The JAZZistry story begins some four hundred years ago when the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch competed for control of the Atlantic slave trade. It’s estimated that by 1860, more than 10 million Africans had been captured and transported to the Americas. This human atrocity ravaged populations primarily in regions we now call Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. They were transported mostly to the Caribbean Islands and Spanish colonies in Central and South America. Only an estimated 6 percent of these victims of slavery were traded in British North America. Far from homogeneous, they were diverse in linguistic, ethnic, and spiritual heritages. This diversity was reflected in their rich musical traditions.


By 1750, enslaved Africans constituted 20 percent of the population in British North America, almost 240,000 people. The majority lived in the Southern colonies though slavery also existed in Northern colonies. At the same time, particularly in Maryland, a small population of free blacks did exist.

Because England’s industrial revolution was funded by profits from the British slave trade and from colonial America’s slave-produced sugar and tobacco crops, British slave ships were bringing as great a number as 50,000 enslaved Africans to the New World each year by the 1790’s.

Slavery took a slightly different cultural turn in the French-dominated city of New Orleans, founded in 1718. Here, free colored people called Creoles co-existed with whites and slaves. Creoles were the racially mixed children of French slave masters and enslaved African women. These biracial children were given more privileges than black children. They were often educated in the finest schools, trained as musicians, and allowed access to white society. According to custom, many French slave owners would free their slaves—and, especially their Creole children–immediately prior to their own death. With freedom,

Creoles were able to achieve opportunities in society and wealth that approximated the status and rights of white people. However, when the Spanish took over New Orleans in 1764, Creoles lost their social and economic status, a change that forced them to look for work. Many became traveling musicians, a phenomenon that would evolve into the Southern minstrel show. These Creole musicians and their descendants became the primary inventors of early jazz.

At the same time, largely through the social action of Quaker women, Connecticut and Rhode Island were the first northern colonies to initiate gradual emancipation of enslaved people, and in 1774, the first laws prohibiting slavery were passed.


Eleven million Africans had been forcibly taken from their homelands and an estimated 600,000 had been sold into slavery in North America by 1807, when the British abolished their slave trade. In fact, the period from 1798 to1808 was the largest slave importation into the United States, totaling about 200,000. Even though United States citizens were prohibited from exporting slaves, the slave trade continued within the country.

During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass and others, encouraged Lincoln to recruit African American soldiers. But, this was not a popular idea. Lincoln feared that the shaky allegiance of the Union’s border states would be tested to the limit, seriously threatening the Union’s existence.

Some Black soldiers were allowed to enlist in the Union Army. But the black troops were segregated from the white army were subjected to sub-standard conditions, and rarely allowed to fight. Most of them were restricted to supporting tasks behind the battle lines. But, because the war was long, and causalities were high, often black troops were called in as reinforcements, and many distinguished themselves through acts of patriotism and bravery.

Immediately after the Civil War, in 1867, black men cast ballots for the first time. The passage of the 15th Amendment, granted all rights of citizenship to men born in the US and to immigrant men who had been naturalized. (American Indian men were excluded, and were only granted the vote 54 years later, in 1921, when the Citizenship Act amended the 15th Amendment. This follows Women Suffrage with the 19th Amendment, in 1920.)

During Reconstruction, 265 black men were elected as delegates to ten state conventions. Of these men, 107 had been born into slavery, and 40 had served in the Union Army during the Civil War.

After the Emancipation several Northern religious societies founded dozens of black colleges and schools across the South, with the purpose of educating black students to become teachers, craftsmen and other leaders. These efforts continued during the Reconstruction Period. Known today as Historically Black Colleges and Universities or “HBCUs”, they include Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Spelman College and Morehouse University in Georgia, Howard University in Washington DC, and Fisk University in Tennessee, among approximately 100 others.

The 1871 concert tour of The Jubilee Singers of Fisk University marks an historic threshold in the development of American music. The Jubilee Singers (pictured below, in a typical souvenir card) toured the US and Europe, performing traditional work songs and spirituals in their regular choir repertoire. They provided white audiences in both continents with their very first exposure to the lives and music of black Americans. The music was extremely popular and people called the song form of a spiritual, “a jubilee”. The financial success of their tours allowed Fisk to flourish; the cultural success developed new awareness and respect for traditional African American culture and music.

