All About That Jazz

As Jazz has grown and developed, the original simplicity of the music has turned to intricate complexity. It follows, therefore, that to understand jazz ... start at the beginning.

Following the progression through the 100 year history will not only give a clear understanding of the basics of jazz, it will also allow everyone to decide which genre of jazz they prefer because jazz is highly personal. The best jazz you will ever hear is the jazz you enjoy the most.

There is no mystery to jazz. It was music played for fun and dancing by poor people with no formal musical training.

If it has:
• SWING (a skip to the music)
• IMPROVISATION (music made up around the original melody)
• SYNCOPATION (when you tap your foot, the syncopated or off-beat is when your foot is in the air)

. . .  that's jazz!

How Does Jazz Work?

First it is important to remember that jazz started as spontaneous music, played by poor people for fun. It was not an intellectual exercise, it was music to dance to with a hot driving rhythm. Second, for most of those people, church music was the only music they ever heard, there was no radio, television or recorded music other than rare cylinders. They played cheap Spanish-American war surplus military marching band instruments, thatʼs the military beat and marching influence.

Still today, Jazz musicians sometimes turn up on stage and play a whole evening together without ever having met each other before. Obviously, there is a structure to the music, a set of rules. Understanding the rules will be a start point to understanding jazz.

To start a tune, the musicians agree on a musical key and the bandleader calls a tempo, or speed, by counting them into the tune. In jazz, there is often an introduction either already written as part of the composition or improvised, most commonly on the piano. Then, the written tune is played together by all the musicians. Depending on the genre of jazz presented, this opening chorus can be played loosely or even boisterously, with three or more horn players weaving lines collectively around the melody as in Dixieland or traditional New Orleans jazz. Or, it can be played in a subdued unison as in bebop and cool jazz. How ever it is presented, that first chorus is called the "head," and it is generally played once. Head means in their head, because the original musicians memorized it.

Then, each musician in turn plays his solo, improvising around the head for a varying period, taking the chord sequence of the tune itself as their blueprint. Respect for the chord structure of the head is crucial for true jazz. Towards the end of their solo improvisation, the musician reduces the intensity of their playing often dropping down the scale and nodding or pointing to the next player to signal an invitation to the next musician to make his own improvisation.

The position of the band on stage gives a clue to their function. The back line, stand-up bass and drums and in early jazz banjo and tuba, are the rhythm section, they carry the time of the piece.They are sometimes called the sidemen, but musicians dislike the term as it is disrespectful to fellow band members. The band is an interdependent team.

The front line are horns, clarinet, piano, vibraphone, guitar or any other lead instrument. The front line include the bandleader and carry the melody. After the front line have each played their solo improvisation, the back line play their solos. Bass takes a turn then the drums, which sometimes trade phrases with each of the front line in fours or eights (four or eight bars each).

At each break between musiciansʼ solos, the audience shows their appreciation of the improvisation, even applauding over the next player. Not everyone wants to take a solo and they donʼt have to, they just signal they are passing by looking to the next musician in turn. Through all these changes, the rhythm section keeps the music driving forward in time.

When the solos are complete, the band plays the head again, thatʼs the out head or last chorus. There may also be a special ending, written or improvised. To signal the last chorus, the band leader may raise his hand. At the end of the piece its normal for the audience to applaud and make a noise to celebrate some great music.

Your QuestionsAnswered


Listen to Jazz before modernism, you will hear where the giants of modern jazz got their inspiration. Back to the future, with music before 1960. Start with the ragtime of Scott Joplin, then on to New Orleans traditional, Big Band and Swing. Then, reach as far forward as you comfortably can, extending your own personal preferences. Jazz is a conversation between musicians but the audience are included in that exchange. Jazz is the musical heartbeat of American culture; the only American music. Everyone should hear the musical accompaniment to the struggles and successes of the birth of a great nation.

Right before jazz came Ragtime, a syncopated piano music which was enormously popular and led by Scott Joplin.

Here Scott Joplin is playing in a SYNCOPATED or off beat style, which is one of the three basic tenets of jazz. The other two are IMPROVISATION , making up music in the moment and SWING rhythm.

Scott Joplin, the Entertainer


Improvisation began for a very simple reason, to keep dancers on the floor longer. Most tunes played straight through would end before the enthusiasm of the dancers was exhausted, so jazz musicians added an improvised or invented section in the middle of the tune to make it longer.

In classical music improvisation is called variations, written out by the composer and followed in exact detail. Beethovenʼs Fifth Symphony opens with 5 continuous variations on just four notes, and many more variations on the same theme follow. The classical musicians typically expect two detailed rehearsals to get the piece note-perfect.

