Jazz, once regarded as the “pop music” by millions of people, is now in a different costume. Throughout the twentieth century, jazz music has evolved in such a way that while at one time it had the power to make people murmur its melodies, it later turned out to be the deepest, and the most sophisticated, and complex genre of music. Once people were living the “Jazz Age,” and jazz was in their lives not only as an element of culture, but as a culture itself. However, with the course of time, it turned out to exist only in pubs, concert halls, magazines, and in the hearts of the musicians. This transition was parallel with the events and the impacts in the history of the humanity in the twentieth century. Starting from its birth, jazz has interacted with many cultures throughout the world, and it has become embedded within these cultures. Classical jazz, big band, swing, bebop, hard-bop, cool, mainstream, west-coast, postmodern, avant-garde, and contemporary eras existed respectively, and they all consisted of different elements of jazz music. Asians, Africans, Scandinavians, Europeans, South Americans, and people from other ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds were all participating to create this magical world of music. Although jazz is not very popular as of late, it is still respected by thousands of people, mostly by highly educated intellectuals. This paper will explore the evolution of jazz in the twentieth century as an element of popular culture, and it will analyze the paths of jazz and popular music in the times when they diverge and converge.

Jazz was born in the beginning of the twentieth century. African slaves working in the wheat fields in the Southern States of America were interacting with American society, and their values were combined with American cultural values. This interaction caused a new Afro-American culture to be formed. Their rhymes, songs, and understanding of music were the product of the combination of the two cultures. Through time, they adopted Christianity as a religion, and they started to build their own religious point of view. Their church music was very different from the rest of the Christians: More effective, more joyful, and more powerful…Gospel was the name of this interesting music, and it was one of the bases of jazz. At the end of the eighteenth century, pianist Jelly Roll Morton invented “stride,” which was a wide new perspective, and a technique of piano music. All these aspects of ethnic and classical music were brought together by Scott Joplin in Ragtime. Goodale (1998) describes the birth of jazz as: “‘The Maple Leaf Rag,’ Scott Joplin’s seminal composition, published in 1899. Ragtime was the nation’s first ‘pop’ music.” Ragtime was considered as popular music because it was simple, and it lacked complex emotions and feelings. Obviously, the aim of Ragtime was to entertain the audience, and the most famous composer in this era, Scott Joplin, even composed the famous piece called “The Entertainer,” which again shows that the musicians were aware of the fact that music that is able to entertain has the tendency to become popular. Another significant characteristic of Ragtime was that people could easily dance with it because of its rhythmic structure. The audience is active while dancing, or murmuring the melodies of the songs. Snaevarr (2002) discusses the quality of music as an entertainer. Snaevarr (2002) classifies popular music as entertainer and declares that popular music requires an active audience, while pointing out that “…enjoying classical music makes one much more passive than the enjoyment of rock ‘n’ roll, which often manifests itself in exhausting physical activity,” and expressing the importance of an active audience.

The 1920’s, as Robert Fitzgerald calls in his novels “the jazz age” was the time when jazz music was able to reach the peak point of popularity in the twentieth century. After the First World War, United States was in a very good situation in terms of its economy, and especially in the East Coast, people were wealthy enough to have entertainment in their lives. Price (2002) describes this situation while pointing out that people from many cultural backgrounds were interested in jazz while jazz was at the middle of the entertainment industry in the 1920’s. Jazz bands of five or seven people were being formed, and jazz was the only music which was performed at the parties held by the popular, rich people. In those times, trumpeter and soloist Louis Armstrong was the most important musician who was able to spread jazz in the world. He was later recognized as a pop-musician, which again expresses the popularity of jazz in the 1920’s.

Jazz was not only a genre of music, but it was a culture itself which affected lives of millions, especially in the United States. A detailed look at the lives and language of people will provide a great detail of information on jazz as a culture. For example, in the English language, there are words such as “jazz”, “jazzy”, “blue”, and “moody” which possess meanings that cannot be given with other English words. Also, in those times a jazz musician was not only playing music, but was symbolizing the elements of the culture with his clothes, life style, habits, outlook, and behavior. These elements created a culture where music was the most significant point. Also in those years, anything that was popular and that was appreciated by many people was called jazz. Therefore, jazz was reminding people of entertainment, and fashion. Their understanding of the word “jazz” was very different than the current understanding. This difference was mostly created by people’s point of view towards jazz music. According to Gioia (1997):