Racial segregation was a harsh reality in 19th century America. It led to universal double standards, where virtually all conditions and opportunities were inferior to those of white people. Though African Americans were no longer enduring slavery, they were still subjected to abusive and cruel treatment of a largely racist culture.

Deeply rooted racist attitudes persisted after the Civil War. African Americans were subjected to brutal forms of racism and discrimination, with little recourse. Called “Jim Crow laws”, the double standard of white and black lives was viciously enforced and had devastating economic and human costs. Jim Crow segregation and discrimination policies throughout the South severely restricted the lives and freedoms of African Americans and caused many to flee the South. Racial segregation and discriminatory treatment were also typical in northern areas, as well, though northern cities did typically offer some expanded opportunities to African Americans.

The term “Jim Crow” is derived from a popular song performed in minstrel show tradition, or minstrelsy era. The traveling stage shows became popular in the 1830’s and eventually evolved into vaudeville theatre. One routine called “Jump Jim Crow” was broad slapstick performed by a white actor in cork-face paint, ridiculing black people, which was typical in the popular entertainment of the era.

Meanwhile, in the 1890’s, the earliest forms of jazz began to emerge in New Orleans, a multiracial and multicultural French-ruled city with a social order that demanded music and revelry. Creole musicians were combining the elements of West African work songs, slave spirituals, minstrel and vaudeville shows, and rural blues expression with the European brass band instruments and harmonies. This newly born hybrid music filled the streets of New Orleans on every occasion from parades to funeral marches.


Ragtime and New Orleans jazz (frequently called “Dixieland Jazz”) were popularized nationwide in the early decades of the twentieth century, the first forms of black music to cross over into white America. Pioneers like Scott Joplin- “The King of Ragtime”, Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey and W.C. Handy-“Father of the Blues”, paved a road on which many others after them would travel.

The magical quality of ragtime’s syncopated rhythm captured the hearts of millions of Americans. Ragtime composer, Scott Joplin (pictured) was widely celebrated for this exciting new sound, making him one of the first African Africans to enjoy widespread fame. A strong economy and technology were providing some middle class Americans with “leisure time”. Many families had pianos in their parlors, for entertainment and as a status symbol. Joplin’s sheet music was sold to millions of Americans (mostly women) who wanted to play it on their pianos in their homes.

Ragtime’s fresh rhythms distinguished the new sounds of early jazz. The riverboats of the Mississippi River helped spread the music all the way up to Northern cities, as did the rapidly expanding train system. Besides increasing the mobility of America’s population, these faster forms of mass transportation also moved musical and other cultural influences quickly across the country.

Between 1910 and 1940, 1,750,000 African American people left the South as part of the Great Migration. They were seeking better lives in northern industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York. Despite the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, the United States government had abandoned Southern black people to an apartheid South of white supremacy. Besides the marked separate public facilities, like drinking fountains, streetcars, trains, and schools, the segregation of the era was enforced through violence and oppression. The race-based caste system was viciously upheld for generations, clearly demonstrated through blatantly discriminatory institutions—like schools, the courts, and the justice system­­­­–– and through the terror of hate crimes, mob lynchings and race riots.

America’s racially segregated society was also reflected in its strictly segregated military. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Colonel William Hayward, a white officer, persuaded the army to recruit large numbers of black troops. He had been greatly impressed by the bravery of the black soldiers he had commanded in the Spanish American War. Hayward had a brilliant recruiting strategy that took advantage of the nation’s growing obsession with jazz music. He first recruited a widely acclaimed orchestra leader from Harlem, James Reese Europe, as an officer and regimental bandleader. Europe (pictured at the below) then recruited 60 expert African American and Caribbean musicians for his band, and wrote jazz arrangements of the music. The band then toured Harlem and other East Coast cities, playing for African American audiences and encouraging men to enlist. Because of Lieutenant Europe’s band, over 370,000 black men enlisted in the Jim Crow army and navy.

