May 1, 2022

What is Jazz? A Brief Guide to Jazz Music for Beginners

It is difficult to answer the question, “What is jazz?” in just one line. This music genre has come a long way since its humble origins in late 19th and early 20th century New Orleans. What began primarily as a symbol of African-American emancipation is now referred to as ‘America’s Classical Music.’ By popular belief, jazz music combines the musical traditions of West Africa (rhythm, blues) with traditional European traits (harmonic chords, instrumentals).

Although some believe jazz is well past its glory days, this soothing music genre continues to be popular with core fans. It’s never too late to get into jazz. Let’s take a look at this brief guide to jazz music to get you started.

1. Where Did Jazz Begin?

To answer the question “what is jazz?” you must understand its origins. As mentioned earlier, you can trace the origin of jazz back to the 1920s in New Orleans, a port city that was the hub of social activity. It was also one of the only places where African Americans were allowed to own drums.

Jazz rapidly spread throughout America as musicians from national, regional, and local musical cultures contributed to this genre. This transformation gave rise to different types of jazz over the years. For example, Bebop emerged in the 1940s, while jazz-rock fusions became famous in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

2. What Are the Three Distinctive Qualities of Jazz?

There are different types of jazz styles. They are characterized by their distinctive rhythms, harmonic sophistication, and improvisation. In fact, improvisation is considered the most defining element of jazz.

At a live concert, you will see almost all band members improvise over a given tune or chords. It comes from the performer’s mood, the audience, and the interaction between the band’s members. This is what lends jazz its unique charm.

3. Eight Vital Elements of Jazz Music

When deciphering jazz music for beginners, the best place to start is by explaining the eight vital elements of this unique music genre. Usually, jazz players use brass and woodwind instruments to create melodies. However, depending on the different types of jazz, jazz ensembles may use any (or all) of these eight elements.

  • Drums: Drums are the rhythm and the tempo of jazz. A few of the quintessential drums used in jazz are the kick drum, hi-hat, snare drum, low and high toms, ride cymbal, and the crash.
  • Keyboard: Jazz bands often use a keyboard or a piano. The piano has been considered a classic part of jazz since its inception. The keyboard is one of the best instruments for harmony and improvisation.
  • Guitar: Contrary to popular belief, almost every jazz band loves to use the guitar. Hollow-body or jumbo guitars are favorites among jazz musicians. However, many also use electric guitars.
  • Trumpet: It is a brass instrument with a vibrating mouthpiece. Trumpets became the mainstay of jazz, all thanks to Louis Armstrong.
  • Bass: The upright bass is an integral part of jazz. But jazz players pluck the cords instead of using a bow when playing the bass. This creates a unique pulse effect.
  • Saxophone: No other instrument lets a jazz player express their individual musical notes as easily as a saxophone. Interestingly, this is a woodwind instrument made out of brass.
  • Trombone: Made out of brass, this musical instrument has been used in jazz music ever since the origin of this music genre. At first, it was used in the background. But in the 1930s, trombones became popular as solo instruments.
  • Vocals: Jazz is not known for vocal leads. Still, many jazz vocalists continue to attract crowds from all over the globe. Think jazz legends like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald and today’s top vocalists like Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens.

4. The Greatest Jazz Artists of All Time

This short guide to jazz music would be incomplete without listing a few of the iconic performers in this music genre. Each artist on this list gave rise to different types of jazz styles, making it more popular than ever. If you’re trying to get a feel of jazz, here are a few artists you must listen to.

  • Louis Armstrong: Arguably the first popular jazz star, Louis Armstrong was well known for his rhythmically sophisticated and operatic style. He remains the most influential jazz artist and a brilliant trumpet player.
  • Miles Davis: Another legendary trumpeter, Miles Davis developed different types of jazz styles throughout his career. Davis is noted for putting together some of the most classic jazz bands in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Billie Holiday: One of the most famous jazz vocalists of all time, Billie Holiday had a soulful voice. She gave birth to genre-defining records throughout her career. Even after her untimely demise at 44, she continued to inspire millions.
  • Ella Fitzgerald: Dubbed The First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald is arguably the most iconic jazz vocalist so far. She was blessed with impeccable vocals, lending her a unique singing voice.
  • Gerry Mulligan: Gerry Mulligan was one of the widely respected and admired jazz musicians who popularized “cool” jazz. He is considered a versatile jazz musician who was never shy of experimenting with different styles.

Indulge in the Magic of Jazz Music at River Street Jazz Café!

Jazz remains one of the most stimulating genres of music. If you are only beginning your journey, this short guide to jazz music will point you in the right direction. You can bring out your headphones and listen to some of the iconic jazz musicians mentioned here. Or, if you are looking for a more intimate jazz experience, drop in at the River Street Jazz Café.

We offer one of the unique places in NEPA that serve both delicious food and soulful jazz. We have national and regional acts. To catch mesmerizing jazz acts and delectable food, please call/text (570) 704-6534, or you can fill out our secure online form.