Posted on 21st Jun 2021 by John Rosie
In the second part of our three-part series, ‘The top 10 most asked questions about jazz’, we have taken some of the most popular questions asked on the internet about jazz and provided answers for those intrigued about this great art form.
Here we have addressed the three questions from numbers 6, 7 and 8 of the top 10:
Lead image 'Charleston' 1926-1927 by German photographer Yva (the professional pseudonym of Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon). Image in the public domain and free of copyright.
It was author F Scott Fitzgerald who popularised the term the ‘jazz age’ in his collection of short stories ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’, published in 1922. In the 1920s jazz music became an integral part of American popular culture and impacted on poetry, fashion and feminism. We will also explore briefly how jazz has influenced art.
The genre of jazz poetry was created out of changes to poetry style and convention, and a move away from formality.
These literary changes were contemporary with the increased popularity of jazz in the early part of the 20th century, when poets referenced jazz music and culture. Jazz poetry soon came to mean poetry that imitated jazz in its rhythm and style.
In Harlem, New York, African-American migrants from the south helped create a city neighbourhood that flourished in the 1920s. This creative and intellectual melting pot included writers and musicians who helped generate a movement that became known as the ‘Harlem Renaissance’. Poetry from the Harlem Renaissance was diverse and some of it used the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of blues and jazz music.
The influence of jazz on poetry continued in the 1940s and 1950s with the American beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Both of them advocated adopting jazz, and bebop in particular, as a model for rhythm and expression. Kerouac also wrote about jazz in his poems and prose.
Jazz music’s popularity was due in no small part to its fast tempo and resultant dances, such as the Charleston (see below). The clothing of the pre-jazz era was unsuitable for this new style of dance and fashion developed accordingly. These changes reflected the wish of young people for greater freedom of movement in their clothes.
Fashion of the 1920s included the raising of women’s hemlines and lowering of waistlines in loose-fitting slip-over dresses created by designer Jean Patou. Women’s hair was cut short to complete the ‘flapper’ look, based on the bobbed style introduced by popular ballroom dancer Irene Castle and made popular by American actress and dancer Louise Brooks.
In the post-World War I world, a new and emerging American and Western youth culture was part of an economic boom. This involved a new consumer culture belonging mainly to the young, which included jazz music and dance, and its associated fashion.
Drop-waist style dresses were introduced in 1921 and, as jazz became popular along with the Charleston (which required upper and lower body freedom), dresses were cut to provide free movement while dancing.
The so-called ‘mannish’ jazz fashion included chest binding and shorter hair styles for women. This again reflected the practical need to move away from the elaborate styles of earlier eras due to the vigorous nature of popular dances.
Men’s fashion in the 1920s included wider of trouser legs and baggy plus-four trousers. As a new move away from looking like their fathers, younger men wore simpler jackets, often using brighter and lighter fabrics.
This youthful style was developed further in the 1930s and early 1940s with the zoot suit, popularised by jazz singers such as Cab Calloway. Popular within African-American communities in particular, the suit had high-waisted and pegged trousers and a long jacket with wide lapels and shoulders (the suits were prohibited during the war due to the excessive amount of cloth they used).
The bebop ‘hipster’ fashion of the 1940s and 1950s included the iconic heavy framed sunglasses, beret and goatee beard introduced by pianist Thelonious Monk and others, and made popular by trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie.
Jazz music and ‘jazz age’ culture provided the stimulus and opportunity for many women to reach beyond traditional gender roles.
This rebellion included the rejection of rigid social conventions in American and other western societies. The driving nature of jazz compared to earlier forms of dance music encouraged more liberated sexual behaviour through the uninhibited and improvisational feel of the music.
In the speakeasies and jazz clubs, women were allowed greater freedom in their language, clothing and behaviour.
Jazz also provided new jobs for women during the 1920s, and they were able to work in the popular performing arts, which had hitherto been rare, including jazz clubs, speakeasies and stage shows.
