Top 10 most asked questions about jazz (Part 1)

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band holding their instrumentsBy analysing queries asked on the internet, we have identified 10 of the most commonly asked questions about jazz and will provide answers to them in this three-part series.

The National Jazz Archive wants to help newcomers to this great art form by providing this introductory information all in one place. This addresses the questions asked about jazz history, its most famous and significant artists, the development of its various forms, and its cultural impact.

Inevitably there are controversies but we have tried to steer a middle course through them.

As well as looking through these popular questions and answers, we hope you’ll explore the online resources on our website, including our popular timeline of British jazz.

Whether you are researching jazz or are a new enthusiast wanting to know more, we hope you will enjoy learning about jazz and its rich history.

This first part of our series addresses the often asked questions

Lead photograph of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band 1919, from 'New Orleans to Hammersmith', Jazz Illustrated, Vol. 1, No.6, May 1950 digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.


1. What is jazz?

Those new to jazz may consider it complex or challenging; and something that many people can identify, but find difficult to define.

Jazz has many styles or genres, which are described in the third of these three articles. So what we’re looking for in a definition of jazz is its essence, which remains valid across its various forms and evolutions.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines jazz as ‘... broadly characterised by regular forceful rhythms, syncopated phrasing, modifications to traditional instrumental tone and pitch, and improvisatory soloing.’

Let’s expand on that definition and explore some characteristic elements of jazz.


The classical structure of jazz usually has three main elements: a pre-determined harmonic structure or chord sequence, improvisation typically in the form of extemporised instrumental solos based on that structure, and a pre-determined theme or melody that usually starts and ends the performance.


Improvisation is perhaps the central element of jazz. It is at the heart of what makes jazz, even though other musical forms make use of improvisation. But jazz music can also be arranged or orchestrated to frame or complement the improvisation.

Improvisation is the impromptu creation of melodies and rhythms and within jazz it allows individual voices of the jazz artist to be heard through its solo elements.

The improvising artist takes the musical content and expands its ideas by varying the melody, inventing new melodies, or both. The harmonic structure of the song remains and provides a guide for the improvisation. Thus, improvisers play in a premeditated way.

There are three basic improvisation strategies employed by jazz musicians: modal improvisation based on pre-determined scales, harmonic improvisation based on pre-determined chord sequences, and free improvisation which avoids confinement by pre-determined harmonic or rhythmic forms.

Blue notes

So-called ‘blue notes’ are often identified as being at the heart of jazz expression. These are notes played or sung at a slightly lower (flatter) pitch than standard scales. This form of expression has its basis in ‘the blues’ and the blues scale.

Jazz would not exist without the blues 12-bar chorus and narrative form. Jazz pioneers such as King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton from New Orleans used the blues as the foundation of many of their creations. And reliance on the blues, in its many modern sophisticated forms, still characterises much contemporary jazz. Blues elements have been ubiquitous throughout the evolution of jazz styles.


Syncopation is a musical term that means shifting the emphasis of the beats in a rhythm to temporarily displace its regular flow. This provides an accent to the rhythm and helps to provide the element that is often called in jazz ‘swing’.

Syncopation in jazz typically adds emphasis to notes on the ‘upbeat’ (think of tapping your foot to a rhythm, the upbeat is when your foot is in the air). This is typical of all forms of dance music, and shows the roots of jazz from different dance styles (although not all forms of modern jazz are dance-focused).

Call and response

Call and response has its origins in traditional African music (see below). It is a technique whereby one singer or musician offers a phrase and a second singer or group, answers with a comment or response.

In jazz, the call and response technique can often be heard and it’s also common in blues music and spirituals. It can involve imitations between instruments, providing a statement of affirmation from one instrument or group of instruments to another.

Call and response is often at the heart of improvisation in jazz. Typically, a jazz instrumentalist will respond to the melody of the caller by improvising around it.

This alternation of performance may also be provided by the contrast of such musical elements as volume or pitch to separate the different voices. This could be between individual instrumentalists, a singer and their accompanist, or two sections in a big band.


Polyrhythms add texture to music by overlapping different rhythms.

This is a characteristic of many African drumming and singing traditions and produces often complex interweaving between the different layers, It is also common across many jazz styles.

The rhythmic tension and release produced by polyrhythms provides the danceable element to some earlier jazz styles.

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2. When did jazz start?

