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Introduction to Jazz



Three possible classifications of jazz:

Art form: jazz viewed as the heart of institutional America played by skillfully trained musicians.

Popular music: jazz viewed as a commodity partly dependent on taste.

Folk music: although urban, jazz stems from African American folk traditions.



Jazz is Black American music: ethnic versus racial distinctions

Black American or African American does not denote a race (genetically determined physical characteristics) but rather an ethnic group (cultural).

Ethnic features of this music (unlike racial features) can be learned and shared.

Jazz musicians may be black, white, Latinx, Asian, – any ethnicity. They can be male, female, or non-binary.


Traditional African and African American musical principles include polyrhythm, call and response, blue notes, and timbre variation. These are not unique to jazz, but their interaction within the genre is highly specific to it.


Polyrhythm – In contrast to European music, there are usually at least two layers of rhythm occurring at the same time in African and African-derived music. The foundation layer in jazz is persistent and repetitive: bass and ride cymbal perform the function known as “keeping time.”

Call and Response – A folk tradition where everyone responds to the initial statement. Found in church culture.

Blue Notes –  Notes that sound a specific way and cannot be explained with Western harmony. Probably originate from traditional African melodies.

Timbre – (tone color) refers to the distinctive qualities of a sound, as in the difference between instruments or voices


Jazz has been embraced globally and is performed, innovated, and listened to by people all over the world. (Arguably it is more appreciated in other parts of the world than in it’s birth place)

In 1987 the joint houses of Congress passed a resolution declaring jazz as a National American Treasure


Instruments associated with jazz

Rhythm Section Instruments

  • Instruments that keep time and/or harmony throughout the duration of the music. These instruments can also function as melodic instruments, but they also play the underlying structures that support melodic instruments


Acoustic Bass

  • Acoustic bass – also called upright or double bass. As time progressed the electric bass was invented and that is also considered a rhythm section instrument. Keeps time, provides fundamental chord structure and form, interacts, and can solo. (Tuba also functioned this way historically but is less common currently)
  • Drum set – invented at the birth of jazz. Keeps time, provides accompanying interaction, and can solo.



  • provides harmonic information, interaction (“comping” – short for accompaniment), solos, and can play melodies.



  • historically also keeps time, provides harmonic information, more modern approach is less of a time-keeper and functions more like a piano, solos, and plays melodies. (Banjo and Mandolin also function this way but are less common currently – not pictured) 
  • mallet percussion – vibraphone (invented during the evolution of jazz), or marimba. Functions similarly to piano/guitar. 
  • auxiliary percussion – Brazilian and Afro-Cuban influences in jazz have made congas, bongos, and other auxiliary percussion instruments included in rhythm sections. Supportive time-keeper and soloist. 
  • Harp can also function as a rhythm section instrument.



Melodic Instruments

  • Instruments that can generally only play one note at a time are considered melodic instruments. These can be separated into categories: brass, woodwind, string, & voice.



Brass Instruments

  • Wind instruments made primarily from metal (but saxophones and flutes are considered a woodwinds)
  • Sound is made by vibrating lips and moving air through a cup shaped mouthpiece.
  • Valves on trumpets/cornets/flugelhorns/valve trombones and slides on trombones control the length of tubing, which changes the pitch.
  • Trumpets and trombones are the most common brass instruments in jazz, but other brass instruments could of course be used.



Brass Mutes

  • Mutes are objects you place in the bell of an instrument to alter the sound. They product human like sounds and are common in jazz.
  • Various mutes—straight, cup, Harmon, plunger—change the
  • Mutes can be used in combination.
  • Half-valving and shaking can also vary timbre



Woodwind Instruments

  • Woodwinds use wooden reeds to create sound (saxophones, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, etc.) or air is blown across the mouthpiece (flute).
  • Saxophones: soprano, alto, tenor, baritone.
  • By 1930, the saxophone – especially alto and tenor – had become one of the main instruments in American music.
  • The clarinet is a wooden instrument with a cylindrical bore. It was popular in New Orleans and swing jazz. The bass clarinet is also used in jazz, and was made popular in the 50’s and 60’s



String Instruments

  • Violin, viola, and cello are all used as melodic instruments in jazz



Jazz Ensembles can be solo players, duets, trios, quartets etc. – all the way up to big bands and large orchestras. Generally, there is a rhythm section and some combination of melodic instruments – but there are no set rules.


Musical Terms

Meter – Moving at a fixed tempo, or speed, this “pulse rhythm” is one traditional approach to rhythm used in jazz. Pulse is divided into smaller groups (frequently 4) with an emphasis on the up-beats (2&4). A measure, or bar, is a regular grouping of beats, or the distance between downbeats. This can be thought of as a small cycle—a repeated fixed unit.




  • In African and African-derived music there are usually at least two layers of rhythm occurring at the same time. Let’s listen (play video).
  • Here, the foundational layer is the bell (gankougui) the supporting drums are secondary, and the lead drum and vocals are layered on top of that. Multiple layers of rhythm happening and interlocking at the same time is called
  • The foundation layer in jazz is persistent and repetitive: bass and ride cymbal perform the function known as “keeping time.”



“Swing” Concept

  • Rhythmic phenomenon and folk tradition.
  • Accent on weak beats.
  • Somewhere between an 8th note and a triplet feel.