Among pioneering female jazz musicians of the 1920s was pianist, bandleader and composer Lil Hardin, who collaborated with Louis Armstrong (whom she would later marry) in many of his milestone Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. Others were the first woman to lead an all-male jazz orchestra, Blanche Calloway, and singer Ethel Waters.
Jazz has had an influence on the visual arts and their artists. The improvisation and vibrancy of jazz often reflected the freedoms being explored in the parallel modern-art movements of the 20th century. We have highlighted some examples.
In post-World War I Europe, Otto Dix reflected Berlin jazz culture in his paintings of the 1920s and 30s. Also from Europe, the Dutch abstract artist, Piet Mondrian was a lover of the piano-based blues and swing music of Boogie-Woogie and a follower of Duke Ellington. His paintings ‘Broadway Boogie-Woogie’ and ‘Victory Boogie Woogie’, reflected his interest in the sounds of New York in the 1940s and sought to capture the rhythm and colourful energy of the music and city that inspired it.
American Stuart Davis was moved to paint by the jazz of the 1940s and 50s, which he said influenced his vibrant proto-pop art style. Jackson Pollock also said that his technique of action painting reflected the improvisation, freedom and rhythm of the bebop jazz music he loved.
Semi-abstract artist and composer Romare Bearden painted scenes of African-American culture and was known for his use of collage. This included jazz scenes and topics related to jazz and blues. He also created unique works for album covers used by Charlie Parker, Donald Byrd and others.
Latter artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat have been inspired by the full range of popular music from jazz to rock music and rap.
You can read about the 2018 exhibition ‘Rhythm & Reaction: The Age of Jazz in Britain’, which detailed how jazz provided the inspiration for British artists such as ‘the English Cubist’ William Roberts, painter and sculptor Frank Dobson and painter of 1930s Harlem, Edward Burra. This exhibition was curated by one of our Trustees, Professor Catherine Tackley, and supported by the National Jazz Archive.
Cover art of F Scott Fitzgerald's 'Tales of the jazz age' by John Held Jr 1922. Free of copyright and in the public domain.
Piet Mondrian 'Broadway Boogie Woogie' 1942-43 oil on canvas painting, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Through the 20th century and up to the present day, jazz has constantly changed as new artists emerge with new styles and approaches.
Naming an individual as the most influential can only be conjecture and will always be debated in jazz circles. We have listed 10 candidates who we think have inspired other artists or jazz audiences the most, and have brought long-lasting changes to jazz. We’re sure others will have different opinions.
Many of these artists were interviewed by writer Les Tomkins and transcripts of his interviews and brief biographies can be read on our website.
Jazz trumpeter, bandleader and vocalist Louis Armstrong is still the best known jazz artist 40 years after his death. Known as ‘Satchmo’ and ‘Pops’, Armstrong’s career spanned 50 years and all the major jazz eras of the 20th century.
Born in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, Armstrong was one of the first great improvising jazz soloists to be recorded, and made solo performances the focal point of many jazz styles. He is also credited with popularising wordless, syllable-based ‘scat’ singing from his 1926 recording ‘Heebie Jeebies’.
One of the most famous early jazz musicians, Armstrong is known for his strong high notes, blues-based swinging style and fast improvisations. He built on the styles of earlier trumpet and cornet players such as Joe ‘King’ Oliver and Bunk Johnson, but he was also inspired by the fluidity and dexterity of New Orleans clarinettists such as Johnny Dodds. His relaxed style of playing was a move away from the more staccato style of earlier horn players.
Armstrong’s improvisations influenced many who came after him, but his infectious personality and accessibility as well as his virtuosity helped popularise jazz internationally.
Image of Louis Armstrong from the front cover of Swing Music, April 1935, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.
Ornette Coleman was a jazz saxophonist, trumpeter, violinist, composer and bandleader who changed the language of jazz. He extended the possibilities of improvisation by being one of the first to remove the traditional boundaries of harmony and rhythm in a new approach called ‘free Jazz’ (see Part 3).