London Promenade Concert (2012) Beethoven 5th symphony in C Minor

The jazz musician has the chords of the head melody in his mind and composes the improvisation as he plays, each time is different. Jazz is free form music requiring huge concentration and inventiveness of the musicians as well as the skill to deliver the music that they imagine from their instrument.


In Swing, the rhythm section keep the beat strong and clear for dancers to follow, swinging the beat on two and four, exactly where you would intuitively click your fingers. Think of a four speed manual gear shift, and the click comes at second and fourth gear positions. Swing gives a lively lilt to music, a short/long bounce or skip to a run of notes. The short/long be-dah rhythmic skip is the essence of swing. Listen to Glenn Millerʼs “In the Mood” and even say be-dah to the music and click your fingers naturally to the beat (on two and four) to understand this beautiful dance rhythm.

Big Bands turned to Swing through the Great Depression and then the war years, when dancing was the entertainment. The Depression hit the music recording industry hard but radio came along to distribute music to the masses.

Glenn Miller traveled extensively through World War II playing his powerful swing rhythm for the troops at home and overseas. He was lost in a ʻplane crash December 15th, 1944 at just 40 years of age.

Swing Glenn Miller, In the Mood


Jazz is a conversation between a team of musicians, partly planned, partly filled with spontaneity. Because the etiquette, the key, the tempo and rhythm are so strong, they carry the spontaneous improvisation easily and allow the excitement of fresh new music to shine through. The sheer effort of improvisation demands involvement from the audience. Jazz is constantly new and evolving, but respectful of its deep roots if it is not to lose its way. Jazz was the music of poor people without a voice, music to enjoy and dance to, somewhere to forget hardship.

For the first fifty years of the twentieth century, jazz was the most popular music in the world, the great tunes from that time are still there to be heard as a guide to the future. Those were also the fifty most destructive years in the entire history of mankind. An influenza pandemic, two horrific world wars, the atom bomb, the great depression and in America and elsewhere, government sanctioned racial segregation. The power of jazz was a refuge from that insanity.

How is the etiquette and respect of jazz demonstrated on stage?

In the same way that a whole symphony orchestra supports their violin or piano soloist, a jazz band's rhythm section supports the front line. Drums, bass, banjo or guitar, are the rhythm section supporting the leader and other front line performers. The rhythm section carries the time and tempo of the music until it is their turn to give their own solo interpretations while the front line take a break. Waiting in turn, that is mutual respect. Keeping solo lengths even to balance the amount of improvisation abstracted from the tune, moderating the level of sound to uniformity and a general politeness in stagecraft are important. All reflect the teamwork required to play together without arrangements in a loose format.

What is the Great American Song Book?

The post war period was a transition point for all of American society. Giant songwriters, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, the Gershwin brothers and others had been writing intricate tunes and beautiful lyrics in the New York center of songs know as Tin Pan Alley. That music became recognized as The Great American Songbook. In the early 1950s recording companies changed direction and wanted sentimental and novelty songs, they moved public consumption away from jazz based music and created a new pop music market segment, aimed at affluent young people. Mitch Miller at CBS was the prime mover and became all powerful in deciding what popular music was, and it was mostly simple, novelty tunes judged solely on their commercial value. By 1955 Elvis had exploded onto the young music scene, entrenching pop music as a financial and cultural fact.

In response, older listeners turned back to the beauty and clear lyrics of the great American Songbook and it had a revival. This was the great split. Jazz may have taken on an older more sophisticated mantle around this time, further alienating it from the pop mainstream that it had dominated for half a century. A revival happened again in the early 1960s in response to the Beatles music. By then, the pop music industry, largely based on rhythm and blues, had grown to a frenzy pitch and was hugely profitable.


New Orleans Jazz comes from the African experience in America, from praise house spirituals, from war surplus military marching band instruments, enslaved peopleʼs work songs of call and response, the Delta blues and above all from escapism from the harsh reality of a too-hard life. The musicians were not trained, they played church music because that was all the music they knew. Music was not recorded and available everywhere as it is today. They played on military instruments because they were war surplus and cheap. They parodied military marching bands in the same way that they parodied white folks finery in the Ragtime cake walk, to poke fun at stiff white society. They played loud instruments like horns and banjo because there were no sound systems in the noisy bars of Storyville.

There is no doubt that the music coalesced around the end of the 1890s in the Buddy Bolden Band playing a big four marching rhythm which accents the fourth beat with a cymbal crash or double drum beat. One, two, three, de-DUM.

Wynton Marsalis Buddy Bolden Blues

In 1913, the word jazz was first used in West Coast newspapers to describe enthusiastic play by baseball players. By 1917 Nick La Rocca and the Dixieland Jass Band had made the first record and the name Jazz was altered and adopted.

