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jazz, the most significant form of musical expression of African-American culture and arguably the most outstanding contribution the United States has made to the art of music.

Origins of Jazz

Jazz developed in the latter part of the 19th cent. from black work songs, field shouts or hollers, and spirituals whose harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic elements were predominantly African. Because of its spontaneous, emotional, and improvisational character, and because it is basically of Black origin and association, jazz has to some extent not been accorded the degree of recognition it deserves. European audiences have often been more receptive to jazz, and thus many American jazz musicians have become expatriates.

At the outset, jazz was slow to win acceptance by the general public, not only because of its cultural origin, but also because it tended to suggest loose morals and low social status. However, jazz gained a wide audience when white orchestras adapted or imitated it, and became legitimate entertainment in the late 1930s when Benny Goodman led racially mixed groups in concerts at Carnegie Hall. Show tunes became common vehicles for performance, and, while the results were exquisite, rhythmic and harmonic developments were impeded until the mid-1940s.

Jazz is generally thought to have begun in New Orleans, spreading to Chicago, Kansas City, New York City, and the West Coast. The blues, vocal and instrumental, was and is a vital component of jazz, which includes, roughly in order of appearance: ragtime; New Orleans or Dixieland jazz; swing; bop, or bebop; progressive, or cool, jazz; neo-bop, or hard-bop; third stream; mainstream modern; Latin-jazz; jazz-rock; and avant-garde or free jazz.


The heart of jazz, the blues is a musical form now standardized as 12 bars, based on the tonic, dominant, and subdominant chords. The “blue notes” are the flatted third and seventh. A statement is made in the first four bars, repeated (sometimes with slight variation) in the next four, and answered or commented on in the last four. In vocal blues the lyrics are earthy and direct and are mostly concerned with basic human problems—love and sex, poverty, and death. The tempo may vary, and the mood ranges from total despair to cynicism and satire.

Basing his songs on traditional blues, W. C. Handy greatly increased the popularity of the idiom. Important vocal blues stylists include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Lightnin' Sam Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Gertrude ("Ma") Rainey, Bertha (Chippie) Hill, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, and Muddy Waters.


The earliest form of jazz to exert a wide appeal, ragtime was basically a piano style emphasizing syncopation and polyrhythm. Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and Eubie Blake were major composers and performers of ragtime. From about 1893 to the beginning of World War I this music was popularized through sheet music and player-piano rolls. In the early 1970s, ragtime, particularly Joplin's works, had a popular revival.

New Orleans Jazz

New Orleans, or Dixieland, jazz is played by small bands usually made up of cornet or trumpet, clarinet, trombone, and a rhythm section that includes bass, drums, guitar, and sometimes piano. When the band marched, as it often did in the early days, the piano and bass were omitted and a tuba was used. The three lead instruments provide a contrapuntal melody above the steady beat of the rhythm, and individualities of intonation and phrasing, with frequent use of vibrato and glissando, give the music its warm and highly personal quality. The music ranged from funeral dirges to the exuberant songs of Mardi Gras.

The pioneer black New Orleans jazz band of Buddy Bolden was formed in the 1890s. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, both white bands, successfully introduced jazz to the northern United States. The closing in 1917 of the notorious Storyville district of New Orleans produced an exodus of jazz musicians. Many went to Chicago, where the New Orleans style survived in the bands of King Oliver, and later in the music of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Johnny Dodds. Fate Marable, who had played on Mississippi riverboats since 1910, now began to organize riverboat jam sessions with outstanding musicians.

Meanwhile, distinctive styles developed in many cities, evolved by younger musicians who stressed a single melodic line rather than the New Orleans counterpoint. Bix Beiderbecke, a cornetist and pianist and a major Chicago-style musician, was influential in developing more complex melodic lines. Jazz spread to Kansas City, Los Angeles, and New York City.


Originating in Kansas City and Harlem in the late 1920s and becoming a national craze, swing was marked by the substitution of orchestration for improvisation and a rhythm that falls between the beats. The average big band had about 15 members (five reeds, five brass, piano, bass, and drums) and could generate overwhelming volume or evince the most subtle articulations. The bands led by Duke Ellington and Count Basie were the finest practitioners of this idiom, while those of Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey (see under Dorsey, Jimmy), and Harry James were also outstanding. The music was often written to showcase soloists who were, or were intended to be, supported by the ensemble.


