An Introduction to Jazz Music

Louis Armstrong
Louis Armstrong. By World-Telegram staff photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Born in America, jazz can be seen as a reflection of the cultural diversity and individualism of this country. At its core are an openness to all influences and personal expression through improvisation. Throughout its history, jazz has straddled the worlds of popular music and art music, and it has expanded to a point where its styles are so varied that one artist may sound completely unrelated to another. First performed in bars, jazz can now be heard in clubs, concert halls, universities, and large festivals all over the world.

The Birth of Jazz

New Orleans, Louisiana, around the turn of the 20th century was a melting pot of cultures. A major port city, people from all over the world come together there, and as a result, musicians are exposed to a variety of music. European classical music, American blues, and South American songs and rhythms came together to form what became known as jazz. The origin of the word jazz is widely disputed, although it is thought to have originally been a sexual term.

Louis Armstrong

One thing that distinguishes jazz music is its focus on improvisation. Louis Armstrong, a trumpet player from New Orleans and then Chicago, is considered the father of modern jazz improvisation. His trumpet solos were melodic and playful and filled with energy that could only result from being composed on the spot. A leader of several groups in the 1920s and 30s, Armstrong inspired countless others to make the music their own by developing a personal style of improvisation.

Expansion of Jazz

Thanks to early records, the music of Armstrong and others in New Orleans could reach a broad radio audience. The music’s popularity began to increase as did its sophistication, and major cultural centers around the country began to feature jazz bands. Chicago, Kansas City, and New York had the most thriving music scenes in the 1940s, where dance halls were filled with fans that came to see large jazz ensembles. This period is known as the swing era, referring to the lilting “swing” dance rhythms employed by the Big Bands.

Benny Goodman popularized the music for white audiences. Other influential bandleaders were Cab Calloway and Count Basie.

Billie Holiday

One of the greatest jazz vocalists of the 1930s to the 1950s, Billie "Lady Day" Holiday could wrench enormous emotion out of any word in a jazz tune. She made her first recordings with Benny Goodman but found wider fame with Count Basie's orchestra.

Duke Ellington

Influential bandleader, composer of American standards, and pianist Duke Ellington was a pioneer in the Big Band era, and his band lasted for more than 50 years, based out of New York, though they toured worldwide. He is widely renowned as America's greatest composer. His career started in the 1920s and extended into the 1970s.


Big Bands gave musicians the opportunity to experiment with different approaches to improvisation. While members of a Big Band, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie began to develop a highly virtuosic and harmonically advanced style known as "bebop," an onomatopoeic reference to the rhythmic punches heard in the music. Parker and Gillespie performed their music in small ensembles all over the country, and musicians flocked to hear the new direction jazz was taking. The intellectual approach and technical facility of these pioneers of bebop set the standard for today’s jazz musicians. Other bebop influencers include Thelonious Monk and Max Roach.

Ella Fitzgerald

One of jazz's most popular singers for 50 years was Ella Fitzgerald, who sold 40 million records in her lifetime and toured the nation widely, leading her own band. She started her career during the Big Band era but adapted to bebop and other styles, becoming a pioneer in scat singing.

Miles Davis

In 1944, Miles Davis joined Charlie Parker's band (his idol), but it wasn't long before his experimentation and improvisation led him to front his own projects. (See "Kind of Blue," the biggest-selling jazz album of all time.) His 1960s quintet, which included John Coltrane, is lauded as one of the most influential in jazz—and this was even before he recorded "Bitches Brew." He's the most influential jazz artist of the second half of the 20th century, due to his constant reinvention of himself and jazz music.

Jazz Today

Jazz is a highly developed art form that continues to evolve and expand in numerous directions. The music of each decade sounds fresh and distinct from the music that preceded it. Since the days of bebop, the jazz scene has included avant-garde music (Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman), Latin jazz (Tito Puente, Stan Getz, Cal Tjader, Mongo Santamaria, Poncho Sanchez) jazz/rock fusion (Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard), and countless other styles. Jazz today is so diverse and broad that there is something interesting to find in every artist’s style.