Jazz: The genre, the artists, the playlist!

The second in our Genres series explores probably the greatest musical art form of the 20th century and one that continues to have a profound influence on music as a whole.

So, what is Jazz?
So this is section is supposed to be where I give you a brief description of Jazz music but in truth no such thing exists. It encompasses a vast range of styles that span across a hundred or so years. It’s a style of music with an influence so firmly embedded in all music in the 20th century that providing a ready definition is impossible. In this article we’ve tried to cover all the interesting and important bases, but as you will see it has proved to be a relentlessly evolving form of musical expression.

Jazz, like it’s contemporaneous form Blues, emerged from African-American communities in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th century especially in the New Orleans area, with the word ‘Jazz’ as a connotation for the music emerging around about 1915. Musically it can be seen as a product of the clash between African, European and Latin musical elements, with classical instruments and teachings being used by black musicians to play a variety of musics, none of which could be classed as jazz but contained the essential ingredient: swing. Yep, it’ don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing and much of its distinctive approach to rhythm comes from Afro-Caribbean slave music which New Orleans was particularly well-placed to absorb in to its own culture.

So yes, Jazz is hard to define, but what we can say with certainty is that it is probably the USA’s greatest cultural gift to the world

Trad Jazz

Short for traditional jazz the name has become an umbrella term for what was also known as the Dixieland, ragtime and stride piano styles popular the first few decades of the 1900’s. Ragtime was a piano-led style of music who’s most famous exponent is probably Scott Joplin. Dixieland was born in New Orleans around the turn of the century and soon spread to cities like Chicago and New York, and it’s the marching band, multihorned style you’ve probably seen in movies before.

The 1920’s and 30’s  are now what has become as ‘the jazz age’. This was a time in America of alcohol prohibition and the speakeasies in which jazz flourished. Hot jazz as it was also known was embodied by Louis Armstrong, one of the most important jazz musicians of all. His innovative approach to melody and phrasing and simply his sheer uniqueness as both a vocalist and cornet-player left an indelible mark on 20th century music way beyond jazz and arguably influenced, either directly or indirectly, pretty much every non-classical musician who came after him. Put simply, without Armstrong jazz music would not have developed in the way it did. His contemporaries were people like Bix Beiderbecke, probably the first significant white jazz musician, and also names like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Chick Webb.

The other big piece of the trad puzzle is the British revival in the 1940’s led by players like Humphrey Lyttleton, Acker Bilk, Chris Barber, Kenny Ball and George Melly all found a degree of success playing a style that harked back through the previous 20 or so years. Barber in particular would prove to be a seminal figure in British music beyond just jazz, and was also heavily involved in London’s R&B and blues scene.

Big Bands

When we think of big bands we think of jazz and swing music. Big Bands are bands with more than 10 musicians mainly focusing on percussion, brass and woodwind. Usually there are at least three trumpets, four or more saxophones and piano, guitar, bass and drums. It is difficult to classify them but labels have generally done it by focusing on the type of jazz they played.. Swing (Duke Ellington and Count Basie). Cool (Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans). There is also a difference between those bands who combined rhythm and solo improvisations (Hot Bands or Swing bands) and those that didn’t  – “Sweet Bands” – like Glen Miller´s  and Guy Lombardo´s.  Big bands were featured in movies in the 1930s through to the 1960s. They are a part of that Americana lifestyle and are deeply embedded in pop culture.


In the 1940’s a younger generation of musicians came along who took jazz and started to expand it’s range. Instead of creating swing music to dance to they wanted people to listen to the music and so began experimenting with rhythm and melody in various ways, and as the music rolled in to the 50’s it became increasingly adventurous, with it’s practitioners making music that challenged, baffled, and confounded audiences. More than anything bebop turned jazz in to a primarily improvisational art with virtuosity and innovation prized above all else. Every musician in the band would be given a chance to express themselves through solos and as a result tracks became longer and longer.  Yes, jazz is responsible for excessive drum solos, not rock music! Bebop reached it’s peak in the mid 50’s through to the 60’s.

The big figures of the bebop era are now seen as maybe the most influential in the music’s history, with musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderly, Art Blakey, Bill Evans and Max Roach among them.

Jazz Singers

Since we have already discussed Female vocalists, we are going to talk about male jazz singers, although some say it is a disappearing species. There are the obvious choices, those original crooners like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennet and Mel Torme, who are in between jazz singing and pop stars. And then there is also the purists, whether they are amazing vocalists or good at plain old “scat” singing. There is a style called “vocalese,”  in which lyrics are set to melodies of jazz instrumentals, of which singer Jon Hendricks is a great example and also Joe Williams.

