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Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie

The writer and essayist Gerald Early told us that "when they study our civilization two thousand years from now, there will only be three things that Americans will be known for: the Constitution, baseball and jazz music."   Jazz has been called by many "America's only original contribution to the arts."  This may sound elitist, and you may disagree.  Jazz is certainly not America's only original music - Blues, Country, and Rock and Roll certainly all qualify as well.  Different instruments, phrasing, rhythm, or harmonies can all define a new style of music, and  there are literally thousands upon thousands of different styles.  What makes jazz different and why is it "art?"

Jazz differs from other music because it encourages individualism in the form of improvisation, and this is why it is original art - not the music, but the way it is played.  In classical music, for instance, the composer writes the notes on the page and the music is to be played the way the composer instructs.  This mentality carries over to many forms of music, where fans prefer to hear their live music performed exactly like it was on the CD that they purchased.  In jazz, the artists says, "I have something to say.  Here's how I interpret music."  Jazz has many forms.  Big band swing is one form using lots of structure in a large group setting.  Rock-jazz fusion has more qualities of instrumental rock.  Hot jazz has a swagger reminiscent of New Orleans funeral marches.  However, all of them have the improvisation quality that makes jazz unique from all other forms of music.

Because of improvisation, jazz is quite often bittersweet.  You will never hear a solo played the same way twice.  The musician has a specific feeling at that moment in time.  The listener does, as well.  The artists plays his solo, pouring his soul out through his music, and the listener interprets it, often with a slant on how he feels at that particular moment (you feel the blues more when you are down, for instance).  That moment can never be reproduced.  The solo can be reproduced through recording equipment, but the moment cannot.  You live the moment and the moment is gone.  Because of this ability to express oneself through the music, through the years, jazz has reflected society: segregation, civil rights/unrest, drugs, the Great Depression, Woodstock, disco, and much more.

However, jazz is not haphazard and random.  There are rules and structure.  Within that structure, the soloist improvises.  It is individualism within constraints, so in a way, jazz represents America, where individualism is prized above all, but within the constraints of societal laws.  

Jazz is a music that could have only been born in America, because America brought so many people with diverse backgrounds together.  Jazz fuses the structure of European classical musical concepts with the rhythms of Africa.  Jazz was created by African-Americans, because the freedom of jazz could only be born of a people who were not free.  Jazz has it's roots in traveling minstrel shows from the mid 1800s, but after the Civil War, Ragtime brought syncopation (accenting off-beats) and the Blues brought a new musical scale.  Together, ragtime and blues formed to give jazz its musical foundation.

That foundation was laid in New Orleans, in the very early part of the 20th century.  At that time, segregation laws were passed and Creoles were declared 2nd-class citizens.  Many of these people were well educated and the musicians were classically trained.  They brought their traditional musical background and combined it with the group-created, individual expression and rhythm brought by the African Americans, and jazz was born.

Buddy Bolden is often credited with being the first musician to play jazz.  "Jelly Roll" Morton was the first person to write down jazz music.  The Original Dixieland Jazz band is the first group to record jazz, and Louis Armstrong taught the world how to swing and determined the direction of jazz and took it from simple dancing music into an art form through his improvised solos.

Jazz is a very educational music.  You can't just bang around on a piano randomly and say that you are playing jazz.  Because of the level of sophistication, there are many jazz snobs who hurt jazz through their superiority complexes.  No matter how much these people try to show off how much they know, or how much they squabble and try to poison jazz with their "expert criticism", when it comes down to it, jazz is personal.  If it makes you tap your toe, or smile, or cry - getting you to FEEL, then jazz has done it's job, and no amount of over-analysis will change that fact.  Good jazz is jazz that YOU like. 

I hope you find this site educational.  Most of all, if you aren't into jazz, I hope it inspires you to give it a try.  If you are slightly interested, I hope this can help you learn more about jazz that is out there and aid you on a journey through this wonderful music.