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A Beginner’s Listening Guide To Jazz: The Key Eras In Jazz History

Jazz music, with its intricate rhythms, soulful melodies, and improvisational spirit, has captivated audiences for over a century. This is a short listening guide designed for beginners to jazz who are eager to learn but may not yet be familiar with the sounds and stories of jazz. We'll explore the key eras and influential artists who have defined jazz, providing a deeper appreciation of the music.

Jazz Listening Guide For Beginners


Ragtime and Early Jazz (1890s-1920s): The Seeds of Swing

The earliest type of music that many now consider to be jazz is a genre of music called ragtime. The music of ragtime flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it is derived from marches, but with an increased emphasis on the usage of syncopated rhythms. Black musicians referred to this syncopated style as "ragging," and the tunes they wrote were called "rags." The impact of ragtime on jazz is profound, as the syncopation in ragtime was a precursor to the more complex rhythms of jazz.  Scott Joplin, known as the "King of Ragtime," was the most famous composer of this era. His iconic pieces, such as "The Entertainer" and "Maple Leaf Rag," laid the groundwork for the lively and energetic style that would evolve into early jazz. These compositions were instrumental in popularizing ragtime and setting the stage for jazz's infectious energy.  Listen to Scott Joplin's “Maple Leaf Rag”. 

In the early 20th century, as ragtime's popularity grew, so did the experimentation with improvisation and ensemble playing, particularly in New Orleans. In those days, ‘Dixie’ was a term used in association of the southern states, and the music that eventually emerged from New Orleans during this time came to be called ‘Dixieland’. In this style of music, multiple musicians would improvise melodic lines simultaneously, often with the cornet playing the melody in a rhythmically loose manner, while the clarinet and trombone player improvised supporting countermines at the same time. Buddy King Bolden, a cornetist, is considered to be one of the first great jazz improvisers of this time. Although there are no known recordings of Bolden, his influence on the development of jazz is well-documented.

The jazz scene in New Orleans was closely linked to Storyville, a district established in 1897 to regulate prostitution. Storyville's brothels often hired jazz musicians to perform, providing them with work. From this scene emerged one of jazz’s most important pioneers, Jelly Roll Morton, who played the piano in the district as a teenager. Morton would later go on to publish one of the first published jazz compositions, ‘Jelly Roll Blues’, in 1915, years after he left the district. Listen to Jelly Roll Morton's “Jelly Roll Blues”

In 1917, several servicemen were murdered in the district, and the Army and Navy demanded for Storyville to be shut down, bringing the practice of legalized prostitution in Storyville to an abrupt end. This forced jazz musicians to leave New Orleans in search of work. Many traveled to Chicago, which was a direct train line from New Orleans; there were also others who went to St. Louis and New York City instead. These three cities became the next big breeding spots for the development of jazz.

Louis Armstrong, who would become the most prominent figure of this era, emerged from this environment. His recordings with the Hot Five and Hot Seven, including classics like "West End Blues" and "Potato Head Blues," set new standards for jazz performance and improvisation, defining the genre's possibilities.  Listen to Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five's "West End Blues".

In 1917, the first jazz record was made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), a white group from New Orleans. Their recording of "Livery Stable Blues" provided widespread exposure to jazz, despite some controversy over the racial dynamics and the group's place in jazz history. While the ODJB's music was not on the level of the greatest jazz musicians, they played a significant role in popularizing the music of New Orleans and influencing important musicians to come, including Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. Listen to "Livery Stable Blues".

The seeds of swing were planted in the ragtime and early jazz of the 1890s to 1920s, setting the stage for the evolution of this dynamic and enduring musical genre. From the syncopated rhythms of ragtime to the improvisational brilliance of early jazz musicians, these formative years laid the foundation for the future of jazz. The migration of musicians from New Orleans to other major cities ensured that jazz would continue to grow and evolve, influencing countless artists and genres along the way.

The Swing Era (1930s-1940s): Big Bands Take Center Stage

The swing era, spanning the 1930s and 1940s, ushered in a golden age for jazz, characterized by the rise of big bands and the infectious energy of dance music. Swing music captured the hearts of the nation, with bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman leading large ensembles that filled ballrooms and concert halls with their captivating sounds. Listen to Duke Ellington Orchestra's "Take the 'A' Train"

Another example of a recording that exemplifies the music of the time is Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump". Listen to it here:

Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing," played a pivotal role in popularizing swing music among a wider audience, particularly white audiences who had not been exposed to jazz before. His band's electrifying performance at the Palomar Ballroom in 1935 is widely considered a landmark event, marking the beginning of the swing era's reign. Listen to rare recording of Benny Goodman Orchestra's performance at the Palomar Ballroom, 1935

This era also saw the rise of phenomenal vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Fitzgerald, with her unmatched scat singing technique, and Holiday, with her deeply expressive voice and ability to imbue every song with emotion, redefined the role of vocals in jazz

Listen to a 1938 recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket' with Chick Webb and His Orchestra, which exemplifies the kind of music that was popular during the time.

