The Founding Fathers of Jazz
All the videos of the greatest jazz musicians of all time
The Founding Fathers of Jazz
Nothing defines 20th-century America quite like jazz. Time and again, you’ll see that jazz is connected to the history of this era. Take the Jazz Age, where jazz signaled a departure from stuffy 19th-century conventions to a more modern world. Or the swing craze of the ‘40s and ‘50s, where big bands featuring both white and black musicians heralded a more integrated America. Even up to the ‘70s, jazz musicians were at the cutting edge, both musically and historically.
The evolution of jazz itself is intertwined in these historical moments. Most agree that jazz originated in New Orleans in the early 1900s, where musicians were playing ragtime and Dixieland standard with a heavy brass sound and rhythm accompaniment from a piano, banjo, or guitar. Louis Armstrong popularized New Orleans jazz across America, and became an early influence for jazz musicians to come.
In the ‘10s and ‘20s, black Southerners moved en masse to cities in the North, particularly Chicago and Harlem. These cities became massive hot spots for jazz, spawning a distinctive sound all their own. From Chicago, you get pioneers like Benny Goodman, who favored a fast playing style and improvised rhythms, which made way for swing -- and later on, rock and roll.
Harlem, on the other hand, spawned a multitude of jazz movements. A huge influx of artists in the ‘20s and ‘30s made it a hotbed for jazz. Places like the Cotton Club became world famous for their musicians. Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Art Tatum, and countless others found their fame in the Harlem jazz scene. As opposed to Chicago’s harmonious playing style, East Coast jazz favored even more improvisation and a departure from traditional musical conventions.
Early Harlem jazz would give way to many subdivisions of jazz throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s. On the one hand, you had wildly popular musicians like Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington composing modern jazz standards that fused the Chicago and Harlem styles. On the other hand, you had avant-garde artists honing their skills in these bands and then breaking away to create their own sound. There was Dizzy Gillespie fronting the Afro-Cuban movement, and then also the burgeoning sounds of bebop coming from Art Blakey, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker.
The late ‘50s and ‘60s were bebop’s time to shine. The Beat Generation and the Civil Rights Movement embraced the style, and made jazz geniuses like Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Max Roach household names. To this day, bebop remains one of the most unique and challenging playing styles out there. All of these musicians were virtuosos on their instrument, and used their prodigious skill to make a sound characterized by asymmetrical phrasing, extremely complex melodies, and a very fast playing style.
Jazz’s mainstream popularity waned during the late ‘70s, but it’s made a permanent mark on American culture. For example, we all know Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Even jazz revival movements like ska show that a love of jazz still lives on today. From swing to bebop and beyond, these jazz innovators have made their mark on our culture. Because jazz focuses so heavily on improvisation and playing by ear, each one of these musicians has a distinct playing style. You can hear it yourself by perusing our collection of songs from all of these artists, and more. And if you want to know more about the men and women behind jazz, Encore’s jazz biographies give you an introduction to their life, and point you toward further reading. See for yourself why jazz is the quintessential American sound.