5 Characteristics Jazz (musical genre)

Jazz is a musical genre that refers to a wide variety of styles, with improvisation being its most striking element.

Jazz can be understood as a style that was developed by African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New Orleans (USA).

On the other hand, it is also understood as a musical genre that encompasses many characteristics that arise from religious cultural mixtures, such as improvisation, syncopated rhythms, cyclical form, blues harmony and swing.

Finally, the origin of the term jazz is unclear. This word would probably be slang used by African Americans denoting something vivid or fast.

The term first appeared in connection with music on a record by a band of white musicians from New Orleans: “Original Dixieland Jasss Band” in 1917.

Later, in 1923, the Creole Jazz Band was the first band of black musicians to record jazz.

Jazz characteristics

As Jazz is made up of a mixture of musical and cultural genres, its characteristics are diverse.

Although it is not possible to classify a main element, it is possible to identify common characteristics:

  • Blue notes: the blue notes would be the 3rd, 7th or 5th of the diatonic scale placed one semitone below. This characteristic provides a melancholic characteristic to this musical genre.
  • Syncopation: it is a rhythmic figure that shifts the accentuation, having an accented note on the weak beat and not on the strong beat of the music.
  • Improvisation: this is the most striking feature. In short, improvisation is creating music while you play.
  • Polyrhythm: Polyrhythm occurs when you have more than one different rhythmic structure at the same time in music.
  • Swing: Swing is the basic rhythm of jazz, in which the pulse of the music is divided unevenly. It is characterized by solo improvisation, larger bands, and rapid harmonic changes.
  • Question and answer: a voice, instrument or part of the band that dialogues with each other, alternating.

History and origin of jazz

The formation of jazz has suffered multicultural influences. The main one would be the music brought to the United States by African slaves, who sang during forced labor.

This type of singing was called Negro Spiritual (it also originated the blues).

Another influence would be Caribbean music. According to Tucker and Jackson, Haitians and Cubans immigrated to New Orleans in the 19th century.

The rhythms of his songs, such as the habanera, the tresillo and the cinquillo, had a strong influence on the rhythmic construction of jazz.

European music also played a role in the formation of this musical style, as slaves had to learn their dances and instruments to entertain the clever lords.

However, they ended up modifying these songs, giving rise to cakewalk dances (a parody of European ballroom music).

Thus, although it is a product of African American culture, it ended up receiving influences from other local traditions.

However, by the early 20th century, jazz had not been well received in the United States and was considered a “return to the hum of the savages.”

It was not until 1987, with a congressional resolution, that this style was called a “rare and valuable American treasure.”

Starting in 1920, jazz began to spread throughout the world thanks to recordings.

Both albums reached Europe and the bands began to play in those countries.

Consequently, the market expanded to Eastern Europe and also Latin America, such as Brazil.

Furthermore, jazz found a place in concert music, where classical composers used this genre in their compositions, such as Darius Milhaud.

George Gershwin also created his famous piece Rhapsody in Blue (and other works) with jazz characteristics.

Jazz is difficult to classify.

It can be seen as popular music, since certain compositions served as entertainment for the masses.

At the same time, it could also be considered scholarly music, since some pieces were intended for a select audience, requiring attention and concentration.

Jazz Styles

There are countless styles of jazz today. See the main ones below:

  • Dixieland (1910): The term arose due to the band “Original Dixieland Jass Band.” This would be the traditional jazz genre, in which each solo instrument has a set role and the band maintains harmony and rhythm.
  • Cool jazz (1940): has influence of classical music , more complex harmony and slow rhythm, being a little more melancholic.
  • Bebop (1940): has the fastest rhythm and the most complex harmonies, with virtuoso soloists. It is considered more intellectual and done by smaller groups.
  • Jazz Blues: mixes jazz and blues and uses blues riffs.
  • Free Jazz (1950): was influenced by the atonality of contemporary classical music. In practice, total improvisation is prioritized and comes from bepop.

Major performers and composers

  • Duke Ellington (1899-1974): composer, pianist and conductor.
  • Louis Armstrong (1901-1971): trumpeter, saxophonist, cornetist and singer.
  • Billie Holiday (1915-1959): Her official name was Eleanora Fagan Gough. She was a singer and songwriter.
  • Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996): singer.
  • John Coltrane (1926-1967): composer and saxophonist.
  • Miles Davis (1926-1991): composer, trumpeter, and jazz band leader.
  • Nina Simone (1933-2003): singer, composer and pianist.

Instruments used in jazz

In general, jazz bands do not have the same instrumental formations.

However, in all formations there is a division between rhythm and melody (breaths).

It is worth mentioning that both types of instruments make improvisations today.

Here is a list of the instruments most commonly found in these bands:

  • Rhythm: drums, banjo, piano, bass, guitar, among others.
  • Melody: clarinet, trombone, trumpet, saxophone, cornet, among others.