jazz music

Music flashback – History of Jazz

Where the actual name of jazz came from is anyone’s guess.

But first, work and misery produced the call and response element known to jazz from the plantation fields of southern American slavery. A leader during a work regime might call out a melodic line to be answered by the workers.

Additionally, the African-American spiritual was another root to the jazz genre. The drudgery of the plantation fields and all of the misery experienced by a people once considered less than human was captured in these musical pieces. Thus, these two elements began the foundation that jazz was built upon.


The ragtime emerged next (highly syncopated) and the blues, two more foundational blocks to modern jazz. Scott Joplin (1867-1917), pianist/composer, famous for his rags which comprised not only the African-American elements but some European enhancement from Irish gigs, German waltzes, and French quadrilles.

His rag, The Entertainer, adapted by Marvin Hamlisch, provided the foundation for the musical score to the movie, The Sting, 1973 (Starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman).

The Blues – Blue Scale

The blues scale converts a major scale, for instance in the key of C Major, CDEFGABC, the E would become Eb, the G would become Gb and the B would become Bb, thus the third, fifth and seventh tones are lowered by what is called a half-step or a half-tone. These lowered tones produce the “blue” sound characteristic of musical pieces known as the “Blues”. Blues music not only uses the blue notes, but is generally 12 bars long in a 4/4 count.

Additional foundational jazz style blocks include Dixieland, Big Band (swing), Bebop and Free Jazz.

What is Syncopation?

Music has beats. When there are four beats in a measure (like four quarters to a whole), there are strong and weak beats. For the measure containing four beats, the first and the third beats are the strongest.

Then there are the half beats in between the whole beats. For instance, if counting the beats, one would count: one and two and three and four and. When the weaker beats (two and four) are emphasized, or, the note is played or held over on the “and” of the beat, there is syncopation.

What is Improvisation?

Musical compositions are written using harmonic progressions. Given the specific scale used, a chord is built from the root note. For instance, using C Major again, C is the first note. A chord can be built from that note which would include CEG and B. Doing the same for each note of the C Major scale and then placing them in a harmonic progression, a new, spontaneous melody line can be created. This takes practice. The more practice, the easier it becomes.

Improvisation refreshes musical compositions that may be quite old. This technique keeps the piece new and vibrant as well as distinguishes the soloist who performs it.

Improvisation is not magical. The well practiced/trained jazz musician is hearing the chord progressions/musical phrasing and melody in his/her head. There’s a great deal of skill involved.

In America, where so many cultures converge, the tentacles of music exist, binding us all together.