The Blog

A brief history of jazz…

By Merv Burton, pianist
A question often asked of me is do I play jazz and if so what is jazz? My answer to the first question is “a bit” but answering the second question is not so easy. This is because Jazz is a part retrospective term. It came into use about 1913 to cover types of music composed generally between the 1890s and the 1940s.

Ragtime: lasted from about 1890 to 1917.Scott Joplin (The Sting) Jelly Roll Morton (piano) Buddy Holden (trumpet). Blues: overlapped ragtime starting about 1900 and implies a vocal and a depressed state of mind. The form originated from Negro spirituals. Prominent instruments were trumpet cornet saxophone or trombone. A prominent composer was W. C. Handy. (Memphis Blues 1909 and St Louis Blues 1914 are jazz classics). Outstanding blues singers have been Bessie Smith and later Billie Holiday.

Dixieland: (Muscat Ramble) was another overlap borrowing from ragtime and blues. Performers were Louis Armstrong (trumpet) and Jack Teagarden (trombone). The style made a feature of group improvisation led by the trumpeter.

As jazz became more sophisticated in the 1920s it became a social rage. The jazz arranger emerged and with him the bigger band. The larger bands had marked individual styles (Paul Whiteman popularised symphonic jazz, with full instrument sections and solos as a central display). At the other extreme a Chicago style revived small bands and more improvisation.

Swing: flourished in 1930s. It concentrated on precision and good ensemble.Swing bands were usually led by virtuosos such as Benny Goodman (clarinet), Jimmy Dorsey (alto sax), Gene Kupra (drums). Duke Ellington was the first great jazz composer (Mood Indigo, Solitude, Caravan) and although his Band was influenced by swing its members were such superb players and such strong individualists that improvisation still played a part in his compositions.

Swing gave way in the 1940s to Be-bop which emphasised rhythm and scat singing (vocalising nonsense syllables). From here on things became fragmented. Derivatives were Modern jazz, Cool jazz. Indeed classifying a piece of music to a particular style can be difficult. But the jazz scene was about to be overshadowed by the emergence of pop groups (Beatles) which lead to Hard Rock and so on and so on.

Then came the Amplifier. Voltage controlled amplifiers alter the volume of the input signal to increase the volume of sound. Use one in conjunction with voltage controlled oscillators and filters and a keyboard or fret board and you have a monophonic musical instrument. Add a set of button controlled mind numbing chord patterns and you have an electric piano or whatever, of which there are countless variations in sounds and rhythms.

And jazz doesn’t seem to sound the same any more.