Jelly Roll Morton sitting by a pianoThe start of jazz cannot be fixed to a specific song or point in time, but it is certainly true that it has existed as a distinct musical form for more than 100 years. There are however some important early milestones worth mentioning.

A key moment was 1895, when the cornet player Buddy Bolden started his first band in New Orleans. He is often considered to be the first major originator of a jazz style distinct from ragtime. But he never recorded and we know of his music only by repute.

The first recording of jazz was made on 26 February 1917 in New York when ‘Livery Stable Blues’ was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. The record was an early success of the new recording technology, with over a million copies sold, at a time when sheet music was the most popular form of publication.

Jelly Roll Morton (also from New Orleans) later made his own claim when he pronounced that jazz started in 1902, and was invented by himself. One of the first jazz composers, Morton was the first to write down his arrangements but his date of 1902 was arbitrary and his claim to be the inventor of jazz is generally considered to be misplaced.

We will explore more about early influential jazz musicians in Part 2 of the Top 10 most asked asked questions bout jazz.

Photograph of New Orleans jazz man Jelly Roll Morton from Jazz Music, Vol. 3, No.8, Oct 1948 digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.

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3. Where did jazz originate?

Although there are both African and European influences on the evolution of jazz (see below), jazz evolved within the African-American communities of the Southern United States and is considered in its origins to be an American art-form.

Its early development is most associated with the port city of New Orleans. Cultural diversity and a growing population made it a melting pot of music in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Founded the 18th century by the French (later ceded to the Spanish, returned to the French then sold to the United States), New Orleans is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River and became a centre of commerce on the trade route for America and the Caribbean.

It had a unique culture compared to the rest of the early United States. The ethnically mixed Creole culture was Catholic and French-speaking (rather than Protestant and English-speaking) and famed for its appreciation for good food, wine, music and dancing. The city was also one of the only places in America that permitted slaves to own drums.

Significant to the development of jazz in New Orleans was an area where slaves gathered outside the city’s ramparts in a market. What became known as Congo Square was famous for its drumming and dances and helped preserve African musical and cultural traditions. A city law of 1817 restricted gatherings of slaves to Sunday afternoons in Congo Square, also known as Place Publique.

Although dancing in Congo Square ended before the American Civil War, it led to a musical tradition of African American ‘gangs’ whose members were masked and paraded as indigenous American people whom they honoured on Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday).

Drumming, and call-and-response chanting, became a Mardi Gras tradition and was part of the unique musical culture of New Orleans that evolved into early jazz. Other traditions included brass marching bands and minstrel tunes, which is further discussed below.

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4. What is the origin of jazz?

The prehistory of jazz is partly a matter of conjecture, although it is clear that a number of elements were critical to its development in the Southern United States.

Different influences have been suggested and include traditional African music, marches, church music, and European orchestral music.

African music

Music in traditional African societies functioned, and still functions, as an integral part of everyday life. It is participatory, and often has an element of improvisation.

This tradition meant that music was often used by African slaves in America as part of an oral tradition of history and story-telling, or was at the heart of celebrations, or simply to help group work progress more easily.

Rhythm is at the heart of African music and perhaps its most developed musical element. Each region from this vast continent had different cultural and musical traditions, which provided a rich starting point in the development of African-American musical traditions. Dance is also a major part of many African musical traditions.

Work songs were an everyday element of some African traditions and became a common part of field slave work when slaves were brought to the New World. These were adapted during the 18th and 19th century using elements of European music and became important influences on the development of spirituals, the blues and ragtime, and ultimately jazz.

The vocal element of traditional African music is often the part that contains the most improvisation, often through call-and-response variations.

Marches and French quadrilles

The European idiom of marches can be traced back to the military music of the Ottoman Empire, which used percussion instruments such as cymbals to create psychological effect.

After the tradition of marching into battle ended, marching bands became a source of popular entertainment.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, when European culture dominated the concert halls, John Philip Sousa created a variant of this music that was optimistic, often patriotic, and uniquely American.

John Philip SousaAlthough he composed for concert halls rather than marching bands, Sousa was important to the development of jazz in that he was a populist trying to meet the demands of a concert-going public. He created a sophisticated and popular style of band-playing at a time when touring bands were usually small and often of limited ability.

If American march music is relatively simple, it contains a sophisticated use of interesting chords and rapid chord progressions that became the hallmark of later jazz.

