The complete history of jazz music: birth, evolution, peak, downfall and survival

Categories: Jazz Music

The late 19th century and early 20th century was an era that the American popular music was able to achieve a much greater international acclaim. Minstrel songs, ragtime songs and the African American songs of the 19th century played a major role in shaping the American Music scene and influencing the American culture especially that of the Black minorities. The Jazz of the black urbanites and the rural blues of the poor black Southerners are some of the initial America popular music.

During this era, Black performers were not allowed to perform their own music but instead were allowed to perform songs that were produced by the various Music Publishing companies present during this era.

The Jazz Age (1920-1929)

The Jazz age was an era when both Jazz and Dance Music were gaining a rather large following, not only in America but also France, Britain and many other countries in Europe (Tirro, 321). During this era Jazz played a greater role in instigating cultural changes, hence its influence and impact on pop culture was still felt long after that.

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Also, referred to as the roaring twenties, this era led to a distinctive change in the cultural edge in America and across Europe in a period that was filled with sustained economic prosperity. The French people referred to this era as annelles folles which means crazy years because of the artistic, cultural and social dynamism that was characteristic of this era (Hentoff, 224).

Due to the economic prosperity of this era, the large scale use of electricity and motion pictures together with the accelerated consumer demand and unprecedented growth led to the widespread distribution of jazz music to a much larger platform (Ewen, 223).

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As Jazz was gaining a much larger audience, record companies were more than determined to decide what songs to write and what artists they were going to sign.

During the 1920s, Orchestral Jazz was developed in the city of New York by Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson who are some of the highly regarded composers, arrangers and musicians in all of the history of Jazz. By fusing Jazz’s instrumental characterizes and rhythm, together with the structure and scale, Fletcher and Henderson were able to make orchestral jazz very distinct from all the other musical genres that heralded its emergence (Tirro et al, 110).

Apart from the fusion of jazz’s rhythm and instruments into Orchestral Jazz, this new yet dynamic style of jazz also had elements of classical European compositions (Tirro et al, 111). The distinction between Orchestral Jazz and its southern predecessor was very clear because of two main reasons;

Orchestral Jazz bands were way bigger when compared to those of its predecessor.

Orchestral Jazz was not only sophisticated but also it had a distinct richness of sound.

This development not only contributed to the popularization of jazz but also to the legitimization of jazz as a form of art.

The Great Depression

The great depression was an era that was marred with a worldwide economic depression (Ciment, 450). The timing of the great depression may have varied from place to place but in most countries and states it began immediately after the Jazz Era in 1929 and lasted for a year. During this era the worldwide GDP fell by over 15 percent and it is believed that it originally originated from the United States. The effect of the great depression was felt in all countries regardless as to whether they were rich or poor.

Tax revenue, personal income, profits and prices all dropped by a significant margin while on the other hand the international trade nose-dived by almost 50 percent. Despite the fact that the great depression affected almost everyone, it was the smaller and less prosperous jazz bands that took a bigger blow. Due to their lack of recording contracts and mainstream connections most of these bands were unsuccessful hence many of these bands migrated to Europe during the Great Depression era.

So as to cope and to survive during this era, the bands that remained in the United States were forced to amalgamate the jazz scene into a more palatable format. So as to achieve this goal, most Jazz Bands had to incorporate other forms of popular music into their bands. We can think of this era as the era that Jazz became sophisticated, popular and civilized throughout the entire culture (Finer Times)

Swing music was one of the styles of Jazz that born during the great depression era but it became a distinctive style later on in the 1940’s.The name swing was drawn from the phrase ‘Swing feel’ where the emphasis is usually on the weaker or off beat pulse in the music. After becoming very popular, swing music was then merged with other genres to create much newer styles. Country musicians such as Moon Mullican and Bob Wills introduced many elements of swing together with blues to create a genre that was to be referred to as Western Swing.

During the late 1930’s, Swing Music became the most popular music style in America and stayed so for many years to come (Tirro, 153). Swing music began to decline in popularity during world war two because of two main factors.

