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.

Art Blakey

Art Blakey, bebop pioneer and jazz drummer, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 11, 1919, and was adopted by a foster family. As members of the Seventh Day Adventist church, his foster family was deeply religious, and it was at church that Blakey began learning piano. By his early teens, Blakey was already known around town for his skill and played professionally at the local Democratic Club. There is some disagreement about how Blakey came to play the drums. Some say he was simply forced to by the Democratic Club’s owner. Others say he made the switch when he heard Erroll Garner, another local pianist, play. Realizing... Read more >
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Charles Mingus

Charles Mingus, double bassist and composer, was an undeniable musical force, well deserving of his nickname “The Angry Man of Jazz.” His influence on jazz can be seen in his many awards: a 1971 Guggenheim fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a place in both the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Mingus was born in 1922 on a military base in Arizona, but spent his early childhood in California. He’s the son of a Chinese-English mother and a half-black, half-white father. His race would become a motivating factor in his musical career, both in terms of early opportunities and themes found in later works. His early... Read more >
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Charlie Parker

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, a founding father of bebop and a revolutionary jazz saxophonist, was born in Kansas City in 1920. Much of his early education in music came from school, where he first learned to play the baritone horn in his school’s band, and later switched to the alto saxophone in high school. His father, however, was also a musician, and encouraged Parker’s love of music. In 1935, when he was just 15 years old, Parker dropped out of school and joined the Kansas City musician’s union so that he could become a professional musician. He spent the last half of the ‘30s performing with blues and jazz bands across the city... Read more >
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Benny Goodman

Known as the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman is responsible for bringing jazz to the mainstream. His band, the Goodman band, was widely popular throughout the ‘30s, and was one of the first mainstream integrated musical groups. Goodman was born to two Polish Jewish immigrants in Chicago in 1909. At the age of 10, he started taking clarinet lessons at the Kehelah Jacob Synagogue, and a year later joined the boys’ club band of the famed Hull House. His talent was clear from an early age, and he began taking lessons from the classical clarinetist Franz Schoepp as well. In addition to this classical foundation, Goodman counts the early... Read more >
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Coleman Hawkins

Like many jazz men, Coleman Hawkins, also known simply as “Hawk,” came from the Midwest. He was born in 1904 in Missouri, though he spent a portion of his childhood in Chicago, then in Kansas. Little is known about his early exposure to music. What is known is that he picked up the saxophone around age 9, and started playing for pay around age 14. He’s one of the few jazz musicians to have gone to college. He attended Washburn College in Topeka for two years, where he studied music and composition. His first permanent job came in 1921, at the age of 17, when he began to play sax for Kansas City’s 12th Street Theater orchestra.... Read more >
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