Sousa focused on popular tunes with simple melodies. This influenced the brass bands in cities such as New Orleans, where marching music became an accessible and integral part of the city’s culture. As marching band traditions developed, musicians were freed from formal halls and ballrooms – This helped in a democratisation of music and the evolution of jazz from more working class traditions.

 ‘Creole’ culture in New Orleans was unique and heavily enriched by European and African culture. There was a strong French musical culture in the city, and the French quadrille, a dance performed by four couples in a rectangular formation, became associated with the American square dance.

The quadrille was the most popular dance in the 18th and early 19th century and was often the most heard by African-American slaves. During times when traditional African music was often supressed, the quadrille became the cultural compromise for slaves who wanted to dance.

Minstrel shows and vaudeville

The Original Georgia Minstrels PosterThe minstrel show, or minstrelsy, developed in America in the 19th century. It included variety acts and musical performances that often lampooned people of African descent. The troupes who performed in these travelling shows were mostly white, but also included some African-Americans. There were also some black-only minstrel groups.

These shows introduced the banjo at the heart of minstrel bands. Other instruments included the European violin and percussive ‘bones’. The syncopated music produced by these small groups influenced the development of ragtime.

The folk culture of the early minstrel tradition provided an opportunity for African-American musicians to perform publicly. This musical form (and the later bawdier vaudeville variety shows that derived from it) had an early influence on the development of jazz in terms of performance practice, showmanship, and the introduction of ragtime.

Although an uncomfortable part of jazz history, these shows paved the way for popular African-American music and many early jazz musicians started their careers in touring minstrel, circus or vaudeville shows.


A close predecessor of what may be called jazz was being played several decades before the word ‘jazz’ was in common use. This  is ragtime, which originated within the African-American communities of the 1890s, and was popular up to around 1920.

Unlike jazz, all ragtime was written and not improvised.

Ragtime music typically has a fast, syncopated rhythm. It developed from marches, with additional polyrhythms believed to come from traditional African music. Its most well-known exponent is Scott Joplin, who became famous with the publication of his composition ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ in 1899 and had a series of popular hits such as ‘The Entertainer’.

Ragtime was typically composed for piano and became popular through piano rolls on player pianos. It influenced the later jazz ‘stride’ piano style of players such as James P Johnson, Fats Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith in Harlem in New York in the 1920s and 1930s.

The blues

Along with ragtime, the other critical, early musical influence on the development of jazz as a distinct music was blues.

Like ragtime, the blues evolved within African-American communities in the Southern States of the US in the late 19th century. It has a direct lineage to traditional African music through the songs sung by groups of slaves working on plantations and spirituals sung in churches.

The early blues style is characterised by sad melodies and slow rhythms, typically with strong vocals and simple but powerful lyrics.

The 12-bar blues structure provided a familiar foundation for jazz improvisations throughout the whole history of jazz up to the present.

Photograph of John Philip Sousa from Storyville 036, August 1971, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.

Photograph of a poster advertising The Original Georgian Minstrels from Jazz Music, Vol.9, No.1, Jan. 1958, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.

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5. How did jazz travel?

Today jazz is an international art form performed all around the world.

Although initially based in African-American communities, jazz became popular in the red-light district of Storyville in New Orleans, where the brothels, bars and dance clubs gave jazz musicians the opportunity to perform and entertain.

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band holding their instruments on stageThe closure of Storyville in 1917 (and increasing racial tensions in New Orleans) started a migration of African-American jazz musicians at a time when the surprising recording success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band created a new national interest and demand for jazz.

This new demand and the employment opportunities in the more prosperous north meant that musicians and band leaders such as Sidney Bechet in 1917 and Joe Oliver in 1919 left New Orleans to perform elsewhere. Many initially went to Chicago where there were many cabarets and dance clubs, and by 1919 the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was performing in London and Bechet had travelled to France.

By 1922, Louis Armstrong had moved to Chicago and in 1925 made historic recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven recording ensembles. Moves by musicians to other cities, including notable centres in New York and Kansas City, led to these centres becoming associated with specific styles of jazz as different mixes of artists and influences produced new developments.

These different styles of jazz are explored in Part 3 of this article.

Photograph of King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in 1923 from Jazz Music, Vol.8, No.6, Nov. 1957, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.

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The second part of this series addresses the next three questions from the top 10 most asked questions about jazz, namely

Article written by John Rosie (amended 26 May & 28 June 2021)


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