Virgil Thompson, an American composer and critic, said, “Jazz is the most astounding spontaneous musical event to take place anywhere since the Reformation.” That is quite the statement: the most astounding spontaneous musical event since the Reformation. How did this fascinating and original genre of music come about?
Early Jazz History
The earliest influences of jazz, which took root in New Orleans in the early 20th century, were the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies of Africa and some musical elements from Europe as well. American Jazz was an extemporaneous departure from what was happening to fine art music during the Modern era, similar to Impressionistic music. It was really its own “mini” musical era.
From its inception, Jazz music was an improvisational, Afro-American expression of music; it was inherently only popular music, not fine art music. The word “jazz”, when it was first applied in 1917 to the new music coming from New Orleans, was considered an insult. It meant “nonsense” or “confusion”. This was because those in the upper class who heard it could not make any sense of it, they were used to the big brass music of the Romantic era.
Jazz music was very free form. It introduced new color to the chord such as the seventh and the ninth. Two new styles: ragtime and blues (both Afro-American styles) were major influences on early jazz and still are, although Jazz included many more elements harmonically and stylistically than those two. Chords became much more colorful as well and thus added a lot to the growing repertoire of music theory composers had at their disposal. Jazz gradually became accepted as fine art music during the mid-20th century. This was especially the case when big bands started coming on the scene in the mid 1920’s, playing “sweet” jazz music which was less improvisational and more melodic. Some of the most famous big band composers were Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller. Many composers, most notable being George Gershwin, contributed greatly to the addition of jazz elements into fine art music.
Jazz has greatly transformed since its early origins in New Orleans. It has spread worldwide and inspires many listeners with its complicated rhythms and harmonies. It fills fine art musical halls, clubs, bars, coffee shops, and even airports worldwide. There is a reason Virgil Thompson called it an “astounding spontaneous musical event”.