“Jazz is like wine. When it is new, it is only for the experts, but when it gets older, everybody wants it.” –Steve Lacy
The origin of the word “Jazz” is given as “early 20th Century of an unknown origin” but a definition according to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Revised Edition 2006) says jazz is “a type of music of Black American origin characterised by improvisation, syncopation, and a regular rhythm, and typically played on brass and woodwind instruments.”
Some people say that jazz is America’s only true art form. That’s because it began here, hundreds of years ago, in the fields where black people worked as slaves and made-up songs to pass time, to express themselves, and to keep alive the culture and traditions of their African homelands. It wasn’t called jazz then, but the way the slaves were playing and singing music was different and special.
The music of America’s black people came to be called jazz in the South in the early 1900s; New Orleans, Louisiana, is often called the birthplace of jazz. Despite slavery having ended in 1865, African Americans still didn’t have the same rights as white Americans. But jazz was music that both black and white people could enjoy. By the 1920s, jazz was growing in popularity and included influences from Europe as well as Africa.
What makes jazz unique?
Jazz has all the elements that other music has: It has melody; that’s the tune of the song, the part you’re most likely to remember. It has harmony, the notes that make the melody sound fuller. It has rhythm, which is the heartbeat of the song. But what sets jazz apart is this cool thing called improvisation. That means making it up on the spot. No music in front of you. No long discussion with your bandmates. You just play.
It’s not that jazz songs don’t have recognizable melodies. They do, but that’s just a small part of it. In jazz, a melody begins a song, but then each musician will take turns improvising, playing all kinds of crazy notes: high, low, long, short, gravelly, and clear.
Who’s Who in Jazz Music:
Washington has an important place in jazz history. In 1920, the city had the largest population of black people in the country. That was around the time that a very famous jazz piano player, Duke Ellington, was playing around town.
Born in Washington in 1899, Ellington as a kid wanted to play baseball instead of the piano. That’s why he sold peanuts, popcorn, and candy at the games of the Washington Senators. (That was the baseball team here then.) But his parents played the piano, so he started taking lessons when he was 7 or 8 years old.
By 1920, he was playing small shows at the Howard Theatre, where black musicians played to mostly black audiences. When he was 24, he moved to New York, but he didn’t forget his hometown. He called his band the Washingtonians and later he returned to perform at another famous Washington spot, the Lincoln Theatre. (Both the Lincoln Theatre and the Howard Theatre, where a statue of Ellington stands, still exist.)
Want to enjoy jazz music but don’t know where to start?
If you’re looking for the best albums for jazz beginners, you need to start with Louis Armstrong. One of jazz’s founding fathers, trumpet sensation and gravel-voiced singer Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong became an ambassadorial figure for the genre in his later years.
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