  • A musical scale is a collection of pitches within an octave. There are 12 piano keys between the two notes of an octave. The distance between each one is a half-step. A scale consisting of 12 half steps is called a chromatic scale.
  • The major scale (or mode) is made up of seven degrees. In a major scale, the pattern of pitches is made up of the same arrangement or ordering of whole and half steps, regardless of the first note. The minor mode has a different pattern of whole and half steps.
  • A melody is made up of notes played one at a time in succession. The notes are frequently organized by or related to scales. The book goes into more detail about how this works. 



The Blues Scale


  • The blues scale is a collection of pitches unique to blues and jazz that cannot necessarily be explained by Western standards of music theory (which is super awesome). It’s not just a set of pitches, but also a central musical influence in jazz.
  • The blues scale is a system of making melody that includes variable intonation (blue notes, bent notes) not dissimilar to Indian raga which utilizes pitch slides and bends. 
  • Blue notes are available on most instruments, but the piano is problematic because it’s pitches are fixed. The solution is to play two neighboring notes simultaneously. Their clash with underlying major-scale sounds is appealing because of its “otherness.”




  • Harmony is the underlying structure of music. When people listen to music, they often gravitate to the rhythm (makes you want to dance)  or melody (makes you want to sing in your car). 
  • Playing more than two notes at the same time is called a chord. Three notes sounded at the same time is called a triad. Adding a note above the fundamental triad is called a seventh chord (because the seventh scale degree is added to the triad), and additional notes added beyond that are called extended chords. This is getting pretty technical, so don’t worry too much about it. Just know that chords in succession create harmonic progressions. 





  • HomophonyMelody supported by harmonic accompaniment. Usually, melody and harmony are in separate layers. Sometimes they are in a single layer: block harmony occurs when two or more instruments play the same phrase with the same rhythm but with different pitches filling out the harmony, often in the context of soli. Countermelody (obbligato) occurs when the subordinate instruments have their own melodic interest, but it does not compete with the main melody.
  • Monophony – Melody performed by a single solo voice/instrument with no harmonic accompaniment. Monophony is rare in jazz but is found in early jazz “breaks,” where a musician plays while the rest of the band is silent (usually for two bars). It is similar to “stop-time,” in which the band plays short chords at brief intervals while the soloist improvises. Monophony can be used to begin or end a piece, as in Armstrong’s unaccompanied introductory fanfare, or cadenza, at the start of “West End Blues.”
  • Polyphony – Two or more simultaneous melodies of equal interest played at the same time. Polyphonic writing is regularly heard in New Orleans, or Dixieland, jazz. New Orleans jazz uses polyphonic textures. Big (swing) bands are typically homophonic, while avant-garde jazz often experiments with polyphonic textures in a new stylistic context.


How Jazz Works


  • Jazz musicians have taken popular songs, folk songs, songs from musicals, classical works, etc. and written their own original songs. The following concepts are generally true but not always.
  • Any song has a basic structure that is associated with the length of the melody. When playing jazz, the song will begin with the rhythm section playing the length of the melody with time and harmony while a soloist performs the melody. Once the melody is played once or twice, then the underlying structure of the melody remains while soloists improvise new melodies on top of the structure. Once everyone who wants to improvise a solo has taken a turn, then the melody is repeated and the song is ended.



Cyclical Forms



  • Like form in African music, jazz form is cyclic, each cycle being defined rhythmically and harmonically. Each cycle is called a chorus.
  • Choruses are of fixed lengths. Often choruses are 12, 16, or 32 measures.
  • Common forms in jazz include the blues and “popular song” (songs from musicals and shows written in the early 1900s) forms.



12 Bar Blues


  • The basic harmonic form of 12-bar blues consists of three chords: I (tonic) for the first four measures, then IV chord for two measures; tonic for two; V chord for two; and tonic for two. Often chords are added and/or substituted. The “turn around” is a chord progression (ii V) that leads the listener’s ear to a new part of the cycle or back to the top. 
  • Lyric form: three-line asymmetric stanza (A A B) with each line consisting of two vocal measures (call) followed by two instrumental measures (response), to make a 12-measure chorus.
  • Blues forms can be modified by introductions, modulations, and contrasting sections, but they’re still a blues regardless of tempo, rhythmic groove, and variations.
  • It is the foundation of rhythm and blues (R&B) and of rock and roll.



32-Bar Popular Song Form

  • Based on songs of the 1930s to the 1960s; often used in Broadway musicals or films.
  • These songs were often in two parts: verse and refrain. Jazz musicians rarely use the verse.
  • Form: eight bars (A) repeated (A again) ending with a turnaround to the contrasting eight-bar B section (the bridge) and then the last This is then referred to as AABA. 
  • Unlike the blues, song form refers to the tune’s harmony and melody, not the words.
  • Unlike the blues, this form is not defined by a particular harmonic progression.
  • From 1930 to around 1950, jazz musicians used popular songs as vehicles for improvising. Knowing the melody gave listeners a way to keep their place within the tune once the cycle of choruses or refrains was established.
  • “Rhythm changes” is a reference to particular song-form chord progression associated with Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” which became popular with jazz musicians (although they omitted the last two measures and made up their own melodies).
  • Jazz musicians play many A A B A tunes discussed in this book, and still many other tunes may be diagrammed in various ways, for example, A B A C or A B A B1.







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Music 101

1. Introduction to Jazz