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The Evolution of Jazz

Updated on December 18, 2013


Jazz is one of the most influential musical forms of all time, as its strong rhythms, solos, melodic and harmonic patterns, and a substantial amount of improvisation has shaped this unique art form as one of the most significant aspects of U.S. History. Let's get started!


  • Ragtime began to arise in the late 1890s. It became popular almost immediately after its inception, as its infectious rhythms and innovative melodies soon developed into a unique form of musical art.
  • This new form of music was mainly performed by a solo pianist.
  • In 1897, the first genuine ragtime song was published. It was arranged by William Krell, and he dubbed it "The Mississippi Rag".
  • Another song, "The Harlem Rag", was published the same year by Tom Turpin. As its popularity rose, more and more composers emerged with fresh, unsullied music.
  • Musicians such as James Scott, Louis Chauvin, Joseph Lamb, and Scott Joplin were able to positively shape the musical style.
  • Although the origins of Ragtime can be traced all the way back to 1895, it truly surfaced and became popular around the early 1900s. This became a solid foundation for the musical style we all know as jazz.
  • African Americans were able to create a new musical style that distracted them from the oppression that they were forced to endure during this time period. The establishment of jazz is one of the major methods in which blacks were able to fully express themselves, and find a safe haven to express their own individuality.


  • From 1917 to 1923, Dixieland Jazz became notorious in New Orleans and Chicago.
  • This became small band music, playing ragtime, marches, pop tunes, and blues.
  • The instruments that were played were clarinet, trombone, and the trumpet, accompanied by the piano, guitar, tuba, bass, and drums.
  • Some of the admired musicians at the time were Joe King Oliver, Louie Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, and Jimmy McPartland.
  • Although Dixieland was formed in both New Orleans and Chicago at similar times, they both formed very distinct styles.

Tin Pan Alley

  • Burton Lane, a famous jazz musician said, "Tin Pan Alley was a real alley on East Fourteenth Street near Third (in New York). But it was never just a place -- Tin Pan Alley soon became known for an era of songwriting when many musical concepts merged together to form American popular music. Tin Pan Alley brought together many styles, blues, jazz, musical scores and ragtime."
  • This put a major emphasis on songwriting and expression through musicians' written and innovative music.
  • The black community needed a safe haven to place themselves away from the oppression that they were under, and Tin Pan Alley was one of those places. They were able to combine and merge different musical styles to form a unique form of music.
  • During the thriving birth of jazz, tensions were high against black people. They were considered outsiders and were not allowed. Although they were merely performers in music venues, they could never enter as a guest.
  • Despite this, however, jazz helped many African Americans with their confidence, and became a way to cope with the oppressive environment they found themselves in.

Boogie Woogie

  • This jazz style was primarily played with a piano.
  • During this time, it soon became necessary that a piano be used in order to replace an orchestra.
  • The piano was used to imitate the sound of three guitars. The player would have to play the chords, the melody, and the bassline in order to mimic the full sound of a real orchestra successfully.
  • During the 1930s, the blues form was used more frequently in jazz because of the upbeat tempos that were speeding up. Before 1940, the blues form of Boogie-Woogie became very popular.
  • Meade Lux Lewis was given credit by historians for the new jazz craze.
  • Once the element of boogie was added to jazz, big bands found a lot of success in their music.
  • Popular songs during this era were Will Bradley's "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" and Tommy Dorsey's "Boogie Woogie".
  • Influential boogie woogie players such as Pine Top Smith, Albert Ammons, Jimmy Yancey, Joe Sullivan, Clarence Lofton, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis.