Then there is Billy Eckstine, renowned for his vibrato. Kurt Elling who is a great singer and also a wonderful scatter. One of our favorites, Cab Calloway )included in our playlists) and we also mentioned him here. One that stands out for his high and unique voice tone is Jimmy Scott. Last, there is of course the best jazz trumpet player as well as probably one of the most recognizable voices of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong.

Women in Jazz

As with many music genres, and music in general, and occupation, job, passion, interests and yada yada yada women have had to struggle and gain the right to participate in activities who unfortunately have been dominated by men. Jazz is not the exception, but things did start to change by World War II. When men were sent to the war, there were a lot of female jazz bands came on to the scene.  Since early in the 1920´s there were women instrumentalists, but it has been though female vocalists that the genre has more recognition. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm: the first integrated female band in the United States They were very famous in the 40´s and then got their momentum back in the 60´s and 70´s because of the Feminist movements. After the war ended women did not do what men wanted, go back to being housewives, they continued increasingly to make part of the workforce.

Female musicians became more common and gained more and more recognition. There is the ageless Viola Smith (one of the most famous female drummers in history) who could sit down and jam in a way many male musicians would have like to play. Ethel Waters although predominantly a Blues singer provided us with some great jazz numbers, especially in scenes from her extensive movies career. And for female jazz vocalist, we will mention a few. There is of course the woman said to have “one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century.” Sarah Vaughan, a Grammy winner and on of Jazz´s finest voices. Then of course comes one of the greatest singers of any genre of the 20th century, who still keeps inspiring many and who had her own style, phrasing and tempo: Billie Holiday.  “Lady Day” is basically the greatest jazz singer that ever lived. Then there is “The First Lady of Song”. Queen of Jazz and Lady Ella. Ella Fitzgerald had a tone as pure as none other. And she also had intonation and great diction. There was Anita O´Day, dynamic, “hip” and with fabulous rhythm. Finally, out of all the other female jazz singers we want to mention Nina Simone. Although her dream was to be a classical pianist, she ended up becoming a singer, songwriter, arranger, and civil rights activist which impacted classical, blues, folk, gospel, pop and of course jazz. It is important to mention we love female jazz vocalists Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRea and Betty Carter.

Today, there are a lot of female jazz musicians like saxophone players Claire Daly, Fostina Dixon and Jane Ira Bloom, drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and piano prodigies like Mary Lou Williams and Diana Krall (also a vocalist) and singers like Cassandra Wilson. Things were not always easy for women in jazz . Not they that are now, since it is still very male dominated. Working conditions and opportunities, as well as society and cultural taboos are still a side effect that comes with the job.

Fusions, Jazz-Funk, Avant Garde, and Free Jazz


Or where jazz went in the late 60’s and through the 70’s. By now rock music had taken over as the most innovative music around and jazz musicians began to collaborate with them, something which resulted in jazz-rock, a style whose apex is probably Bitches Brew by Miles Davis, a sprawling double album of improvisations which abandoned swing in favour of rock grooves. In turn rock acts like Frank Zappa, Caravan, and Blood Sweat & Tears would borrow jazz stylings and influences helping blur the boundaries between them. Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea, and Weather Report are other notable exponents of a style which veered between jazz, rock, and even funk grooves.

And then there’s jazz-funk, hugely popular in the 1970’s and through to the 80’s, and which took the groove of funk and the improvisational aspects of jazz. Artists like Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Quincy Jones, Donald Byrd, Billy Cobham, Bob James, Tower Of Power, the Average White Band (and even Steely Dan!) explored a groove-driven sound that would eventually help spawn disco, but don’t worry, we’re not going there!

Further explorations came through the avant-garde and free jazz movements, and although there were definite differences between the two (crudely put the former radically experimented with form and structure whereas the latter tried to move completely beyond it) musicians such as Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp are often categorised as both and it can often be hard for the more casual listener to tell the difference. This is jazz for hardcore fans only and to the uninitiated it can sometimes sound like a group of musicians all playing a different song at once! Ok, that’s a crass generalisation, I’ll admit, but sometimes it really does…

Jazz in our times

Whilst the overall popularity of jazz may have suffered over the last 30 years it has continued to grow in to different areas. Musicians such as Pat Metheny, Courtney Pine, Brad Mehldau, and John Scofield have all in their own ways continued to explore and innovate. In Britain in the 80’s the acid-jazz movement sprung up taking danceable funky grooves and soulful vocals and putting a heavy jazz tinge on them, with the bands Galliano, Young Disciples, and Brand New Heavies being the best examples.

In the 90’s and 00’s artists like Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, Diana Krall, and Harry Connick jr. emerged with a pop-infused jazz sound that has proved to be very popular. Whilst more traditional jazz sounds continue to be played the world over it is also a music that continues to make it’s presence felt in popular culture. Don’t listen to anyne who tells you jazz is dead, it’s alive and in all kinds of ways still very much kicking.

And finally, the playlist!

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