The vigor of the music notwithstanding, a revolt against the confining nature of the harmony, melody, and rhythm of swing arose in Kansas City and Harlem in the 1930s and reached fruition in the mid-40s. The new music, called “bebop” or “rebop” (later shortened to “bop”), was rejected at first by many critics. Bop was characterized by the flatted fifth, a more elaborate rhythmic structure, and a harmonic rather than melodic focus. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke, and Charlie Christian were major influences in the new music, which became the basis for modern jazz. The influence of two swing musicians, the tenor saxophonist Lester Young and the drummer Jo Jones, was of paramount importance in influencing the harmonic and rhythmic direction of bop.

Jazz in the '50s

After beginning in New York City, progressive, or cool, jazz developed primarily on the West Coast in the late 1940s and early 50s. Intense yet ironically relaxed tonal sonorities are the major characteristic of this jazz form, while the melodic line is less convoluted than in bop. Lester Young's style was fundamental to the music of the cool saxophonists Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, and Stan Getz. Miles Davis played an important part in the early stages, and the influence of virtuoso pianist Lennie Tristano was all-pervasive. The music was accepted more gracefully by the public and critics than bop, and the pianist Dave Brubeck became its most widely known performer.

By the mid-1950s a form of neo-bop, or hard-bop, had arisen on the East Coast. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Max Roach led various small groups that produced an idiom marked by crackling, explosive, uncompromising intensity. About the same period, a number of outstanding musician-composers, including Gunther Schuller and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, produced “third stream” jazz, essentially a blend of classical music and jazz. Jazz has also been successfully combined with Afro-Latin music, as in the music of Candido, Machito, Eddie Palmieri, and Mongo Santamaria.

In the last half of the 1950s there were two major trends in contemporary jazz. First, a general modern jazz form had developed in the period since World War II, which can be called “mainstream,” best exemplified by the music of Gerry Mulligan's various bands. Second, a number of instruments that either had never been used seriously in jazz, such as the flute, oboe, and flügelhorn, or had been unpopular, such as the soprano saxophone, were used to bring new instrumental voices into the music.

The 1960s: From Free Jazz to Jazz-Rock Fusion

Beginning in the late '50s-early '60s, avant-garde or free jazz leaders such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Pharaoh Sanders, Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk continued to explore new harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic relationships. The new jazz is often atonal, and traditional melodic instruments often assume rhythmic-percussive roles and vice versa. The lead instruments eschewed traditional melodies for improvised phrases and the accompanists abandonned traditional harmonies to react in real time to the other players.

In the late 1960s many jazz musicians, such as Miles Davis, Larry Coryell, Gary Burton, Keith Jarrett , and Corea , investigated the connections between rock and jazz in a musical style known as fusion. Impressed by the innovations of artists like Jimi Hendrix, Davis switched to rock instrumentation and a more straightforward beat to attract a new generation of listeners, beginning with his 1969 release, Bitches Brew. The addition of electric bass, synthesizers and keyboards, and rock-style drumming made jazz-rock attractive to a contemporary audience.

The 1970-'80s: From Smooth Jazz to the Neo-Cons

Jazz-rock continued to be popular in the first-half of the 70s, with groups like Return to Forever, John McLaughlin’s Mahavisnhu Orchestra, and Weather Report using synthesizers, danceable beats, and catchy melodies to gain large audiences. A countertrend occurred centered on the European record label ECM, with artists like Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett recording contemplative, almost chamber-like jazz. In the later half of the '70s-early '80s, artists like Kenny G, George Benson, and Chuck Mangione developed what came to be known as smooth jazz. This radio-friendly music was decried by purists as lacking the true essence of the music.

As a reaction to smooth and commercial jazz, a "return-to-roots" movement arose around younger artists who came to be known as the "neo-cons" because of their focus on earlier jazz styles. The leader of this movement was Wynton Marsalis, a young trumpet virtuoso who burst on the scene after attending Juilliard in the early '80s. From a notable New Orleans family, Marsalis became a vocal critic of jazz-rock and its offshoots, promoting instead the work of leaders like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Marsalis was the prime mover behind the founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1988 and its related big band. Other neo-cons associated with Marsalis included his brother, Branton, and Terence Blanchard and Joshua Redman, although the movement splintered as each developed a unique artistic voice.