  • Swing emerged during the early 1930s and influenced the popularity of big bands.
  • This jazz style began appearing in multiple recordings, film, and television music.
  • Most of the swing bands during this time had a minimum of 10 players.
  • It featured three to four saxophones, two or three trumpets, two or three trombones, a piano, a guitar, a bass violin, and the drums.
  • The repeating rhythms and catchy tunes were able to inspire dance. Swing soon became a unique jazz style for dancers all around.
  • Musicians sought to make rich qualities with their instruments using the elements of swing. This is why the 1930s and the 1940s became the musical period of swing and big-band.
  • Some of the swing bands that featured more extended solo improvisation and intricate rhythms were called hot bands. Some of these advanced groups were the bands of Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, and Duke Ellington.
  • The swing bands that had more simple rhythms and less improvisation were called sweet bands. These groups were the groups like the bands of Glenn Miller, Wayne King, Freddy Martin, and Guy Lombardo.
  • Although there were many bands that inspired dance before, swing music was a jazz style that continued for decades after its conception.
  • Although big band music was always considered a single genre, large ensembles actually performed a variety of styles. They performed, bebop, cool, hard bop, free jazz, and jazz-rock fusion.
  • People who played swing had to be more learned and educated in the art than people in previous jazz styles. Musical technicality such as tuning and phrasing became much more important than the feeling and emotion in the playing. This technical importance became a distinction between African American bands and White bands.
  • Bands played by all white tended to avoid having to avoid tuning and phrasing. They kept their playing simplified and started all at the same time in order to avoid conflicts between instruments.
  • Jazz improvisation was a significant component of jazz. In the swing era, there were very important jazz improvisers such as Art Tatum and Django Reinhardt.
  • There was a subtype of swing music, called Progressive swing, or Progressive jazz. It became an extension of Stan Kenton’s music in the 1940s. This was a darker sound as opposed to the more upbeat, lively sound of regular swing.
  • At the time, it was considered a bit rebellious as it became somewhat modernistic and similar to modern jazz. Stan Kenton’s “Chorale for Brass, Piano and Bongos” was a good example of Progressive Jazz that was recorded in 1947.
  • In 1952, he recorded “Invention for Guitar and Trumpet”. A jazz musician named Boyd Raebum recorded “Boyd Meets Stravinsky” in 1946, which was another record that epitomized the style of Progressive Swing.
  • As mentioned before, big band music was a jazz style that included a group of more than 10 musicians. Because of the unique amount of instruments involved, big band music involved a lot of shifting harmonic and rhythms. It also deals with a lot of arranging and combining the instruments successfully to create a unified sound.
  • This sudden need for cooperation between band members really reflected the needs of the black community. As jazz became more popular, blacks soon became banding together to merge into one unified group. Jazz was a way to not only bring Americans together, but more specifically the African American community together as well.
  • During the Depression, jazz was able to transform into a symbol of hope and positive energy. Just like jazz was able to inspire freedom in black people, it inspired freedom worldwide, spreading individuality and wartime resistance.
  • The V-Discs were created between 1943 and 1949.
  • Victory Discs, or V-Discs was a record label that was made and produced by the U.S. government during World War II.
  • They were able to collaborate with private recording companies to produce the records, and were created for members of the U.S. Military who were fighting overseas in the war.
  • They named them “Victory” in order to inspire the troops to continue to fight for the cause, and lighten their spirits. Not only did it inspire the troops in the war and remind them of home, but it also inspired the country as well.


  • The jazz style of scatting is unique because it’s done vocally.
  • Scatters during this era had to be able to use their singing voice to imitate an instrument and improvise using a unique vocabulary of consonants and vowels.
  • This vocabulary had to have the same articulation and tone of jazz instruments. Recordings would sound like a trumpet like in “Oop-Pop-a-Da” by Babs Gonzales or like a saxophone in “Shulie-abop” by Sarah Vaughan.
  • One of the most popular scatters of all time is Ella Fitzgerald. Many people attempted to imitate her vocal jazz ability but could never reach her level.
  • Scatters used to mostly sing nonsense words that imitated instruments until Leo Watson introduced using actual words combined with scatting.
  • Musicians such as the famous Louis Armstrong actually begin substituting real words in the lyrics for scatting. His reinvention of the words into scatting and building them into musical lines put jazz into yet another new direction.
  • The scatting jazz style soon bled into the white culture. Paul Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, a white jazz group, was known to be the first white group that implemented scatting into their music.
  • The style began appearing on national radio programs, but it wasn't until the famous Ella Fitzgerald began scatting that it became extremely popular. Ella added a dazzling unique sound to her scatting and defined scatting as its own style.
  • In her first known scat recording, “Flying Home” in 1947, she was able to implement a variety of scat and showcased numerous songs. Her ability to sample from many jazz songs and transfer it into her own songs paid homage to many artists such as Lionel Hampton, Chick Webb, Slam Stewart, and Dizzy Gillespie.
  • Scatting extended all the way to the late 1960s, where numerous radio and TV programs began introducing the jazz style.
  • Another famous jazz singer, Sarah Vaughn was a key part of bringing scat into American homes around this time.
  • The major influences that these female scatters had on the country really gave exposure to women’s rights. As women’s role in jazz began to become more prevalent, so did the American woman’s role in society.
  • The nation soon paid attention to women’s role in music and how prominent they would soon become.


  • The BeBop era was from 1944 to 1955, and is considered one of the most important musical periods in jazz history.
  • During the era of BeBop, World War II was making a negative effect on jazz music.
  • The introduction of the military service draft forced big bands all over to dissolve, giving rise to smaller combos. Thousands of jazz players, primarily African Americans were drafted into the war and forced to leave their careers to go fight.
  • Music players that were famous and playing jazz music in America could no longer do so. There was no telling what would become of the direction that music would take during this time.
  • Fortunately, the absence of the old jazz players gave new, younger players a chance to showcase their ideas and influence their own styles. As a result, bop and be-bop were formed.
  • This jazz style made many changes in attitude, technique, and the audience that jazz style normally targeted.
  • Previous jazz styles were used for dancing, but Bop became the first style of jazz that was not.
  • Because of this change, audiences changed, and a more elite, sophisticated audience began to tune in.
  • Bop-playing soon became a unique range of music that proficient musicians in other jazz styles could not enter.
  • The music of be-bop became very complex and intricate, and the player’s knowledge of harmonies and other musical techniques needed to be expanded.
  • BeBop players had to be knowledgeable of elements of music such as chord recognition and inversions.
  • BeBop music was extremely upbeat, which demanded more effort and skill from individual players.
  • Because of its target audience, it was not very accepted or liked when it was introduced as it is today. Although the innovative style of bebop yielded a positive outlook on the future, some say that it signaled the temporary end of jazz itself.
  • The fact that bebop broke the connection between jazz and dance made it difficult for everyone to appreciate and enjoy the music. The era of Bebop music certainly created a major shift in jazz music that changed the musical style forever.


