Jazz Roots and Improvisation

Before we can move forward talking about Jazz–let’s acknowledge where it came from.  We chose Jazz as our monthly theme because February is Black History Month, and Jazz is a genre that has deep roots in African American culture.  When one considers any art form that is steeped in culture, as Jazz is, it is one’s responsibility to be aware of its origins.  So, with that being said:

Where did Jazz come from?
Who makes Jazz music?

Firstly, it should be noted that Jazz music is the only true, unique musical genre that originated in the United States*.  When talking about Jazz, one cannot neglect that it is a genre that was created by African Americans and thus heavily influenced by African American musical tradition (for example: West African musical tradition, Spirituals, Blues, and Ragtime).

Indeed, the 1920’s in The United States are often referred to as “The Jazz Era,” but Jazz originated early in the 20th Century in New Orleans. West African musical influences and culture and European musical tradition.  Jazz music can vary in instrumentation, but is most known for its “Big Band” feel, use of improvisation, and as Kevin Johnson referenced last week, “emphasis on expression.”

When I say, “Jazz,” influential names that should come to mind are:

Duke Ellington
Louis Armstrong
Count Basie

Billie Holiday
Ella Fitzgerald
Dizzy Gillespie
Charlie Parker
Miles Davis
John Coltrane

To name a few…  Some of these artists are immortalized in Stevie Wonder’s song, “Sir Duke” which was in memoriam for the great Jazz artists who had passed–most notably Duke Ellington himself.  These artists are instrumentalists (Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie), singers (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong), bandleaders (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis), and most were composers.  You will note that some names repeated, which only affirms the prolific and remarkable talent these artists cultivated and mastered.

At the 2016 AMTA National Conference during the “Courageous Conversations: Race and Music Therapy” panel, emphasis was placed upon our role as music therapists to empower our clients through cultural knowledge and acknowledgement.  It is our job, if we are bringing in music or instruments with cultural heritage and history, to know it and share it.  Vygotsky, a psychologist from “The Jazz Era” in the Soviet Union, introduced the concept of, “Zones of Proximal Development,” which (among other things) asserts the fact that humans learn, absorb, and come to own information when gleaned from many different sources.  It is our duty as music therapists to be one of those sources.  Sometimes, that means sharing cultural artifacts with the client who identifies with that culture but through no fault of their own (whether through microaggressions, or oppression, or “whitewashing”), may not know their artifact’s origin or significance.

Jazz is can be identified and in part defined by its use of improvisation.  As Blues influenced Jazz, and Blues form (12 Bar Blues) is ubiquitous in the United States–much of my time this month will be spent talking about the 12 Bar Blues Structure, Blues scales, Pentatonic Scales, and how to create a structure for improvisation.

I’m looking forward to the month ahead!  I took Catherine up on her challenge to reharmonize and use “extemporization” (to change the style or genre of a song) with a simple song. I created a jazzy version of “Old MacDonald” and it was excellent!  Tricky… But excellent.  Did you try it?  Feel free to share a video with us on Facebook or Twitter!!


*Disambiguation from the typical phrasing of, “The only true ‘American‘ musical genre,” as, “American” tends to be an assumptive word used to identify a citizen of the United States of America.  In truth, “American” refers to any person from North or South America.


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