The definition of jazz already emerges a problem by the middle of the decade. Note, for example, music from the hit 1927 movie The Jazz Singer, the first talking film, which was much closer to popular music than to jazz; or Gershwin’s “jazz”-based classical compositions, which took the country by storm in the mid-1920s; or the success of Paul Whiteman, the ostensible King of Jazz, with his music that swept across almost all categories. During the Jazz Age, it seems almost anything in fashion would, sooner or later, be classified as jazz. (p.77)

At the end of the “wild 1920’s”, there was an economic depression in the United States. The Great Depression caused changes in the life style of Americans. Before the Depression, they were able to attend parties, and they could spend a lot of money on entertainment. However, the economic status of the citizens changed spontaneously with the downfall of the Dow Jones, and the collapsing of New York Bank of the United States. Parker (2003) describes this situation:

These two incidents alone brought to an end the frivolity of the roaring 1920’s. Money was getting tougher to come by. The public was not able to afford going out to see live music and work became harder to find for all musicians.

As musicians were not able to earn enough money, they got together and formed bigger bands containing of tens of people. They were called “Big Bands,” and with these bands, “Swing” took its place in jazz history.

Swing was another symbol of popularity in the 1930’s. With the rise in the cinema industry, audio and video technologies, movies with sound were spread around the country, and people had the chance to listen to the soundtracks which were mostly recorded by the famous jazz musicians of that time. For example, Frank Sinatra, who was in fact the vocalist of Tommy Dorsey’s Big Band, recorded the soundtrack of the famous movie “New YorkNew York” along with being a star in the cinema industry. Frank Sinatra was a star in the country, and his popularity was more obvious than his career in jazz. Also, the radio broadcasts took an important place in the process of spreading this music. As radio was improved and as it reached more houses throughout the country, more people were able to listen to jazz.

At this point in history, the direction of jazz turned upside down, and instead of being popular as the people demanded, jazz moved in the other direction, becoming less popular. Jazz was really the “pop culture” in the first three decades of the twentieth century, it had all the necessary characteristics of popular culture, and it answered the demands of people; jazz could entertain them. Popular songs were the ones that were played by jazz musicians, and people were more into jazz in those times. Each day, more and more jazz musicians could make it into Hollywood, where they became movie stars, famous actors, and actresses. Even other popular artistic happenings were called jazz, and jazz was surely associated with popularity in those years of joy and wealth. However, with the tragic events in the world and the technical changes in the music, jazz became more artistic, and it evolved into a shape where only people who were educated about this subject, or the people who were really interested in jazz could enjoy the sounds and could understand the feelings embedded deeply inside the music.

World War II started in 1939, with Germany’s attack on Poland, and ended in 1945. When America was active in war, American people suffered a lot. After the years of joy and happiness, musicians were bored of the same patterns of the swing, and they needed to create new dimensions in music. At that point, the famous trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and saxophone player Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker invented a new understanding of jazz called “bebop.” In contradiction with the rest of the types of jazz, bebop was much more artistic, and instead of entertaining people, it had the aim of showing the talents of the soloists as well as the other musicians. It was too complex for many people, who were used to swing and classic jazz. Gold (2002) describes the situation of jazz after World War II, and criticizes American people because of their reaction to bebop. As Gold (2002) describes, “Jazz had become associated with the war. The war was over, and people wanted to forget the war. Besides, new jazz, Be-Bop, could not be danced to. It was easy to dumb down a nation without an artistic history it was willing to cling to.” Goodale (1998) agrees with Gold (2002) on this point because Goodale (1998) admits that the direction of jazz changes after the war. Goodale (1998) expresses:

The whole country was retooling from war to peacetime activity and the new jazz sounds set the pace. It’s easy to see in those wild paint drips the same sorts of voyages off the edge of the known world that the avant-garde jazz musicians were taking with their new, bold sounds. (p.3)

Along with the music geniuses Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane were following the bebop movement in the post-war times. Miles Davis was a trumpeter with very original ideas and had a very creative perspective of jazz. He was the founder of “cool”, and musicians coming after Miles Davis took ideas from him and he has been an inspiration source for many people in jazz, rock, and other kinds of music. Gold (2002) describes the music of Miles Davis, and compares it with what was before Miles Davis. According to Gold (2002), “America’s once most popular form of music had grown into something unexpected, a musical discipline with artistically serious implications.” He is absolutely right with his point of discussion about the seriousness and the artistic value of jazz of the 1940’s and 1950’s. Until then, jazz was consisting of a more rhythmic structure. It was fast and “hot”, and people preferred to listen to jazz because of these characteristics. But with Miles Davis, jazz absolutely changed its pace, and slowed down. With “cool” jazz, instead of more rhythmic pieces, ballads and inventions were more appreciated by the jazz musicians.

