegant blend of classical undertones and blues overtones.


Nobel Prize winning bassist Esperanza Spalding is today’s peerless jazz master.Her rendition of Sunny Side of the Street captures Jelly Roll’s prodigy,Ella Fitzgerald’s cool and John Coltrane’s virtuosity. Even though jazz has waned in appeal to American audiences, it is currently being curated in Europe.

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