In the late 1950s, Coleman moved from his roots in rhythm and blues and bebop, to an improvisatory and group style that loosened ties to fixed tonality, harmony and rhythm, and re-established the early jazz emphasis on collective improvisation. Initially his new musical directions weren’t popular, often being met by scepticism and sometimes derision. But he gained support from some leading jazz musicians and his innovations gradually became part of the vocabulary of jazz.
Like Miles Davis, Coleman was also an innovator in the use of electrified instruments as an early exponent of what became known as jazz fusion.
Photograph of Ornette Coleman by Denis Williams 1978, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.
John Coltrane influenced a number of styles. He was a hardworking and driven saxophonist who recorded 25 albums as leader, many now considered jazz classics.
A bebop and hard bop artist early in his career, Coltrane played tenor sax in Miles Davis’ band from 1955 to 1959, which enhanced his profile. During this time, he provided a strong foil to Davis’ restrained trumpet playing.
His distinctive brooding and searching sound developed in 1957 through periods of intense practice, which is when he recorded one of his most famous albums, ‘Blue Train’.
It was also in 1957 that Coltrane played with pianist Thelonious Monk, which gave him the freedom to develop further and explore music with more surprising jumps and rhythmic breaks. This helped move his playing away from his exhaustive exploration of traditional chord-based forms towards more open-ended, modal structures.
Coltrane brought this new awareness to Miles Davis’ ground-breaking album ‘Kind of Blue’ in 1959. He developed his modal style further in his own bands of the early 1960s. In 1959 he recorded the influential album ‘Giant Steps’, the title track showing a culmination of his chord-based approach. He later added soprano saxophone to his repertoire, recording his greatest commercial success ‘My Favourite Things’ the following year.
He released the spiritual ‘A Love Supreme’ in 1965, which became one of his best known albums and for which he gained two Grammy nominations.
Dying aged only 40 in 1967, Coltrane left a legacy that influenced new generations of post-bebop jazz artists with his powerfully authoritative style.
Photograph of John Coltrane by John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, reproduced by the kind permission of the John 'Hoppy' Hopkins Estate © John Hoppy Hopkins Estate
Miles Davis was a true innovator and one of the most influential artists at the heart of several jazz movements. In particular, he helped develop the modal style of jazz playing and was a pioneer of jazz fusion.
Davis used his trumpet to emulate the sound of the human voice. He removed vibrato at an early stage of his career and went on to produce a smoother, slower, more lyrical form of jazz than the styles that had gone before.
In a career that lasted from the late 1940s until his death in 1991, Davis’ early style was developed by jamming with musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, rather than attending classes at the Juilliard School in New York where he had enrolled as a student.
Davis didn’t have the virtuoso trumpet technique of peers such as Gillespie. But he turned his limitations into a strength by exploring the middle register of his instrument and experimenting with a slower, direct, unadorned and melodic style. This was a new sound that spring-boarded further jazz innovations.
His most influential recordings include his nonet’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ (collected into an album in 1957), which paved the way for the cool West Coast styles of the 1950s. He moved to smaller groups later in the decade and recorded ’Round About Midnight’ (1956) and the seminal ‘Kind of Blue’ (1959) amongst others. Again, he revolutionised jazz through the use of modal improvisation also being developed by Coltrane.
Working with pianist, composer and arranger Gil Evans since ‘Birth of the Cool’, Davis recorded ‘Sketches of Spain’ with Evans in 1960. This was a landmark of jazz infused with European classical and world music.
Davis continued to transition towards more free forms of jazz in the 1960s, including the use of electrified instruments in a fusion with the popular rock music of the day. His experimentation in this period included the use of polyrhythms and polytonality, ultimately leading to his 1970 album ‘Bitches Brew’. Its embrace of electronic effects won him new fans, but alienated some of his more traditional ones.
Photograph of Miles Davis by Brian O'Connor 1989, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.
