What Is Early Jazz Music?

Sidney Bechet plays clarinet
Sidney Bechet. Charles Peterson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

New Orleans in the first two decades of the 20th century was a musical melting pot of musical styles. African music was still prominent, as drumming and dancing were some of the few freedoms allowed slaves before emancipation. Ragtime was popular, and its up-tempo and syncopated rhythms had a profound influence on later styles.

Military marching bands had begun to influence New Orleans music, in terms of musical forms and also the types of instruments that were available. Communities formed brass bands that played and marched in parades to accompany funerals and holidays. Musicians based in the red light district of New Orleans, known as “Storyville,” combined these styles with blues and improvisation, developing the first forms of jazz in bars and brothels.

Hot Jazz

Early jazz is often referred to as “Hot Jazz,” and sometimes “Dixieland music.” It incorporated the fast and spirited nature of ragtime, and the use of trumpets, trombones, drums, saxophones, clarinets, banjos, and either a bass or a tuba. Also, contrasting with classical music and ragtime, there was an emphasis on improvisation as opposed to written arrangements. Some sections of pieces involved collective improvisation, and others featured soloists, who strove for virtuosity.

Stride Piano

Directly influenced by ragtime, the stride piano style became popular in New York during World War I. Stride pieces are characterized by a bass line with a half-note pulse played in the left hand while the melody and chords are played in the right hand. The term “stride” comes from the action of the left hand as it strikes a bass note and then moves swiftly up the keyboard to strike chord tones on every other beat. Stride pianists also incorporated improvisation and blues melodies and were keen on technical prowess.

Paving The Way

Hot jazz groups and stride pianists often toured the country in vaudeville acts and developed followings throughout the south, and in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Kansas City. Bands in those regions formed as jazz became more and more popular and were soon filling the airwaves and dancehalls leading into the swing era.

Early Jazz Musicians

  • Louis Armstrong – Quickly rising to fame because of his unique melodic approach and technical skill, Armstrong was a hot jazz trumpeter and singer in New Orleans who was instrumental in spreading the music’s popularity across the country.
  • Bix Beiderbecke – Heavily influenced by Armstrong, Beiderbecke was a cornet player whose cleanly improvised melodies had an influence lasting into the swing era and beyond.
  • Fats Waller – an exuberant performer and composer who was a master of stride piano. He composed “Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.”
  • Kid Ory – a trombonist and bandleader, Kid Ory is credited with developing the tailgate style of playing, which is when the trombonist improvises a simple rhythmic line underneath the melody in early jazz ensembles. Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and Sidney Bechet played in Ory’s band in New Orleans.
  • Sidney Bechet – The first saxophone player to display great technical and improvisational skill, Bechet was an early jazz musician whose influence stretched into later periods of jazz.