Jazz Goes International

Jazz has always been a distinctively American idiom, with Europeans largely forming an appreciative audience and Europe's jazzmen following trends begun in the United States. At the end of the 20th cent., however, many Scandinavian and French musicians, feeling that mainstream American jazz expression had retreated into the past, began creating a new genre nicknamed “the European.” Returning to jazz's roots as dance music, they combined elements from European house, techno, drum and bass, and jungle music with acoustic, electronic, and sampled sound to create a more popular and populist variety of jazz. Musicians involved in this movement include Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft and trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, French pianists Martial Solal and Laurent de Wilde, French saxophonist Julien Lourau and flutist Malik Mezzadri, Sweden's Esbjorn Svensson Trio, and France's Ludovic Navarre and St. Germain groups.

Jazz Since the 1990s

A wide variety of music and artists have continued to perform and update traditional jazz styles, while new hybrid forms including jazz-rap and jazz-punk, have also arisen. World music influences have also been important in the work of artists like pianist Vijay Iyer and singer/composer Norah Jones. Other notable new performers include bassist Esperanza Spaulding, vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Regina Carter, pianist Brad Mehldau and Jason Moran, guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and Frisell, trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Terence Blanchard, and saxophonists Chris Potter and Joshua Redman.

Jazz artists in America have suffered much and received little. In many cases the misery of their lives and public indifference have driven them to find relief in drugs and alcohol. Despite hardships they have produced a richly varied art form in which improvisation and experimentation are imperative; jazz promises continued growth in directions as yet unforeseeable.


See the histories G. Schuller, Early Jazz (1968) and The Swing Era (1989), A. McCarthy et al., Jazz on Record: The First Fifty Years (1969), F. Kofsky, Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music (1970), M. Williams, The Jazz Tradition (1970), D. Kennington, The Literature of Jazz (1971), H. Panassié, The Real Jazz (1960, repr. 1973), I. Gitler, Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (1985) and The Masters of Bebop (2001), W. Balliett, 56 Portraits in Jazz (1986), T. Gioia, West Coast Jazz (1992), The History of Jazz (3rd. ed. 2021), The Jazz Standards (2012), and How to Listen to Jazz (2016), G. Giddens, Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998), and G. Giddens and S. DeVeaux, Jazz (2nd ed., 2015); S. Nicholson, Jazz-Rock: A History (1998), S. DeVeaux, The Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (1999), B. Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (2nd ed., 2003), L. Feather and I. Gitler, ed., The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (1999), J. Berendt, The Jazz Book (rev. 2009), B. Porter, Soul Jazz (2016); B. Bierman, Listening to Jazz (2nd ed., 2016). For blues see C. Keil, Urban Blues (1966); P. Oliver, Conversation with the Blues (1965), The Story of the Blues (1969), and Aspects of the Blues Tradition (1970), A. Murray, Stomping the Blues (1976), R. Palmer, Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta (1982). For ragtime see R. Blesh and H. Janis, They All Played Ragtime (4th ed., 1971), W. J. Schafer and J. Riedel, The Art of Ragtime (1974), D. Jasen and G. Jones, That American Rag (1999).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a genre of professional musical art. Jazz emerged at the turn of the 20th century as the result of a synthesis by US Negroes of features of European and African music. It was molded by a number of African elements, including polyrhythm, repetition of a basic motif, the call-and-response pattern, vocal expressiveness, and improvisation, as well as by prevalent forms of Negro musical folklore, including ritual dances, work songs, spirituals, and blues.

The word “jazz” was first used in the expression “jazz band” in the middle of the first decade of the 20th century in the southern states. It referred to the music that was being created by small New Orleans ensembles (composed of a trumpet, clarinet, trombone, banjo, tuba or string bass, drums, and piano) through group improvisation on themes from the blues, ragtime, and European popular songs and dances. Among the founders of jazz, all of whom played in the New Orleans style, were the trumpeter and singer L. Armstrong, trumpeter King Oliver, clarinetist J. Dodds, trombonist K. Ory, and pianist Jelly Roll Morton.

Subsequently, ensembles of white musicians—so-called Dixieland groups—emerged, which played in a style imitating Negro jazz. To a great extent, the development of Dixieland groups helped spread jazz outside the southern states. In the 1920’s jazz became very popular in the USA and reached Europe. Chicago became the new center for the development of jazz and the birthplace of the so-called Chicago style, which was characterized by more rigid compositional organization and increased emphasis on the role of the soloist.