Duke Ellington was a versatile and prodigious composer of sophisticated and popular melodies and a masterful pianist and bandleader. What he played he called ‘American music’, not jazz.
Ellington was a perpetual innovator, who used the swing orchestra as his instrument of choice. His countless jazz standards include ‘Cotton Tail’, ‘Ko-Ko’, ‘Caravan’, ‘Take the A Train’ (composed by his writing partner Billy Strayhorn) and, most famously, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got that Swing’.
Originally a stride piano player, Ellington’s major contribution was as a bandleader, composer and arranger. He was one of the originators of big-band jazz and led his orchestra to world-wide success for more than 50 years.
Ellington’s significance as a bandleader was based in his choice of instrumentalists, who were often expressive individualists who brought their own unique elements to his band’s sound. These included trumpeter Bubber Miley, who used a plunger mute, and trombonist Joe Nanton, who brought his trade-mark growl to Ellington’s early ‘jungle style’. He extended his group by adding more saxophone players, including stalwart Johnny Hodges, who brought a full, creamy tone to the orchestra’s ballads.
The expertise of his band enabled Ellington to innovate and break away from conventional band-section scores. Instead, he used new harmonies to blend individual sounds, emphasising congruent sections through innovative combinations of instruments.
Ellington also experimented with composing jazz within classical music forms in a series of suites, often linked by a specific subject and many with a political message. He earned 14 Grammy Awards from 1959 to 2000 (three of which were posthumous).
Photograph of Duke Ellington by Brian Foskett 1967, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.
The singer Ella Fitzgerald came to prominence in Harlem’s Apollo Theater as a 17-year-old in 1934 singing in swing style. Nicknamed the ‘First Lady of Jazz’, she was a fearless innovator. Often known simply as ‘Ella’, she was a trail-blazer and one of the first successful female jazz singers, recording more than 70 albums in a 59-year career.
Fitzgerald was unique as a singer in her era in that she composed some of her own material. Before her time as a performer, few women sang professionally, let alone held a regular job.
Fitzgerald first sang with Chick Webb and his orchestra, later replacing Webb as leader when he died prematurely and she was only 22 years old. After parting with the band, Fitzgerald increasingly embraced the new bebop jazz and toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band.
During this period that she changed her singing style and incorporated scat singing. Her ability to mimic instrumental sounds helped popularise this form of improvised singing, which became her signature.
Ella Fitzgerald had a distinctive voice and a three-octave range. She had effortless diction and enunciation, impeccable phrasing and a warm tone. In her long recording career she sang a range of songs from jazz and calypso to blues and bossa nova, often collaborating with other great jazz figures such as Louis Armstrong and Count Basie.
Strongly supported by her manager, the impresario Norman Granz, Fitzgerald was also a civil rights activist who did much to pave the way for other African-American performers as well as women, often being the first black singer in whites-only clubs.
Fitzgerald is inspirational as a driven, successful woman of colour, who performed at a time when success was hard to come by both for women and blacks. As a jazz singer, she was the first woman of colour to gain a Grammy Award, winning 13 in total.
Image of Ella Fitzgerald from the Programme for Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic, First British Tour 1958, digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.
Dizzy Gillespie was a popular jazz trumpeter and singer as well as innovative bandleader and composer. He was a major figure in the development of bebop, and is often associated with saxophonist Charlie Parker from their early innovative performances.
Gillespie was a virtuoso trumpet player who built on the style of artists such as Roy Eldridge, but created a new sound through layers of harmonic complexity, which expanded the role of the trumpet in jazz. His enthusiastic and light-hearted personality did much to popularise bebop, which was a radical challenge to the status quo of swing music popular during the 1940s.
Gillespie influenced artists such as Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach. He also led small groups, which included future greats such as John Coltrane, before moving on to lead his own big band.
He is also renowned as an innovator in the field of jazz fusion through his involvement in the Afro-Cuban movement, which strongly influenced modern jazz, and he toured Cuba in the 1970s. He also undertook a US State Department tour to the Middle East as ‘The Ambassador of Jazz’.
