Jazz today refers to a group of musical genres of African-American origin. Its essential characteristics are the enhancement of specific rhythms, the preponderance of improvisation and the particular treatment of instrumental or vocal sonorities, derived at the origin of the imitation of human voices.
Jazz has its origins in a cultural mix, the result of the integration of traditions brought from Africa from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century by slaves, with harmonic and melodic instrumental methods invented in Europe. This musical mixing that took place in the United States is at the origin of a large number of musical styles that have appeared since the 19th century and throughout the 20th century to the present day.
The origin of the term jazz is not defined with certainty and there could be several. This word would come, among other possibilities, from the American slang gism or gasm synonymous with sexual energy. Dizzy Gillespie said that I express the idea of a hectic and pressurized pace of life in an African language. In its early days, the term jazz, which defined music played in places where prostitution was practiced, was associated with something sexual, energetic and by analogy with movement and dance.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, in the south of the United States, the ancestors of Jazz, the work songs sung on cotton plantations by slaves, as well as the Blues, were considered rustic, proletarian and of rather poor reputation. The ragtime of which Scott Joplin is the most famous representative, is played on the piano in brothels and saloons. The blues is sung in the plantations. Only negro spirituals and gospel songs that are practiced in the church benefit from a “respectable” place of diffusion.
It is the meeting of these different musical styles mixing themselves with the music of military marches heard in the street during parades that creates at the beginning of the 20th century the foundation of a music soon named jazz.
At the very end of the 19th century, street bands appeared in the New Orleans district called Storyville where prostitution, alcohol and gambling were concentrated and authorized. These “brass bands” or street bands were exclusively composed of black musicians. They occurred during parades, funerals or outdoor events such as balls or public meetings.
The African influences of the black instrumentalists of these orchestras encouraged them to integrate many syncopations into the steps, quadrilles and other dances of French origin performed at the time in this city. These travelling orchestras were composed of transportable instruments: trumpet, trombone, clarinet, banjo or guitar, tuba as double bass, washboard or drums as percussion. Some of these formations called “spasm bands” were made up of children playing instruments made from recycled objects such as gas pipes, barrels, kettles or cigar boxes.
Charles “Buddy” Bolden (1877 – 1931) is considered to be at the origin of the first jazz band in history. It was in 1895 that he founded his orchestra, mixing the styles of the time. From a repertoire of waltzes, mazurkas, ragtimes, rural blues, negro spirituals and street parade music, Bolden quickly created a new genre of music that was partly improvised. At that time, in the years 1900 – 1910, this new music did not yet officially bear the name of jazz.
Pianist and singer Jelly Roll Morton also made his debut as a musician in Storyville before leaving for other destinations. Another very great musician from this neighbourhood, trumpeter, singer, composer and conductor Louis Armstrong, will mark the history of jazz with his very special voice and by the fact that he contributes greatly to the emergence of the rhythm specific to jazz: swing.
In 1917, the government closed the Storyville district, resulting in the emigration of musicians who were now unemployed to Chicago. It is with the gangster money spent in the cabarets of this city that the “New orleans” style will really flourish and broaden its notoriety.
From the blues comes the boogie woogie and at the same time the musicians borrow and transform more and more the themes of popular song from Broadway and elsewhere.
It was at the same time that a certain George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) became known to the general public. This pianist by training, composes many works on the border between classical and jazz music, forming an ingenious synthesis of these musical genres. This process of musical “fusion” at this point is almost unique in the history of music. Gershwin’s original melodies quickly became part of the jazz musicians’ repertoire and became jazz standards. Among his compositions that will leave their mark on jazz and classical music are the Rhapsody in Blue, Un Américain à Paris, the variations on “I Got Rhythm”, Porgy and Bess (including the famous melody “Summertime”) and his Concerto for piano and orchestra.
In the 1930s, the popularity of jazz called swing or middle developed. Jazz orchestras such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie or Glenn Miller are expanding, becoming fashionable in Hollywood, California and coming to Europe.
Soloists and their improvisations are becoming more and more important in these great formations. This is the case of the American saxophonist Lester Young who was engaged from 1936 to 1940 in Count Basie’s jazz orchestra. This gave this artist the best possible springboard to develop his art and career.
These groups play original compositions by their conductor and some of their musicians, such as Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A train” when he was working with Duke Ellington. They performed many popular themes of the time such as All of Me, as well as those from the musicals of the time, whose composers included Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and Georges Gershwin.
The hit songs of the moment provide jazz and Croatian singers like Franck Sinatra with many beautiful melodies like Everything happens to me or Angel Eyes by composer and conductor Matt Dennis. Alec Wilder, another creator of popular songs, will compose for several musicals, operas and film music themes such as “I’ll Be Around” or Moon and sand (in 1941). It was only a few years later, in 1944, that another very famous crooner, Nat king Cole, began his career as Besame mucho. This theme quickly became an international success and has since been taken up by countless other jazz artists.
At the same time as the swing style took off in the United States, gypsy jazz appeared in France with Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli who formed the Quintet of the Hot Club de France.
This formation has been and remains one of the most famous French jazz groups in the history of jazz. Classically, a gypsy jazz group is composed of several guitars and a double bass, to which can be added, among other instruments, the violin. This style is the result of a mixture of gypsy music, imported from Eastern Europe, French popular music from the inter-war period and American swing jazz standards of the time, such as the theme Have you put Miss Jones.
The virtuosity displayed by the musicians of gypsy jazz groups is obviously inspired by the tradition of gypsy folk music itself, which is often extremely virtuosic. Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli are the first famous virtuoso representatives in the history of gypsy jazz, but they are by no means the only ones.
After a few decades during which this musical genre has been relatively forgotten, it has been enjoying a strong revival of interest since the 1990s. The famous current representatives of this music are Stochelo Rosenberg, Biréli Lagrène, Angelo Debarre, Romane, Patrick Saussois, Christian Escoudé, and Django’s own grandson, David Reinhardt. These musicians are characterized by a great technical mastery of their instrument and the musical formulas typical of gypsy jazz. The pump is one of them: it is the repetition very regularly played on the guitar of the accompaniment chords.
In 1940, it was the bebop revolution and the appearance of an original repertoire that completely transformed and completed that of blues and standards. The bebop will be created in reaction to the music, played by the big bands, partly dedicated to musical animation and dance. For the first time, complex harmonic sequences and musical compositions at the tempo of hell appear. Generally speaking, the trend is towards smaller groups, such as quartets, quintets or sextets.
The be-bop game is the first real revolution in African-American jazz music. Black musicians display a new conception of their art. Through this approach, they strongly and skillfully assert their musical identity with a predominantly white audience.
The American saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955) is a great virtuoso, as well as a musician who has made his mark on the history of jazz. He played an essential role in the emergence of the “Be-bop” style in the 1940s. Many of his themes have become jazz standards: Billie’s bounce, “Donna Lee”, Blues for Alice, “Moose the Mooche”, “Confirmation”, “Dewey Square”, “Now’s the Time”, “Scrapple from the Apple”, “Dexterity”, “Yardbird Suite”, “Au Privave”. In a more Latin style C. Parker composed the famous My little suede shoes.
The other pillars of this musical movement are undoubtedly the pianists Thelonious Monk, Bud powell and the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who also created many themes that have become standards in be-bop.