Known as “America’s Classical Music,” jazz is a uniquely American contribution to the music world. It’s impossible to fully explain jazz’s influence on music and culture in a few paragraphs, though we’ll do our best to give you a taste!
First came the Blues
The Blues was its own genre long before jazz developed. Originating on Southern plantations in the 19th Century, the Blues is deeply rooted in various forms of African American slave songs such as field hollers, work songs, spirituals, and country string ballads.
From the Blues, we get many of the elements of jazz, such as the wide use of seventh chords and the Blues scale. The Blues is also a form of music – maybe you’ve heard of the 12-Bar Blues on our site before! It’s a simple yet versatile structure that lets the performer experiment and improvise – something that became one of jazz’s defining elements.
The Rise of Jazz
Jazz rose from New Orleans as “Dixieland,” blending together the uniquely African American sounds of Blues, Ragtime, and Afro-Caribbean music. The Jazz Age (1920s-30s) was an important period in America’s music history due to the significant cultural shift taking place in a post-World War I society. Jazz was about celebration, joy, rebellion, and dancing! It brought an element of freedom back into people’s lives after the hard times of the war.
In an era where cultural differences divided people, jazz music was a great unifier. However, despite this connection, segregation continued for many years to come. New Orleans was the home to many of the early African American jazz musicians, but due to the racial violence and tension there, many artists fled to other cities such as Chicago, Kansas City, and New York. At the same time, jazz music was being played on national radio, spreading jazz to new audiences across the United States.
A Few Big Names
There are too many influential jazz performers to name in a single post, let alone to write about! There’s Bessie Smith, one of the first African American jazz musicians to be recorded. Duke Ellington evolved the genre and featured many other famous names in his band. Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole – the list goes on! Let’s look at four influential individuals in detail today.
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
“He was and will continue to be the embodiment of jazz.” – Duke Ellington
New Orleans native Louis Armstrong did a lot for jazz. Trumpet solos? Thank Armstrong. Scat singing? That was (partly) Armstrong. Jazz as a serious solo art? Armstrong’s doing. A virtuoso trumpet player, he was equally known for his charisma on stage and his distinctive, gravelly voice. He’s probably best known for his covers of other people’s music, like La Vie en Rose. However, he also composed many jazz standards still played today.
Armstrong was widely accepted by audiences of all races. This allowed him to be an influential voice for both music and civil rights. The FBI actually kept a file on him because of that! Once, Armstrong refused to tour the Soviet Union on behalf of the U.S., saying that he couldn’t represent his government when it was in conflict with its own people.
Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996)
“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” – Ira Gerswhin
Ella Fitzgerald is one of the most popular jazz singers of the 20th century. During her career, she won 13 Grammys and recorded over 200 albums! With a powerful and versatile voice, she sang with many of her fellow jazz geniuses, including Louis Armstrong. Here’s the two of them singing Gershwin’s They Can’t Take That Away from Me!
The “First Lady of Song” faced many struggles in her career due to racist Jim Crow laws. She had to enter many of her own performance venues through the back door, and she and her colleagues were sometimes harassed by police. Many big venues were off-limits to African Americans. However, in the 1950s, Ella changed that with help from actress Marylin Monroe. Monroe called the owner of a major club in Hollywood, saying that if he booked Ella, she would be at the front table every night. After that, Ella never had to play a small jazz club again.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
“It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.” – Frank Sinatra
In late-1920s Baltimore, neighbors might have heard teenage Billie Holiday singing along to records of Louis Armstrong. Today, her face graces postal stamps, complete with her iconic gardenia in her hair. Born Eleanora Fagan Gough, Holiday made her debut in obscure Harlem nightclubs. One of her most acclaimed songs, Strange Fruit, is also considered the first protest song of the Civil Rights Era. She also popularized many classics, such as April in Paris.
Billie Holiday died tragically young, but her legacy lives on. Her vocal stylings influenced countless pop artists, including Frank Sinatra. She won four Grammy awards after her death. In 1972, Diana Ross starred in a biopic called Lady Sings the Blues. The play Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill features Holiday as a primary character, played on Broadway and in film by Audra McDonald.
Chuck Berry (1926-2017)
“The best rock and roll got its birth in the blues. You hear it…in Chuck Berry.” – Angus Young
Anyone familiar with Chuck Berry’s music might wonder why we’ve included him here! Well, he may be the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but his music is deeply rooted in the Blues. If Beethoven was the bridge between the two major Classical eras, then Chuck Berry was a bridge between the Blues and Rock. If that comparison isn’t enough, one of Chuck Berry’s famous songs is called Roll Over Beethoven!
As jazz began to fall out of popularity in the 1950s, Rock ‘n’ Roll took its place. Chuck Berry helped shape it into what we know today, using many elements of his Blues roots. To the stage, he brought the swagger of a jazz great; to rock music, he brought guitar solos and an emphasis on storytelling through lyrics. Many of his songs use the 12-bar blues structure. His legacy has been cemented through countless covers by famous Rock stars, and will continue to live on in music history.
Continuing the Legacy
There are so many ways to honor these musical legacies at home!
- Check out your local jazz concerts or radio stations, or find stations on Spotify!
- Learn more about the history of jazz and its greatest contributors at PBS. They even have a Classroom page for grades 6-12!
- For younger audiences, here’s a great book about the experience of jazz performers in the segregated South: When Grandmama Sings by Margaree K. Mitchell
- Learn more about the Blues with our Music Notes episode, What Is a 12-Bar Blues?
- And of course, listen to our special Spotify playlist for African American Music Appreciation Month!