Livery Stable Blues Original Dixieland Jass band


The New Orleans sound of the front line consists of the trombone playing in the lower register; the clarinet weaving a complicated thread of counterpoint in the higher register and in between, the cornet playing a simple, swinging statement of the tune.

The change that Louis Armstrong gave to the music through his virtuosity was to be the first to step forward and play as a soloist. Armstrong always completed a note or phrase to its full extent, regardless of the tempo which he picked up later. After Armstrong began to play solo improvisations all jazzmen followed, each taking their turn.

The difference between instrumental sections in jazz and classical music is the way in which jazz men push their instruments to moan and growl, whine and whistle, screaming high notes and rumbling low. Itʼs how they modulate the horn with their hand or a mute in an attempt to make it speak in a human way. At the start of jazz, the jazzmen were not trained musicians, perhaps we hear frustration that their energy and expression was being limited by their instruments, so they forced the instruments beyond their design, overwhelming them with energy and emotion. They are reaching for closeness to the human voice, to sound out human emotion more fully than the instrument design allows. In reverse, we hear the human voice used as an instrument in scat singing of meaningless sounds, another innovation from Louis Armstrong. Jazz playing becomes a cross over between man and instrument. It is the attempt to humanize the instrument, to make the instrument one with the musician, expressing all the emotions of excitement, love and despair so often depicted in the title or lyrics in a vox humana style, that defines the energy of jazz.


Jazz began as one style, New Orleans Jazz. In the very beginning, the word jazz didnʼt even exist, they were playing a band version of Ragtime, the complex syncopated piano music of Scott Joplin. When you tap your foot, a syncopated rhythm accentuates the beat when your foot is in the air, the up beat. Jazz tempos, or the speed of the music, vary from slow ballads to marching speed, to on-fire fast. Tempo is called by the band leader just before they start to play, clicking his fingers to the speed or calling the speed one two, a one two three four.

New Orleans or traditional jazz was the root, but stylistically it could not develop. Raw exciting and wonderful though it is, the structure has limitations that free-thinking jazz musicians simply have to push further. So began a series of derivations. Latin America gave us bossa nova (a samba/jazz fusion literally ʻa new charmʼ), France gave us the gypsy jazz(in slang manouche) made famous by Django Rheinhart and Stephan Grapelli.

Borsalino Jazz Paris

The Big Band leaders gave us their arranged jazz and followed that with the Swing era of wartime dance music. The great Charlie Parker and Miles Davies gave us cool jazz with extended virtuoso improvisations. Singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne each had their style followed by the torch singers like Julie London and later by Nora Jones and Diana Krall.

Every one of theses derivations paints a different musical picture, each listener will gravitate to a certain style or picture in the musical gallery, and champion it as the best of jazz. None of the styles are more or less important, they are all jazz, each reflecting the innovation of one musician or group pushing the boundaries in a new inventive direction. Whether the derivation gains popularity depends on the audience, they are always the final arbiters of success and jazz is the very closest and immediate partnership between musicians and audience.


The Big Band format of more than 10 players requires a more formal approach than the smaller combo bands and some of the music is written out in advance, its called an arrangement. By the end of the 1920s more musicians were formally trained, bands were bigger and jazz entered the Big Band era. Around 1935, Big Bands transitioned to the Swing Era through World War II and beyond. Both styles still maintain the free element of improvisation for the lead musicians. The polyphony of New Orleans Jazz, where many musicians improvised at the same time was replaced by homophony, a single sound, when Big Bands came in.

The stand-up base replaced the tuba, the guitar replaced the banjo and the saxophone became the dominant instrument replacing the clarinet and giving a softer, less military sound for dancers.

The typical Big Band, of the type seen in High Schools today, has five saxophones (two alto, two tenors, one baritone), four trumpets and four trombones with a rhythm section of piano, base, guitar and drums.

The head melody is played in unison (the same notes) or in complimentary harmony, and is often played by one section of the band with accompaniment by the others. Solo improvisation comes next or a call and response between the sections of the band. Simple repetitive riffs (phrases) are then played by each section in turn. The Big Band is more organized than the nods that signal breaks in a smaller combo, because of its size .Trading fours (or eights) is a feature where the drums call for four bars and soloists or sections reply for four in turn.

Big Band Count Basie – One oʼclock jump

The greatest jazz composer of all time was Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington who worked closely with Billy Strayhorn. The intricacy and style they bought to the swing era was unsurpassed.

