Do you want to learn about jazz music?
If you know anything about jazz music, you might think of it as an all-American genre of music. While Jazz is a musical genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, its influences come from other parts of the world –primarily from Western Africa.
Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, indigenous Africans were brought from Africa to the United States and forced to work as slaves. Most of these Africans were taken from tribes in Western Africa. Jazz music was created by the descendants of those slaves in the late 19th and early 20th century.
As a result, much of the jazz is influenced by the following elements of African music:
- Rhythm and repetition. African music often has many independent rhythms playing at the same time. Repetition is also common in African dances and drumming songs. This same characteristic is heard in American Jazz when you hear a drummer repeating the same drumming pattern or a pianist playing the same boogie-woogie pattern.
- “Blues” quality. A blue note is a note that sounds a little bit…different. It might be a note that you weren’t expecting. These notes are common in jazz music, and come from harmonies in African singing.
- Individuality and expression. Have you ever watched a orchestra perform a piece of classical music? If so, you’ll notice that all the violin bows move in the same direction at the same time. This makes the music a uniform sound.
Jazz musicians, however, want to stand out individually. This is common of African musical performances as well, where the goal of performing wasn’t to show off a group or a composer.
- Collective improvisation. Improvisation means making up music on the spot. Collective improvisation is when the entire band engages in improvisation, and its long been a feature of African music.
Listen to this famous performance of “Shaw ‘Nuff”, featuring famous jazz musicians Charlie Parker on the saxophone and Dizzy Gillespie on the trumpet.
Can you hear the African influence in this piece? (Hint: listen especially to the final note of the song for an example of a blue note.)
American Jazz also has influences from European styles of music. Many black slaves and ex‐slaves were sent to fight in the American Civil War. Both the Union and Confederate sides of the war used marching bands to control the speed at which their armies marched. Many of the black folks who were sent to war showed musical gifts that were used within these bands. Because the bands used brass instruments and European melodies, the black band members were exposed to new styles and ideas. They started to combine their African roots with these newly learned European styles.
Jazz music became so popular in the 1920’s, that this time period is often called the Jazz Age. During this time, many jazz musicians and bands became famous.
One of the most famous jazz musicians who rose to popularity at this time was Louis Armstrong. Louis was born in New Orleans, often considered to be the birth place of jazz music.
Louis had a difficult childhood, and got into trouble. He was sent to a school for troubled boys at the age of 12, and joined the band at the school. It was there that he learned to read music and play the cornet.
During his teen years, jazz musician Joe “King” Oliver, a famous jazz musician, took Louis under his wing and helped him navigate the musical world. Joe moved to Chicago while Louis continued to perform on steamboats on the Mississippi River. Eventually, Joe invited Louis to join his band, King Oliver’s Creole Band, in Chicago.
A few years later, Armstrong moved to New York City and switched from playing the cornet to the trumpet. His energy and style drew a lot of attention from the New York jazz scene! Eventually, he moved back to Chicago and started his own band called the All Stars. He also began singing, and people loved his unique sounding, gravelly voice. Armstrong recorded a number of hit songs, such as “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly!” He is considered a jazz icon and one of the greatest musicians in American history.
Another important jazz musician is Duke Ellington, an American composer, pianist and big band leader.
Ellington was born in Washington, D.C. and began learning to play the piano at age 7. He didn’t think he was very good at the piano. Yet, at age 14, when he heard pianists playing in a poolroom, he was inspired to practice and focus more on his piano-playing skills!
He began his professional music career around age 18. During the day, he painted signs, and at night, he played the piano. He formed a band that played at dances and parties.
Ellington later moved to New York City and began playing at jazz clubs, where many began to notice his talent. He formed the Duke Ellington Orchestra, which went on to play at the famous Carnegie Hall. In 1969, President Nixon threw a party for him at The White House to celebrate his 70th birthday and honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Check out a video of Duke’s orchestra playing below:
Learn about jazz music: playlist
Add the following songs to your playlist to explore more fantastic jazz music:
“Take The A Train” by Duke Ellington
“Round Midnight” by Thelonious Monk
“My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane
“So What” by Miles Davis
“Cantaloupe Island” by Herbie Hancock
“West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong
“God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday
“My Funny Valentine” by Chet Baker
“Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins
“What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong
“Blue Train” by John Coltrane
“Summertime” by Ella Fitzgerald
“Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin
“Mood Indigo” by Duke Ellington
“At Last” by Etta James
“I Loves You Porgy” by Nina Simone
“Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles
“Donna Lee” by Charlie Parker
If you are interested in other music topics for kids, take a look at this mariachi lesson for kids:
Or how about this Hungarian folk music unit?
About the author: Carly Seifert is a wife, mom and piano teacher in Atlanta. She is the creator of Busy Kids Do Piano — online music courses and piano lessons for kids — and shares loads of free musical resources on her blog.