It is very hard to separate the timeline between bebop and cool jazz. While Dizzy Gillespie was performing in his own way, Miles Davis chose another track to move on which was cool jazz. According to Gold (2002), the album recorded in the 1950’s by Miles Davis called “Kind of Blue,” was a milestone in the history of jazz. He suggests that there was a spontaneous change in jazz with this album; however, Goodale (1998) shows that the transition of jazz from being popular to being a piece of high art has been slow throughout the years. With “Kind of Blue,” the jazz audience was shocked because of the complexity and the density of the music. The chord interactions and transitions, modulations in the chords, and the deep melodic structure of the pieces in this album showed that there was a lot to experiment and investigate in the field of jazz. In this issue Gold (2002) shows that jazz is very wide, and that “there is great latitude in jazz that allows for both tradition and experimentation to take place.”(p.4) By the help of these different ideas, musicians were able to create new understandings of jazz after Miles Davis. Also, in this era of jazz, musicians were playing the songs that they called the “standards.” The jazz standards were the pieces which were composed by the musicians in the 1920’s and the 1930’s. However, Miles Davis and his friends played these songs in different arrangements of increasing complexity. The songs changed their format, and improvisation was kept more important during the performances. The main melody was played at first in the beginning of the piece, and later on the musicians improvised one by one, and towards the end they played the melody once again. This format again made “cool” jazz less popular and more artistic because the audience who was not able to cope with the improvising musician could easily get bored. While gaining an artistic value, jazz lost much popularity.

In the 1960’s rock ‘n’ roll completely overtook the music industry, and jazz was then started to be regarded as high art. With the improvements in technology, musicians started to use electronic devices, and technology was incorporated into jazz. With the invention of electric instruments, electric bands started to form. Pianists such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul who started playing jazz with bebop changed their styles to electronic jazz. These musicians were trying to make music which was both artistic and popular. Joe Zawinul formed a famous jazz band called “The Weather Report” along with his friend Wayne Shorter, and this band was the most successful one at this time. With the usage of electric guitar, jazz turned into rock, and musicians called this type of music “fusion.” Fusion was popular among the people who were also listeners of rock ‘n’ roll. As the name implies, fusion consisted of many elements of rock, jazz, pop music, classical music, and metal. Miles Davis, who was the inventor of cool jazz, was the first musician, who used technology in his music. By this action, he showed the world that jazz was in a constant change.

It is important to realize that after the 1960’s jazz did not improve as much as in the 1920’s. Musicians tried to make jazz attain the popularity it had in the 1920’s. However, they could not manage to be successful because they were only trying to change the instruments and the rhythms. They could not reach their aim of entertainment. Having not reached their aims, many musicians chose to pursue their musical careers in acoustic jazz. With the experimenting process, musicians found new types of jazz such as “avant-garde,” “acid jazz,” “free jazz,” “pop jazz,” and “post modern jazz.”

In the 1970’s, and the 1980’s, jazz went in an interesting direction. Musicians were using aspects of ethnic music in jazz. Arabian, African, Cuban, and Scandinavian folk music were very much used in jazz. The ethnicity of jazz was a very important aspect in the course of improving the music and in spreading it over wide areas. Jazz became the music of the world, rather than the music of the United States. Especially in Europe, musicians created their original styles using motifs of ethnic music. This characteristic of jazz was combining people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. However, jazz was not as popular in the 1970’s and the 1980’s as it was in the 1920’s.

It is an interesting observation to see that jazz was once treated as popular music, but now it is considered high art; it is even seen more important than classical music. Therefore, it is seen that values of the communities alter while the time and environmental circumstances change. During the twentieth century, jazz underwent many changes, and it held many different characteristics. It had the ability to combine many different cultural activities, and it could be artistic and valuable while it was popular among millions of people. At the end of the twentieth century, it is possible to see that the concept of jazz has differed throughout this century. Snaevarr (2002) points out this fact as “…a lot of what we now call ‘high art’ used to be regarded as something vulgar,” just like jazz was once popular music; and now we call it “high art.”


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