Swing It donʼt mean a thing - Duke Ellington


After Swing jazz came Bebop. At this point, jazz was no longer purely entertainment but became art to be listened to, not dance music. This Bop or Bebop and the commercial dynamics of change in the pop music industry, took jazz out of the popular mainstream, the dancing public were excluded, confused and turned away from all the beautiful jazz that had gone before.

“Bebop has no melody to remember and no beat to dance to” -- Louis Armstrong

Bebop is virtuoso and serious with complex improvisations. With no arrangement it relies almost entirely on improvisation. Bebop is instrumental, not sung so there are no lyrics but it can have a musical story telling quality. There is a head played in unison, long improvisation in the middle section and an out head, again in unison. The range and rhythms are purposely large and intricate.

Now jazz had turned to a more artistic form, this was no longer the wild dance or marching band music of New Orleans. The rhythmic dance music of the big band and swing era had passed. There may also have been a political under current of protest entering the music around this same time as part of the growing movement against the insufferable injustices of segregation.

The modern jazzmen made a strong case. In 1959 alone, four of the greatest modern jazz recordings were made by Charlie Mingus Mingus Ah Um, Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, the Time out album by Dave Bruebeck which included Take Five (the most popular jazz recording ever) and Ornette Colemanʼs The face of jazz to come album. Great music which signaled the parting of the ways between jazz music as art, and jazz as dance music and easy listening entertainment.

Dave Bruebeck original recording of Take five


The blues is more country based music, deeply rooted in the Mississippi delta. It is a plaintive music of folk song stories and field hollers. There were no city influences of marching band instruments or parodies but the church influences are still strong. The blues was most commonly played and sung by one man and his guitar or piano. The sound of blues is a 12 bar repeated pattern of tonic, dominant and subdominant chords. The lyrics often repeat the first line twice in a poetic format, and rhyme the third line to the first. ʻI hate to see the evening sun go downʼ is repeated twice by WC Handy in St. Louis Blues, and answered by ʻCause my baby, he done left this townʼ. In the 1950s, blues had been gaining popular success played in economical four-man combos. Three electric guitars, lead, rhythm and base, plus drums. This was blues with a powerful rhythm section giving a driving beat that people could dance to, so here was Rhythm and Blues. Rock and roll and other variations followed. The roots of some of this music trace back to early jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who was inducted into the Rock nʼ Roll Hall of Fame in 1957 recognizing his much earlier contribution.

Billie Holiday singing St Louis Blues

What is Cool, Modal and Jazz/Rock Fusion?

Cool jazz began through the inventiveness of Miles Davis who had studied at Julliard but left to play bebop. He played a more relaxed style of bebop which was later branded as Cool Jazz. Cool Jazz also has some roots in the smooth playing of Bix Beiderbeck. Davis later turned to Modal jazz, playing modes rather than chords, and in the 1960s he introduced electric base guitar and electric piano into a group, making a Rock/jazz fusion sound.

His greatest album was Kind of blue in 1959, with Bill Evans piano, John Coltraine tenor sax, Paul Chambers base, Cannonball Adderley altosax, Jimmy Cobb drums and Miles Davis trumpet.


Big Bands collapsed under the weight of their own high costs in the post war austerity period. The dance hall public turned away from Bebop because they couldnʼt dance to the complex rhythms. For a short time the lady ʻtorch” singers held the spotlight, singing in an elegant blues jazz style of their unrequited love with small combos.

Here is the film-star beautiful Julie London singing Cry me a River



What is the future of jazz?

Some jazz clubs and venues have turned back the clock to the earlier music. Jazz with dance rhythms, jazz with the style and elegance of the big band and swing eras, jazz with singers and beautiful lyrics, even rip roaring New Orleans jazz. The economics of big bands are almost impossible except in High Schools and the military, but the Big Band music and the Swing era can be reproduced by combos. In fact, by reproducing the music in a combo format there is greater latitude for solo improvisation and less need for arrangements.

The majority of clubs cater to the demand for modern jazz, with no lyrics but that sometimes haunting musical storyline feeling. Musicians themselves are deciding the future of jazz, where once bandleaders, songwriters, singers, lyricists, transposers, sound engineers all had their part in the musical production. That either means we now have pure music or a loss of balance and commercial presentation. Jazz is always a broad church and audiences will determine which genres will be successful.

Jazz continues to have success, not the same worldwide pop music success of the 1920s but there is a strong following and more people are becoming interested.

Hopefully this site will encourage people to appreciation through an understanding of the basics. The music of Nora Jones and Diana Krall both attest to the continuing demand for jazz. Diana Krall researches new material in her fatherʼs collection of jazz 78s on Victoria Island BC. Reaching forwards in jazz while respecting the early roots is the essence of the tradition respected by all jazz musicians.