What is Jazz
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What Exactly is Jazz?

Jazz music is a broad musical style distinguished by complex harmony, syncopated rhythms, and a strong emphasis on improvisation. It is a musical style that originated in the early 20th century—primarily among African-Americans—and is characterized by improvisation and rhythmic invention at its core.

During the early 20th century, Black musicians in New Orleans, Louisiana, developed the jazz style. New Orleans—long regarded as one of the musical capitals of the United States—fostered a thriving ragtime and blues tradition. Early jazz musicians (e.g., Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong) improvised over blues and ragtime, thereby resulting in a completely new genre of American music.

It quickly spread throughout America, and New York City soon became the jazz capital of both the United States and the entire world. Popular music standards, modal music, pop, rock, funk, and even true avant-garde compositions were all incorporated into the musical form.

Jazz is celebrated every year on April 30, the International Jazz Day.

characteristics of Jazz
© Dolo Iglesias

What Are the Basic Characteristics of Jazz?

The basic characteristics of jazz are swing and blue notes, complex chords, call-and-response vocals, polyrhythms, and improvisation (Cf Wikipedia). Jazz’s origins can be traced back to European harmony and African rhythmic rituals. As it spread around the world, it drew upon national, regional, and local musical cultures, thereby resulting in a variety of styles.

Discover next: What Are The Genres of Jazz?

The rhythm itself and its use distinguish Jazz from the vast majority of classical pieces. The rhythmic device known as swing is a key distinguishing feature. Swing rhythm requires musicians to change the values of quaver or eight-notes from equal to a ratio close to 2/3—1/3. Swing rhythm notation is an approximation, but it is as close as it can get without requiring enormously complex and time-consuming sub-divisions of note values. The swing produces a sense of forward motion and rhythmic drive that propels jazz music forward in a way that was unprecedented in the early days of jazz. Swing became a sub-genre in the 1920s and 1930s, with clarinetist Benny Goodman earning the moniker the King Of Swing.

Swing jazz gains a compelling edge when combined with syncopation. When music is described as syncopated, this means that the emphasis within a given bar is placed on the weaker beats of the bar, rather than the stronger ones. The stronger beats are considered to be 1 and 3 (e.g., in a 4/4 bar). In jazz, the emphasis is frequently placed on the second half of the second or fourth beat. This perfectly complements the swing feel and is a distinguishing feature of the genre.

When these two aspects of jazz are combined with jazz harmony, it offers limitless creative possibilities. Jazz, like classical music, can be both tonal and atonal, though the vast majority of jazz is tonally based—even if it appears otherwise at times. This is due in part to the type of harmony used by composers in their work. Learn more on how you can identify jazz.


Jazz music is a product that African-Americans intelligently designed to integrate the segregated cultures that existed in the United States of America. They combined African, European, and Native-American music styles to close the social gap and achieve equality for their race.

Jazz infiltrated nearly every aspect of American culture during the 1920s. It had an impact on everything from fashion and poetry to the Civil Rights movement. The clothing style evolved to make it easier to dance to jazz tunes, which allowed listeners to express themselves freely, both in terms of language and style.

Discover next: The Best Jazz Fusion Albums

What began as a completely new style has since evolved into numerous genres in American culture. Jazz has influenced rock, R&B, hip-hop, pop, and other genres. Jazz rhythms and harmonies have been featured in music styles that produce a sway rhythm, such as R&B or Latin-styled tunes.


  1. A West

    You wrote, “They combined African, European, and Native-American music styles to close the social gap and achieve equality for their race.”

    My contention is that they combined these musical styles because such a combination sounded good. Enticingly good. As a musician, I do not play all the various styles I am conversant with on all the instruments I play, in order to accrue social capital or wealth. I play because I like the sound. I create and play music with lots of improvised notes because I like how it sounds.

    I have a CD, which I hope to release very soon. I can email you a song if you care.

Any thoughts or comments you would like to add to this post?