Go to Content
Columbia College Chicago


Definition of Style

Jazz, wide-ranging in its embrace, can encompass genres that range from some ragtime to the pop-inflected radio hits of George Benson and the improvised atonal experiments of Cecil Taylor. As with all living art forms, the borders of jazz are continually blurred as successive generations of musicians adapt its conventions to contemporary artistic trends.

Most accounts place the origin of jazz in New Orleans between 1890 and 1900. There, in a bustling coastal city with international connections, African-, Caribbean-, and European-derived musics melded within the context of the bands or instrumental ensembles that accompanied funeral processions and other types of celebrations and observances. The result was a new music that became a target of early recording technology: the first jazz recording was made by a group of white musicians, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who recorded in New Orleans in 1917. A 1922 recording by New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory was the first jazz recording by a black musician. This early music recalled the two-beat rhythm of the marching band, which was gradually altered through the early 1920s into the four-beat rhythm we associate with jazz today.

From 1920 through the early 1930s, jazz continued to flourish in New Orleans, but other sounds also evolved, including the urbanized sound of Chicago jazz, New York stride piano, and New York and Kansas City swing. Also during the 1930s, a musical dialogue with Europe began to emerge, and many European musicians embraced jazz without reservation.

The 1940s were a revolutionary time for jazz. Despite the shadow of war and the lack of materials for records and instruments, swing bands continued to thrive, and musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie "Bird" Parker developed a fast, challenging, and harmonically advanced style that came to be known as bebop, or simply bop. A typical bop ensemble consisted of a four- or five-piece group that played tunes consisting of a melody called the "head," followed by ample room for soloing, and completed and closed by a return to the head.

Bop remains a staple of the jazz repertoire, but in the late 1950s it began to share the spotlight with other styles. Post-bop musicians, such as Hank Mobley and John Coltrane, worked at the same time as "free" jazz musicians, such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler. Later in the 1960s, jazz adopted new elements, including electric instruments, long song forms, and a dialogue between jazz and pop music that continued through the 1970s in the style known as fusion.

Musical Example

New East St. Louis Toodle-oo (D. Ellington, B. Miley), Duke Ellington Orchestra. Reminiscing in Tempo (Columbia/Legacy CD 48654).

Introductory Bibliography

DeVeaux, Scott. The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Picks up where Schuller (see below) leaves off.

Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Edited by Barry Kernfeld. London: Macmillan, 1988. Reprint, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. Definitions, discussion of genres, and biographical articles, with further bibliography and discography.

Schuller, Gunther. The History of Jazz. Volume 1, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development. New York: Oxford University, 1968. Volume 2, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945. New York: Oxford University, 1989. Encyclopedic in coverage and content.

Selected Discography

Armstrong, Louis. The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Sony 63527)

Coltrane, John. Giant Steps (Rhino 75203)

Davis, Miles. Kind of Blue (Columbia 40579)

Ellington, Duke. Best of the Duke Ellington Centennial Edition (RCA 63459)

Holiday, Billie. The Legacy (Sony 47724)

Parker, Charlie. Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection (Rhino 72260)

Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (Smithsonian R 033 P7-19477) 7-LP box set