Listen also to Billie Holiday's 1936 recording, "I Cried For You"

Bebop and Modern Jazz (1940s-1960s): Pushing Boundaries

The 1940s marked a revolutionary period in jazz with the emergence of bebop, a style characterized by faster tempos, intricate melodies, and complex harmonies. This genre diverged significantly from the more accessible and danceable swing music. Key figures in this movement included Charlie Parker, a virtuoso saxophonist, and Dizzy Gillespie, a trumpet player renowned for his innovative techniques. Their pioneering work, especially in improvisation, laid the groundwork for modern jazz.

For example, Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" and Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia" are quintessential bebop recordings that showcase the genre's complexity and virtuosity.

Listen to Charlie Parker's 1953 recording of the bebop tune, 'Confirmation'. As you listen, notice how the tune itself (which can be heard from 0:04 to 0:44) features a somewhat complicated melody as compared the melodies heard in previous eras in jazz. In this recording, Charlie Parker's improvisation starts from 0:44 onwards

Listen to Dizzy Gillespie's 1946 recording of the bebop tune, 'Night in Tunisia'. Dizzy Gillespie's virtuosic improvisation starts at 1:12 of the recording.

Miles Davis was another pivotal figure in this era. His 1950 album "Birth of the Cool" introduced a more laid-back and melodic approach known as cool jazz. Have a listen to "Boplicity", one of the tracks from the album, "Birth Of The Cool"

Davis continued to innovate throughout the 1950s, culminating in the 1959 release of "Kind of Blue," which is often regarded as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time. This album's use of modal jazz, particularly in tracks like "So What," static harmonic progressions and the use of modes rather than traditional chord progressions, creating a new framework for jazz improvisation.

John Coltrane, another seminal figure, made significant contributions during this period. One of his most renowned compositions, "Giant Steps" (1960), emphasized the use a 3-tonic system (dividing up the octave into 3 equal intervals and using those notes as key centers) that was relatively uncommon in jazz up till that point of time, and the tune helped bring this harmonic concept into prominence within the world of jazz.

In subsequent years, Coltrane embarked on a more spiritual journey in his musical expression, culminating in the creation of the 1965 album "A Love Supreme." Widely regarded as a monumental and revered work in jazz history, "A Love Supreme" has also sparked considerable controversy regarding its reception.

These developments were complemented by other influential musicians and recordings. Thelonious Monk, a pianist and composer, was known for his unique improvisational style and dissonant harmonies. His album "Genius of Modern Music" (1947) includes essential tracks like "Round Midnight".

Pianists like Bud Powell also played a crucial role in bebop, with albums like "The Amazing Bud Powell" showcasing his technical prowess. Here's "Un Poco Loco" from the 1951 album.

Overall, the bebop and modern jazz movements of the 1940s through the 1960s were characterized by a push towards greater complexity and sophistication in jazz, driven by the innovative works of these and other pioneering musicians.

Jazz Fusion and Beyond (1970s-Present)

The 1970s heralded the arrival of jazz fusion, a revolutionary genre that fused jazz with rock, funk, and electronic music. Miles Davis spearheaded this movement with his groundbreaking album "Bitches Brew" (1970), which featured electric instruments and extended improvisations, setting the stage for future exploration in jazz. This album, with tracks like "John McLaughlin" exemplified the fusion ethos, blending jazz improvisation elements with electric sounds and rock rhythms.

Another seminal work in jazz fusion was the album "Heavy Weather" (1977) by Weather Report. Co-founded by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, Weather Report pushed the boundaries of jazz, incorporating elements of world music and avant-garde. The track "Birdland" became an anthem of the fusion movement.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by guitarist John McLaughlin, also made significant contributions to the genre with albums like "The Inner Mounting Flame" (1971). This album featured intense, high-energy performances and intricate compositions like "Meeting of the Spirits" and "The Dance of Maya," combining rock's raw power with jazz's improvisational complexity.

In the contemporary era, jazz continues to evolve and adapt. The 1980s and 1990s saw a resurgence of traditional jazz forms. Musicians like Wynton Marsalis championed acoustic jazz and the swing tradition, emphasizing the roots of jazz while bringing it into the modern age. Marsalis's album "Black Codes (From the Underground)" (1985) is a key example of this approach.

Simultaneously, artists like Pat Metheny and John Scofield were exploring the possibilities of jazz guitar. Metheny's "Bright Size Life" (1976) and Scofield's "Still Warm" (1986) are pivotal recordings that expanded the sonic palette of jazz guitar, incorporating elements of rock, funk, and world music.

Today, jazz is a global phenomenon, with artists from around the world enriching its diverse tapestry. To name a few, musicians like Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding, and Cory Henry are at the forefront, blending jazz with contemporary genres like hip-hop, R&B, and electronic music.

Washington's album "The Epic" (2015) is a modern masterpiece, merging jazz with elements of soul and orchestral music. Here's "Change Of The Guard" from the album:

Spalding's "Emily's D+Evolution" (2016) redefines jazz vocals and composition. Listen to "Unconditional Love" from her 2016 album.

Check out Cory Henry's improvised solo on "Lingus" from Snarky Puppy's 2014 album, "We Like It Here":

In conclusion, the evolution of jazz from the 1970s to the present day reflects a dynamic and ever-changing landscape. From the pioneering fusion of Miles Davis and Weather Report to the modern innovations of Kamasi Washington and Esperanza Spalding, jazz continues to push boundaries and embrace new influences, ensuring its relevance and vibrancy in the contemporary music scene.

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