  • When Cool Jazz emerged, World War II was over, and once the country was no longer tense and more relaxed, so did jazz.
  • The transition from the fast paced sounds of bebop to the smooth, softer sounds of cool jazz mirrored the feeling of the country.
  • When the Cool jazz era began in 1947, not only did the sounds change, but the choice of instruments.
  • Jazz education became possible for numerous jazz players. This schooling created increased jazz experimentation and encouraged more players to try new things.
  • Jazz musicians began experimenting in new meters, new sounds, and unique orchestrations.
  • Two famous players, Lester Young, and Miles Davis, who primarily played swing and bop jazz styles were very involved in the development of cool jazz.
  • Lester Young’s personal adaptation led to the production of the song “Birth of the Cool.
  • Piano player George Shearing, alto saxophone player Paul Desmond, and trumpet player Chet Baker all performed and represented the chill, relaxed sound of cool jazz.

Hard Bop

  • Although the previous bop music was unpopular at the time, this new jazz style of hard bop allowed for a much bigger audience.
  • The new hot, funky sounds were able to recapture the attention of the audience. This new sound was also a way to bring back a dominant African American expression.
  • Hard bop began to influence other musical styles in 1955, and as a result, all future jazz styles.
  • As a contrast to bebop music, hard bop included simpler harmonies, simpler rhythms, and easier tunes.
  • Funky jazz and gospel jazz became extensions of hard bop. Artists such as Bobby Timmons and Art Blakey expressed this jazz style.

Free Jazz

  • Free jazz was present for a while, but had not become known and popular until before the 60s.
  • Free jazz embodied simple tempos, and longer progression of chords. This allowed a lot more improvisation to a degree that it became the main component of the jazz style.
  • The amount of free musical expression and individuality in the music mirrored the feelings of blacks at the time.
  • Blacks were able to have complete freedom with their music, and improvise whatever they wanted.
  • Because of the lack of preset chords, free jazz was very chaotic because neither the audience nor the performers really knew what was coming next in the music. However the amount of freedom given to the musicians was extremely invigorating.

Rock Fusion

  • This was the first time that jazz was combined with another musical genre to such an extent. This crossover of these two musical styles began around 1965.
  • The elements of rock, such as the instruments and style, were infused into jazz. Artists who were prominent in this musical style were Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter.
  • However, this new musical fusion was faced with controversy.
  • Blacks and whites soon became performing in the same bands, which was, of course, frowned upon, but shined a new light on the black community.
  • And even though segregation was widespread, there was a big possibility that playing and listening to jazz could bring these two conflicting races together. In fact, most of the black people who were able to perform jazz were able to become real artists.
  • Previously, blacks aspiring to be serious musical artists were never taken seriously or turned away by whites because of prejudice. However, once segregation transformed into integration, integrated jazz bands and solo African American artists slowly became accepted.


  • By the time the 80s arrived, the earlier styles of jazz before bebop changed drastically.
  • The sudden musical direction that jazz was able to take was all due to the free jazz and jazz fusion of the 70s.
  • Young, upcoming musicians were able to bring back the sophisticated, complex sounds that bebop had.
  • Musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Jeff Watts, and Kenny Kirkland were able to head the neobop revolution. This new jazz style created a unique and individual sound unheard of since the original bebop sound.


Now, in today's music industry, jazz is still holding its own as one of the most prominent musical styles. There are numerous artists today that still uphold the legacy of jazz, a musical style that has shaped a nation's people and history, influencing our culture and positively affecting the social minds of multiple generations.

What's Your Favorite Era of Jazz?

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    • jponiato profile image


      5 years ago from Mid-Michigan

      Great hub. Gotta love the boogie woogie and swing. Not such a fan of the real improvisational stuff starting with Dizzy Gillespie.

    • Hezekiah profile image


      5 years ago from Japan

      Interesting Hub, I'm learning to play Jazz on the piano at the moment. Mainly improvisational stuff. The theory is rather complicated but I'm getting there. The more I listen, the better I become.

    • AvineshP profile image

      Avinesh Prahladi 

      5 years ago from Chandigarh

      I am not a huge fan of jazz music, but I am quite impressed by the way you have expressed the whole journey of jazz with the help of images.

      Cheers !!

    • oldiesmusic profile image


      5 years ago from United States

      Great hub, presented in a timeline fashion of every genre (or subgenre, unless you correct me on that term). First time I learn of "neobop", something I've never heard of before. Jazz is really a unique American gift to the world. :)


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