The transformation of jazz into an object of commercial exploitation lowered its artistic value. Attempting to transcend the use of the clichés spawned by commercialized variety stage music, Negro performers sought new paths for the development of jazz. In the 1930’s the so-called swing style emerged, in which three groups of wind instruments— saxophones, trumpets, and trombones—were interchanged to create the effect of a rhythmic swing. Performed most typically by a large band of 15-17 players, swing completely abandoned group improvisation in favor of solos and greatly increased the importance of the composer and arranger. The big bands of Duke Ellington, F. Henderson, W. Basie, C. Webb, and J. Lunceford were among the most important representatives of swing. A number of band leaders, including B. Goodman, T. Dorsey, and G. Miller, borrowed from Negro musicians. In the same period the pianist T. Wilson, vibraphonist L. Hampton, and tenor saxophonists C. Hawkins and L. Young, performing with small ensembles, developed a genre of chamber jazz.

In the early 1940’s alto saxophonist C. Parker, trumpeter J. Gillespie, pianist T. Monk, and drummers K. Clarke and M. Roach radically changed the concept of jazz, abandoning the dance quality, melodic symmetry, and picturesque effects of swing. The new style, known as bebop (an onomatopoeic word), introduced themes that sounded awkward and were saturated with dissonance, as well as a dry, ascetic sound and free improvisation that was not connected with the melody of the piece but relied on a complex sequence of chords.

Contemporary or modern jazz is developing through a struggle between two different tendencies: so-called commercial jazz, which is an integral part of the bourgeois entertainment industry, and creative jazz, which is seeking new artistic methods. Progressive musicians have sought to preserve the link between jazz and folk sources and traditions, while drawing on various elements of classical and contemporary music. Duke Ellington, G. Schuller, J. Lewis, G. Evans, M. Davis, S. Rollins, J. Coltrane, O. Coleman, C. Lloyd, A. Shepp, A. Ayler, and C. Taylor are among the most important masters of contemporary jazz.

In the mid-1950’s a style representing the fusion of individual elements from jazz, blues, and the country folk style of white Americans was initially called rock’n’roll and later, big beat. The new style gave rise to the current form called pop music (abbreviation of “popular music”). Despite the increasing exploitation of pop music by businessmen in bourgeois commercial music, individual ensembles, including the Beatles and Chicago, have succeeded in creating a number of pop music works of genuine artistic value.

Jazz first began to spread outside the USA in the 1920’s. However, original groups that developed jazz based on national traditions emerged in Europe only in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Among them were bands led by J. Dankworth (England), M. Legrand (France), K. Vlach and G. Brom (Czechoslovakia), and K. Edelhagen (Federal Republic of Germany).

Jazz first developed in the USSR in the mid-1920’s and is associated with bands led by V. la. Parnakh, A. N. Tsfasman, G. V. Lansberg, and L. la. Teplitskii. The State Variety Stage Band, which was organized in 1929 and led by L. O. Utesov, played an important role in the creation of the Soviet jazz style, whose sources are mass and variety stage songs. Orchestras led by A. V. Varlamov, la. B. Skomorovskii, E. I. Rozner, and O. N. Lundstrem gained fame in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Small ensembles specializing in improvisation were formed in the 1950’s and have developed another trend in Soviet jazz, striving to create works based on the folk songs and folk dances of the peoples of the USSR. Ensembles led by A. E. Tovmasian, N. N. Gromin, A. N. Zubov, G. A. Garanian, G. K. Lukïanov, E. D. Gevorgian, and A. Kozlov have made the greatest contribution to this trend. Bands organized in the republics of the Soviet Union have become well known.

Jazz definitely influenced the development of 20th-century music. Many major composers, including C. Debussy, M. Ravel, G. Gershwin, P. Hindemith, I. F. Stravinsky, D. Milhaud, A. Copland, M. Blitzstein, and L. Bernstein, in the West and I. O. Dunaevskii, A. la. Eshpai, K. Karaev, R. K. Shchedrin, M. M. Kazhlaev, and A. P. Petrov in the Soviet Union, have used elements of jazz in their compositions.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


a. a kind of music of African-American origin, characterized by syncopated rhythms, solo and group improvisation, and a variety of harmonic idioms and instrumental techniques. It exists in a number of styles
b. (as modifier): a jazz band
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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