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date: 22 May 2019


The Oxford Companion to United States History

Burton W. Peretti


The most influential American music of the twentieth century, jazz was shaped by 1800s minstrelsy, vaudeville, ragtime, and brass-band music. African-American blues singing of the lower Mississippi Valley, however, was the decisive new influence in local river towns. By 1910, bands were flavoring ragtime marches and dances with indeterminate “blue” notes, rough vocal-style timbres, and imaginative improvisations on tunes. New Orleans's extensive musical culture and diverse racial and ethnic identities nurtured the most distinctive new style. Beginning in 1906, black New Orleanians such as the pianist Jelly Roll Morton traveled the nation, popularizing their “hot” blues-oriented ragtime. In 1917, when a white New Orleans group, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), made its best-selling first recordings, the local term “jazz” (originally a reference to sexual activity, perhaps of distant African origin) became the world's name for the new music.

After 1920, commercial New York City bands and songwriters further popularized the ODJB's comic cacophony. Southern musicians in search of commercial advancement joined the great black migration to northern cities. In Chicago, Joe “King” Oliver's group popularized “hot” jazz, and the band member Louis Armstrong, a brilliantly extroverted trumpeter, soon launched an independent career. In New York, pianists such as Eubie Blake blended ragtime dexterity with “swinging” jazz rhythms. Fletcher Henderson and Edward (“Duke”) Ellington independently built the first large black jazz orchestras, but white groups such as Paul Whiteman's—playing in comic, symphonic, or “sweet” styles—continued to shape the public's perception of jazz. The music came to symbolize a decade that witnessed the rebellion of white adolescents, northern blacks, and speakeasy customers against restrictive codes of behavior, and F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled the 1920s the “Jazz Age.”

The Great Depression eliminated many musicians' jobs, but the rise of radio, recordings, and sound films continued to aid jazz. Ellington's complex and sophisticated work and the blues-oriented, aggressively improvisational “Kansas City” style of the William (“Count”) Basie Orchestra refined the “hot” band traditions pioneered by Oliver and Morton. Ellington, Armstrong, and Cab Calloway, aided by effective management, became commercial successes. Hot jazz gained mass popularity, however, only after the white clarinetist Benny Goodman made a successful 1935 tour. “Swing” bands suddenly became the vogue. Leaders such as Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Woody Herman carefully tailored “hot” jazz to more sedate white tastes. Jazz became a topic of serious inquiry in the 1930s, as writers researched its history and young white critics proclaimed aesthetic standards. Carnegie Hall concerts conferred respectability on “swing,” and Manhattan's Fifty-second Street became a stylish mecca for curious listeners. While highly publicized racial integration occurred in some bands, and new black stars such as the vocalists Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, the pianist Art Tatum, and the saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young appeared, discrimination and segregation continued to hinder jazz.

During World War II, the draft, labor disputes, and rationing limited recording and touring, but armed-services swing bands such as Glenn Miller's proved highly popular. This turbulent era saw both the nostalgic revival of “Dixieland” music and the rise of a group of assertive young black innovators. The saxophonist Charlie Parker, a Kansas City native, along with the New Yorkers John (“Dizzy”) Gillespie (trumpet), Kenny Clarke (drums), and Thelonious Monk (piano), pioneered a fleet, technically demanding blues style that scorned swing clichés and intimidated older, less gifted improvisers. This new style, soon labeled “bebop,” created intense critical controversy. After 1945, the players' dress, unusual slang, and drug use made them notorious, but critics acknowledged their skill. Postwar inflation and changing public tastes forced most swing orchestras to disband, and jazz became the province of smaller audiences and more experimental musicians. Pedagogues introduced conservatory-style training in jazz. The composers John Lewis, George Russell, Pete Rugolo, and Boyd Raeburn introduced avant-garde classical dissonances and experimentation, and the bandleader Stan Kenton championed a strident “progressive” jazz style. The trumpeter Miles Davis (a bebop pioneer) created a more subdued new sound in his 1949 Birth of the Cool recordings.

In the 1950s, the federal government enlisted jazz in Cold War diplomacy. The Gillespie, Armstrong, and Goodman bands made goodwill tours. “Cool” jazz proved highly popular in the staid Eisenhower era. The white pianist Dave Brubeck advocated a “West Coast” style, while Davis, the arranger Gil Evans, and the saxophonist John Coltrane explored the static pastels of modal improvisation. Younger musicians such as Charles Mingus, Horace Silver, Max Roach, and Abbey Lincoln, however, considered jazz the voice of a new African American militance, in favor of civil rights and against ghetto despair. Their emphatic “hard bop” was abetted by the folklike improvisations of the Texas saxophonist Ornette Coleman. After 1960, Coleman and Coltrane's embrace of atonal “free” improvisation initiated a decade of dramatic jazz innovations. Atonality, distorted timbres, and chance improvisations characterized the music of Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler. Black musicians forged closer ties with the avant-garde but also contributed to artistic projects in riot-torn inner cities. Their innovations won small audiences, though, as rock, soul, and the mass-market–oriented sound promoted by Motown Records dominated popular music. Miles Davis, the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, the pianist Joe Zawinul, and others responded by blending soul dance rhythms and electronic instruments with jazz. The resulting 1970s rock-jazz “fusion” brought success to the group Weather Report, the pianist Chick Corea, and others, and somewhat revived jazz's popularity. In a time of increasing opportunities for women, musicians such as the trombonist Melba Liston and the pianists Carla Bley and Toshiko Akiyoshi also gained well-deserved recognition.

As the twentieth century ended, jazz remained a prestigious music, supported by academe, foundation grants, and worldwide networks of festival organizers, producers, and fans. Indeed, young advocates of bebop improvisation such as the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the pianist Marcus Roberts stimulated a revival in jazz's popularity. While avant-garde, big-band, fusion, and other jazz forms were underfunded and relatively neglected, jazz's heritage was widely celebrated, and the music continued to influence genres—such as rock, rhythm and blues, soul, rap, and New Age—that dominated the world's musical culture.

See also African Americans; Music: Popular Music; Popular Culture; Twenties, The.


Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, 1968.Find this resource:

John Litweiler, The Freedom Principle: Jazz after 1958, 1984.Find this resource:

Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–1945, 1989.Find this resource:

Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945–1960, 1992.Find this resource:

Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, 1994.Find this resource:

Thomas J. Hennessey, From Jazz to Swing: African-American Jazz Musicians and Their Music, 1890–1935, 1994.Find this resource:

Lewis Erenberg, Swingin' the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture, 1998.Find this resource:

Burton W. Peretti