It was becoming extremely hard to staff a bigger band because many of the musicians were overseas as fighters during the war.

The cost of touring with a much larger group was becoming extremely tiresome because of the effects of the big depression and war time economics.

European Jazz was also another style of music that came to life during the great depression era. Since most of the bands were forced to relocate during the economic hardships of the Great Depression Era, they mostly ended up in Europe. Due to their migration and the increase in popularity of Jazz, a new and distinct European Style of Jazz was born. It was during this era that the Gypsy band was born which was a fusion between American Swing, Eastern European folk that gave the style a rather languid but seductive feel and Mussete, a French dancehall (Kater, 132). The main instruments in this new and distinct style of jazz were mainly the violin, steel stringed guitar and a double bass. Solo verses are passed from one player to another with the bass play and the guitar playing the rhythm section.

Therefore as Jazz bands and musicians were trying to cope and survive during the great depression era, new styles of jazz were created in the process by infusing jazz with other musical cultures and styles.

World War 2

World War 2 had a huge effect on the development of Jazz Music which on the other hand played a role in the American war effort. Most jazz and jazz influenced music that were composed during era, were more of a cry for the United States servicemen which in the long run played a major role in boosting their morale during the war. During this era, Bebop performers played a greater role in shifting Jazz from a more danceable version to a more musician’s music (Young et al, 97).

Bepop is a style of Jazz that differed greatly from the then popular swing music. As a form of music, that was composed to be listened to rather than be danced to, Bebop employed the use of much faster tempos. The early divorce of Bebop from Jazz led to the introduction of new forms of dissonance and chromaticism into Jazz (Young et al, 101). The flattened fifth or sometimes what is referred to as the dissonant tritone interval became one of the most important interval in Bebop hence players played in a more abstracted arrangement of chord improvisation.

The introduction of Bebop was not widely accepted by all Americans (Young et al, 237). The divergence of bebop from the jazz mainstream was at times met with a much hostile response from the fans and Jazz musicians especially the already established swing musicians who were filled with nervous phrases (Ewen, 498). Despite the negative response from the fans and fellow jazz musicians, by the year 1950, Bebop became part of the Jazz vocabulary.

Free Jazz was developed by molding a wide range of music from Africa, India and Arabia into a more intense, meticulously ecstatic and orgiastic style of play (Tirro et al, 336). Despite the fact that free jazz was deeply rooted in bebop, the free jazz tunes were much preferred by many players because it gave them much more autonomy because it had a looser tempo and harmony. Later on in the 1960’s, Free Jazz gained popularity in Europe because many of the musicians in Europe were much eager to develop a much newer approach which not only reflected their style but also regional and national musical cultures (Ewen, 543)

The post-World War era saw the creation of Latin Jazz. By combining rhythms from Latin America and African countries and employing the use of instruments such as Timbale, Conga, Claves and guiro together with Jazz, a new style was brought to life( Ewen et al, 643). Styles such as Afro Cuban Jazz were played in the United States right after the period in which Bebop was born. Apart from the Afro Cuban jazz, Brazilian jazz and Bossa were also created as part of the Latin Jazz (Ewen et al, 644). Apart from being a rather moderately paced form of Jazz Bossa mainly consists of melodies and compositions that are sung in either Portuguese or English.

In the decades that followed, Jazz continued to undergo evolution as its popularity continued to increase among the white and black communities and the integration of Jazz into various musical cultures became more rampant than before (Tirro et al, 376). Progressively, up to this date, Jazz is not only considered as one of America’s greatest contributions to the worldwide music scene but it is also becoming a subject of academic analysis and study. The opposition to Jazz continued to fade as new generations began to embrace bebop, swing, Latin jazz and other later styles of jazz that emerged due to the fusion of jazz with other musical cultures.

Updated: Feb 22, 2024
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The complete history of jazz music: birth, evolution, peak, downfall and survival. (2024, Feb 16). Retrieved from

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