Although remaining true to bebop style for most of his career, Gillespie nonetheless inspired a wide range of artists. This was sometimes through his enthusiasm to teach others from the compositions he wrote (unlike many other bebop artists of the time).
Image of Dizzy Gillespie from Jazz Illustrated Volume 1, Number 7, June 1950 (page 14), digitised and held within the National Jazz Archive collection.
The enigmatic pianist Thelonious Monk had a unique style and is considered one of the great jazz innovators, who moved jazz beyond the bebop style he helped create. He was nicknamed the ‘high priest of bebop’.
It has perhaps needed a retrospective assessment of his work to give Monk the credit he deserves. Although his early influences were the stride pianists that he hung out with in Harlem, New York, Monk studied with the great bebop pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams.
Monk’s idiosyncratic style was developed in after-hours jam sessions in clubs such as Minton’s Playhouse, which is synonymous with the bebop revolution. He played angular, crunching, rhythmic chords and adventurous melodies, and is famous for his use of the diminished 7th chord which is his trademark.
Monk had a unique jabbing flat-fingered technique. He percussively attacked the keyboard to produce his distinctive staccato sound, striking and releasing the keys in a precise and considered approach. This technique was similar to that used by older blues pianists, who often used to ‘mash together’ adjacent notes to produce the ‘blue note’ that lay between.
Success for Monk was slow to arrive, not least because of the challenging nature of his playing. He was an exceptional composer. His music is cool, which has made him (like Miles Davis) a gateway musician for many newcomers to jazz.
Perhaps surprisingly, Monk is one of the most popular jazz artists, and second only to Duke Ellington as the most recorded jazz composer.
Photograph of Thelonious Monk by John 'Hoppy' Hopkins, reproduced by the kind permission of the John 'Hoppy' Hopkins Estate © John Hoppy Hopkins Estate
In his short life, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker became legendary for his virtuosity, lyricism, and fast saxophone playing of the bebop music he helped pioneer. He was also an exceptional composer, many of his tunes becoming modern jazz standards.
Largely self-taught, Parker was disciplined as a youngster and learned the full range of his instrument while still at school from practising “11 to 15 hours a day”. In his native Kansas City, Parker soon out-grew his mentor Buster Smith, moving to New York City in the early 1940s.
Working with guitarist Tiny Grimes and in collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie in various jam sessions, Parker found his voice as leader of the bebop revolution. Gillespie said that Parker’s major contribution to the development of bebop was his phrasing, copied by many.
Along with Louis Armstrong, Parker is a well-known name outside those who enjoy jazz. He was interested in European harmonies and the works of composers such as Stravinsky, and recorded with a string section to broaden his popular appeal.
Parker was a modern creative, who would most likely be at home playing over the hip-hop beats of today. He became a jazz icon in his own lifetime and defined the sound of bebop.
His legacy is the innumerable artists he influenced through his experimentation, melodic inventiveness, fearlessness and depth of feeling, which few have matched since.
You can read more about Charlie Parker in our 2020 article, celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.
Photograph of Charlie Parker by William Gottlieb 1947, from the Library of Congress William P Gottlieb collection. In the public domain.
Lester Young, known as the ‘President of Jazz’, or simply ‘Prez’ was a ‘musician’s musician’. In the 1930s Young revolutionised the use of the tenor saxophone, which influenced a string of artists including Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
Young’s modern style was at odds with the hard-driving saxophone playing of the early big-band era. His playing was sweet, often used the higher registers and showed a lyrical, sensitive and often relaxed style, often fast, but always flowing and clean.
He was also known for his then-unique hold of his instrument. Rather than holding the saxophone vertically, he adopted a 45-degree angle.
Young played in many great big bands including those of Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson, although he stated later that he always preferred playing in smaller combos.
