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December 19, 2022
The History of Jazz and the Instruments That Shaped It

Explore Music History: Jazz's Past and Future

Never the kind of music to stand still, jazz has morphed countless times in its 100-plus-year history. Along the way, its reputation has changed from tawdry brothel music to dance sensation to complex, cerebral art. And though jazz is known as inherently American, its popularity has spawned many interpretations around the world, from France's gypsy swing to Brazil's bossa nova.

Jazz artists are always incorporating new instruments and equipment, giving each era its own vocabulary and tool set. So whether it's a puffy-cheeked trumpet player or a DJ sweating over a laptop, jazz artists always bring soul to their instruments, even in the digital age.

Explore more music styles with zZounds' gear guides »
Early Jazz: The Swing Begins
The concept of swing is difficult to capture in words, but it's easy to pick up at just about any jazz performance. That rhythmic approach is what sets jazz apart from ragtime and blues as its own musical style. When swing hit the Creole coast of Louisiana at the dawn of the 20th century, it spawned Dixieland, a brass-heavy style that became synonymous with New Orleans.

Though naysayers were calling jazz immoral music, its growth couldn't be stopped. By the 1920s, jazz had spread across America and even overseas. Major figures like Louis Armstrong acted as ambassadors of the music. Count Basie and Duke Ellington would expand jazz in the sonic sense -- by pushing the music into its "big band" era.

Tools of the Trade:
Recreating the sounds of jazz's infancy remains possible thanks to modern instruments crafted in early 20th century styles. Add a bayou accent, and you're halfway to a career as a Dixieland revivalist!
Bebop: Birth of the Cool
Around the time the U.S. entered WWII, jazz -- like its native country -- was evolving. As artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker experimented with improvised passages and greater harmonic complexity, they re-shaped jazz from dance music into listener-oriented music known as bebop. Heavy on improvisation, bebop featured musicians taking turns improvising over chord changes before returning to the "head" or main melody of the song.

Bebop would continue to develop after the war, as a new class of greats would each make their mark on jazz: Trumpeter Miles Davis made it cool, drummer Art Blakey made it loud, and saxophonist John Coltrane made it spiritual.

Tools of the Trade:
With room set aside in most songs for improvisation, bebop gave all band members the chance to shine. This led to a wealth of musical ideas, as a trumpet, bass, xylophone, or even drum set could showcase a different approach to soloing.
Fusion: Jazz Gets Heavier
If jazz, like most teenagers, had a "phase" where it grew out its hair and rebelled, it was during the advent of jazz fusion in the late '60s. Melding the once distant worlds of jazz and rock, groups like Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra were creating records with the cerebral musicianship of bebop and the heavy sounds of rock.

Even established jazz stars were part of the movement -- Miles Davis would collaborate with fusion artists like guitarist John McLaughlin and keyboardist Chick Corea on the landmark album Bitches Brew. Meanwhile, keyboardist Herbie Hancock was mapping new pathways for jazz in the electronic realm, the fruits of which are still being heard today.

Tools of the Trade:
Suddenly, it was perfectly fine to use distortion in jazz guitar solos. Bass lines had a rougher edge as well and organs and synthesizers would continue to broaden the sonic landscape of jazz.
Modern Jazz: A Brave New World
As it did with rock, jazz continues to blend into other music genres. The flow of hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr was tinted with jazz inflection, while the laid-back essence of "cool jazz" captured the ear of many producers, inspiring them to mix jazz samples into trip-hop and house tracks.

As today's electronic music scene has grown increasingly diverse, artists like RJD2 and Flying Lotus are keeping jazz's influence alive while laying the groundwork for aspiring mix artists to follow and build upon.

Tools of the Trade:
This most recent wave of jazz is open to just about everyone -- it takes little more than a computer, a few key pieces of audio processing equipment and plenty of inspiration to start creating your own jazz.