The Evolution of Jazz Bands

Think African-American music and you can’t help but think jazz bands!

Somewhere between 1895-1900, what we know today as jazz came to life in the crescent city—New Orleans. The jazz bands that began popping up were a combination of the blues, ragtime, and marching band music. What separated these new jazz bands from these earlier styles was the far-reaching use of improvisation, not just solo but often with multiple players.

These jazz bands were quite a departure form traditional Western music, whereby composers scored songs on paper and musicians played to the best of their ability what was written. Many jazz bands considered those notes on paper just a starting point—a frame of reference if you like. From there, it’s all about the musician’s imagination and his or hers improvisation skills.

Interestingly enough, a lot of improvisations completely changed what were once popular blues pieces, and by the time the musicians in these jazz bands had finished their work, a new composition had emerged that only vaguely resembled the original work.

A great number of these musicians in these jazz bands during this early period couldn’t even read music, and the few that could were poor sight readers at best. However, these virtuosos played with incredible passion and their performances were real crowd pleasers, making this new kind of spontaneous music a radical departure from the music of the times—an adventure that produced joy and excitement among listeners.

At the outset, jazz bands themselves were slow to form. Individual musicians were the first to emerge performing this new sound. Generally speaking, Buddy Bolden is thought of as the first real jazz musician, followed by other players such as Bunk Johnson, Clarence Williams, and Freddie Keppard. These are names that really don’t resonate with the general populace, but they presented ideas and styles that are still with us to this day.

As was the case then, and still holds true now in most cases, many of the pioneer musicians couldn’t earn a living with their music. They had to resort to working whatever jobs they could find to pay the bills.

It was the second wave of jazz musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, and Joe “King” Oliver that began forming the likes of what we know today as jazz bands. These groups elevated the music of the older men, resulting in a more complex and dynamic sound. This led to significantly greater commercial success and the music soon became know as “Hot Jazz.”

The discovery of Louis Armstrong by King Oliver propelled jazz bands to new heights. It wasn’t long before Armstrong made his mark. He quickly rose to take the title of the greatest jazz musician of his era, soon to become an internationally known star. Armstrong’s impact, as well as that of other jazz bands of the time, eventually changed the course of both classical and popular music. The African-American sound and style had become the dominant force in 20th century music.

By the 1940s, the popularity of live jazz bands surpassed all other music genres in the U.S. The big band era had arrived. Swing jazz bands and big jazz bands ruled supreme. Jazz bands led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Woody Herman continued to honor the tradition all through the 1950s and 1960s.

Today there is a wide variety of jazz bands. Small jazz combos play light dinner jazz. Big jazz bands that play the classical jazz music of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Glen Miller are know for their ability to get everyone up and dancing.

The swing jazz bands play from the sophisticated big band sound to the more modern sounds of ensembles such as The Brian Setzer Orchestra and Harry Connick, Jr. Even Latin jazz bands have become extremely popular. To say that jazz bands and their fast-paced rhythm and improvisation is here to say is like saying Elvis is the King—it’s indisputable.

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