Famous for his nicknames for other jazz artists and his inventive language, he is said to have popularised the now common word ‘cool’. Young is also considered the father of ‘cool jazz’ from his influence on Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz and others.
Young’s spare, lyrical solos inspired everyone, not just his fellow saxophone players. Young’s name crops up time and again when reading quotes from jazz artists and hearing about those who influenced them.
Worshipped by beat poet Jack Kerouac, the non-conformist ‘Prez’ will be forever cool.
Photograph of Lester Young by Ojon Mili 1947 for Time inc and used by Life Magazine, Volume 17, Number 13 (Page 40). Free of copyright and in the public domain.
Jazz dance encompasses both dramatic and vernacular styles based on African-American dances that evolved alongside jazz. The popular vernacular styles of jazz dance include the ‘Animal dances’ of ragtime, Charleston, and swing.
Its origins can be traced to traditional African ritual and celebratory dances that emphasised polyrhythms and improvisations that influenced later jazz music.
The main characteristics of jazz dance, which can be seen in traditional African dances, include: the use of bent knees; keeping the body close to the floor; rhythmical shifting of weight from one foot to the other; the isolation of body parts in movement; rhythmically complex and syncopated movements; and individualism within a group style.
Although there is no single style of dance associated with ragtime, a series of dances evolved from it.
The intoxicating fast rhythms of ragtime brought about a new and expressive series of ballroom dances. These were popular with the lower classes of America and animal dances were early favourites, having names such as the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear. In these dances, animal movements and characteristics were joyfully mimicked.
A number of dances were introduced by the darlings of the middle-classes in America, Vernon and Irene Castle, who toured the country to give lessons in the new styles of dance and refined many of the earlier ‘animal dances’ (making them more acceptable for ballrooms).
The Castles introduced a number of dances for the era including The One-Step, and its variant The Castle Walk – this required one step per beat and was exhilarating when danced to quick tempo music. Other dances included the ragtime Foxtrot and Tango, the Maxixe and Hesitation Waltz.
The Charleston dance was named after the eponymous city in South Carolina. It became popular through the tune ‘Charleston’ by James P Johnson, from the Broadway show ‘Running Wild’. This made it the first successful social dance introduced via a stage show.
This, and similar dances such as the Black Bottom used the hot jazz rhythms of the 1920s and involved energetic kicks and swivels of the feet.
The Charleston dance filmed in 1926 (for details see footnote 1)
Although ‘Swing’ is not a unique style of dance, a group of dances evolved alongside the swing style of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s. This includes the Lindy Hop, which originated at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, in the 1930s.
The Lindy Hop is a vigorous dance characterised by improvisation around an 8-beat count. It was predated by the Collegiate Shag (or simply Shag), popular in the 1920s.
Stylistic variants of the Lindy Hop were developed in the 1940s and are associated with the West and East Coast of the US. These are danced to a wide range of music, not just jazz.
Lindy Hop evolved into the athletic partner dance of the 1950s Rock ’n’ Roll era.
Percussive dance is perhaps one of the oldest vernacular dances in America. Initially a fusion of British, Irish and West African musical step-dances, it emerged in the southern states of America in the 1700s. Mutating into the American jig and juba, these dances then fused in the 19th century into a form known as ‘jigging’, which was adopted by minstrel show dancers and gained prominence in vaudeville.
Early types of tap used hard-soled shoes, clogs or hobnailed boots. Metal plates were added to shoes in the 20th century. Jazz tap dance then developed as a musical expression alongside jazz. What they had in common were shared rhythms, polyrhythms, elements of swing syncopation, and improvisation.
Rhythm (jazz) tap is considered part of the jazz tradition. Notable figures include Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson who started performing around the turn of the 20th century, and the Nicholas Brothers who started in the 1930s.
Article by John Rosie, with thanks to Nikki Santilli of Hot Jazz Rag for her contributions to the dance and cultural summaries.
In the final part of this article we address the last two questions of our ‘Top 10 most asked questions about jazz’. These questions are