What is jazz music? What’s the difference from blues?

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The blues is the legitimate father of all jazz music.

In essence, it can be said that jazz was born when blues, initially only vocal, became predominantly instrumental, something that was possible when freed African Americans were able to buy musical instruments.

But what is jazz? Jazz is not just music. It is also a way of being in the world and a way of being with others. Jazz was, not surprisingly, the favorite music genre and the number one reference for the Beat Generation, which lived its existence in a decadent way, rebelling against conformism and the masses.

Being Beat meant being different, marginalized, and defeated, but for an existential choice of extraneousness with respect to the inauthentic world of the establishment, career, and consumerism. Beat meant rhythm in an ethical sense, it was required to “play” one’s life and one’s art without sparing, until the last breath, with a sort of elegant indifference.

At the heart of jazz philosophy are the humility and potential of each individual, combined with the ability to listen to others and improvise together. It was created by the descendants of slaves, but it knows how to talk about freedom. It is the child of the melancholy of the blues, but it knows how to let itself go to achieve the purest happiness.

The origin of the word “Jazz” is uncertain and perhaps it is useless to investigate its root. “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,” Louis Armstrong used to say.

Dizzy Gillespie argued that jasi, in one of the many African dialects, meant “living at an accelerated pace”.

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Some think it comes from a Congolese term, jass, which means “excitement”, and which was to be used in the recreational moments of African tribes. For others it seems that it was used by enslaved Africans to find strength in the hard work of the plantations. If we accept this meaning, then we may accept that it came from the shouts of incitement addressed to a black trombone player, whose name was Jess or Jasbo Brown. Other versions believe that instead it derives from the French verb jaser (to shout, rumble). The hypotheses are many and there is only one date objectively recognized by all: 1913. In that year the term was used for the first time.

The development of jazz can be divided, with relative approximation, into five periods.

The first goes from the end of the 19th century to about 1920, when the best jazz players from the Southern United States moved to the great cities of the North in search of fortune.

The most important city of this period was New Orleans, a large port on the Gulf of Mexico, at the mouth of the Mississippi, the most populous and prosperous in Louisiana, a French colony until 1803 and therefore a point of confluence of different cultures. Although enslaved, Black people who settled in the Louisiana territory enjoyed greater freedom than those who had gone to the English colonies. This explains why the first blues was born in New Orleans.

The numerous Blacks who, after the official abolition of slavery, had settled in the city undertook the most diverse and humble jobs. Quite a few of them began to perform, without any score and without even a formal knowledge of music, as street players, using improvised instruments such as sheet metal drums, banjos made from cheese boxes and double basses made with barrels cut in half.

As this rhythmic vitality was appreciated, the musicians began to buy the wind instruments discarded by the players of the armies of the Secession War (cornets, trumpets and trombones, drums, tuba basses, clarinets, guitars) and began to form orchestras or fanfares, called brass bands. Playing by ear and varying the parts extemporaneously, they walked the streets of New Orleans performing at parties, parades, weddings, funerals and even dances on river boats.

These musicians were particularly effective in funeral processions: all their pieces were played at a very slow tempo, so that the mourners also walked very slowly. But at the end of the funeral, the bystanders would line up behind the musicians, listening only to the bass drum and, after leaving the cemetery, the music became ragtime or swing, involving all who were present. Everyone would dance, even passers-by, to the point that it became a habit for many people to wait for the jazz band to come out of the graveyard.

When in 1917, frequent fights, illegal trafficking and theft caused Storyville, the entertainment center of New Orleans, to be closed, many musicians were suddenly out of work and decided to leave the city to go north.

The second period, which ran from about 1920 to 1935, is considered the most successful period of jazz and mainly concerns the city of Chicago which became the new home of jazz after New Orleans. Here the Chicago style was born, expressed mainly by white musicians and the boogie woogie. The latter was a piano style based on a rhythm performed by the left hand on a blues theme (from which the homonymous and very popular dance was born).

The third period, which goes from 1935 to 1945, is the age of swing, a genre of jazz that was to be used primarily for dancing. The swing, in fact, is characterized by a great rhythmic incisiveness, made up of slight anticipations and delays on the basic rhythm, which gives the music a swaying sense that lends itself easily to dancing.

The fourth period, which runs from 1945 to the end of the 1960s, was characterized by a new awareness on the part of the black population against racial discrimination. Black jazzmen reacted to the gradual infiltration of white musicians into their musical genre, to the creation of large orchestras with purely commercial purposes, and to the progressive reduction of improvisation.

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Let Me Tell You About Music
History, genres, characters, curiosities, legends and secrets of musical theory and harmony

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Musicians such as Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk developed a revolutionary jazz style, often difficult, sophisticated, and sometimes abstruse, which wreaked havoc among the ranks of fans. Many were also irritated by the unfriendly attitude of these performers, who, wearing large black glasses and a full beard, seemed to be disinterested in the audience, turning their backs as soon as one piece was finished and attacking the next without paying attention to the applause.

The new style was called bebop, so called from the two syllabic sounds with which a drum rhythm was vocally reproduced. The improvisation was total, with fast rhythmic, asymmetrical, and angular phrasing, and a complex and harsh harmonic texture.

The response to these styles, mainly by white musicians, was cool jazz (cool, calm jazz), made up of harmonically composed, elegant, rarefied, rhythmically spaced and very little aggressive atmospheres. Chet Baker, an American trumpeter and singer known for his lyrical and intimate style, was one of its main exponents.

The need to strengthen the independence of black African-American musical culture from the white one also led to the birth of free jazz.

The performing style became angry and aggressive. Harmonic, rhythmic, melodic and timbral explorations were pushed to the extreme, reaching a musical language in which the soloist tried to recover the deepest roots of African culture. Some musicians even rejected the term “jazz”, preferring to speak of “black music” instead.

The fifth period is the one that goes from the seventies to today and is characterized by the adoption of stylistic modules taken from rock and new electronic techniques, which have transformed traditional jazz into jazz rock or fusion.

Read more about the history of music in the dedicated Auralcrave book