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  Jazz (from the 19th-century American slave slang—reference books are often mealymouthed about this—for ‘fuck’) is both a kind of music and a style of performing. It originated in the Southern USA, at first on slave plantations as a mainly vocal form (of which spirituals, the songs of Stephen Foster and the Blues are the main surviving relatives), and then, after the American Civil War when people picked up and began using band-instruments abandoned in the fighting, as a mainly instrumental form. The instruments were primarily those of a military band clarinet, drums, trombone, trumpet with banjo or piano and double bass. The performers played and improvised on music current at the time: hymns, marches and such popular dances as polkas and quadrilles. White music-historians make great play of the African origins of the slaves, claiming that the rhythmic alertness and melodic waywardness of jazz are legacies from Africa. This would be more convincing if African music, as recently revealed, showed anything like the same characteristics. In fact such things as syncopation and blue notes are common in all improvised performance (in Norwegian folk fiddling, for example, as far away as can be imagined from Africa or New Orleans), and they may have come into jazz simply because that\'s how people wanted to play the music.

Jazz went through several periods of development. At first it was little more than a do-it-yourself version of the vaudeville, folk and church music of the time. (Blues and ragtime, a syncopated, cheekily harmonized dance-style, were particularly influential.) Then, in New Orleans and elsewhere, the formula was developed for what is now called Dixieland jazz. This spread north, in particular to Chicago in the 1920s, and became popular with white audiences as well as black, partly through the prolific recordings made by some early bands. In the 1930s ‘big band jazz’ or ‘swing’ evolved, setting virtuoso instrumental soloists and singers in the context of large groups (usually from about 16 to 30). As swing became more and more anodyne and commercial in the 1940s, jazz soloists developed ‘bebop’ (named after the wordless vocalizations of Dizzie Gillespie). With the rise of pop, and subsequently of rock, from the 1950s onwards, jazz and popular music took different directions. Jazz performers began to experiment with free forms, and to draw inspiration from classical music—of the past; listening to jazz became a more esoteric activity; critics and jazz writers began overintellectualizing their response, so that jazz itself became polarized. Performers, however, have kept it alive and particularly, now that singers have more or less deserted en masse to rock, jazz is primarily the province of instrumental virtuosos whose invention and technique fear nothing in comparison with the giants of the past.

Jazz shares with film the distinction of being one of the few art forms whose whole history is still available: recordings, from Edison\'s cylinders onwards, exist of almost every performer of any distinction (and a fair number of also-rans). It has always been an eclectic form of music, happy to take in instruments from all traditions electric guitars, marimbas, sitars, synthesizers, violins and to draw on techniques from other kinds of music (for example, Debussyan harmony, neoclassical spikiness or the minutely varied repetitions of minimalism). In turn, jazz has influenced performers in other areas, not only in popular music, pop and rock, but in the development of an ‘attitude’ in 20th-century classical music—a kind of street-smart, self-aware sureness of utterance which is in direct contrast with the drawn-out harmonic angst of most atonal music and is far more than just a matter of bright rhythms and crisp articulation. KMcL

Further reading Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets (a comprehensive introduction to the history and aesthetics of jazz); , Marshall Stearns, The Story of Jazz.



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