The black soldiers of Jim Europe’s 369th Regiment experienced vicious racism during their basic training in South Carolina, from both local people and white soldiers. To avoid a brewing racial confrontation, the army shipped the “369th” to the action in Europe, to become the first American soldiers to reach war-torn France. They fought bravely and valiantly, saw 200 days of continuous trench warfare. Known as the “Harlem Hell Fighters,” the fame of the 369th soared when two members of the regiment were awarded France’s highest military medal for bravery, La Croix de Guerre. When they weren’t in battle, the 369th’s band played its sensational new music and won the hearts of the French everywhere they went. It was the first jazz heard in Europe. Immediately after the war, they played in numerous victory parades, including marching down Fifth Avenue in New York. The 369th participated in numerous Victory Parades in the US, and were widely celebrated. But sadly, Europe died suddenly, after an attack by an enraged musician, in the midst of broad acclaim. He received full military honors, and his funeral procession once more marched down Fifth Avenue, the first time an African American was so honored. Many of the musicians from the “369th” continued to contribute to the growth and development of jazz for decades, including Eubie Blake (who was too old to enlist, but wrote many arrangements for the band) and Noble Sissle.


This decade is marked by the newly invented phonograph and radio that became the rage in homes across America. For the first time, Southern blues singers whose techniques and songs were rooted in African American oral and musical traditions were recorded and then, broadcast to the whole world on radio. The radio quickly became the center piece of life, bringing news and music from across the world into everyone’s living room.

Separate records, often called race records, were made for the “black audience,” as it was believed that the races had different musical tastes. One of the first Blues singers recorded, was Bessie Smith (above). Almost immediately, the title “Empress of the Blues” was a nickname bestowed on her, as she became the most popular singer in America in this decade, selling records widely to both white and black audiences. Tragically, Bessie Smith died in 1937, from injuries received in a car accident.

In 1920, The Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol. However, liquor flowed freely in Harlem’s fashionable nightspots, causing blacks and whites to flock to Harlem’s clubs where they heard the legendary bands like bandleaders, Cab Calloway and Edward “Duke” Ellington. In addition to black entertainers, Harlem attracted black poets, painters, writers and intellectuals, forging an unprecedented and prolific creative movement called the Harlem Renaissance that spanned two decades, the fruits of which have altered American arts and cultural traditions forever.

Much of white America embraced the jazz music they heard on their radios. But while crowds of white Americans danced to and applauded the genius of Duke Ellington (at right), Count Basie, and other great black jazz bands of the era, the stars of the Jazz Era were still subjected to harsh discrimination and prejudice. It is shocking to realize that these fine musicians––who defined the elegant, classy style of their day––were not allowed to stay in the hotels, could not eat in the dining rooms, nor even enter the front door of these establishments where they packed the house every night. This is the stunning reality of Jim Crow segregation. In spite of being the Toast of the country, these artists were considered second class citizens though they were highly respected, and celebrated.


After the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression created an era of severe economic suffering for many people. At the same time, the hardship of the times enabled the cultural power of African Americans to drive a small wedge into the wall of racism separating whites from blacks. It was the optimistic music of all black Big Bands that boosted the morale of white America and transformed American popular culture forever. Swing’s popularity developed the musicalty and launched the careers of many jazz musicians, both black and white, for decades to come. If you listen closely, you can especially hear it in the jazzy music that follows WW2.

Benny Goodman, a white clarinetist and bandleader, was one of the first to form a racially integrated band – a quartet with black jazz musicians Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian and Teddy Wilson and white drummer Gene Krupa, who performed before a rapt audience at Carnegie Hall in 1938. This was more than a decade before the integration of major league baseball with Jackie Robinson.


The economics and rationing of World War II caused the recording industry to stop during the war, but the jazz music transmitted across radio waves was essential to uplifting the American spirit both at home and overseas. During this time, many black jazz musicians traveled around the world, gaining exposure to new ethnic and cultural music traditions, adding to their notion of music of the day more complexity and an impetus to push for change.

Bebop was such a musical revolution in the early ’40s, fathered by young black jazz musicians in New York City who were tired of the predictability of Swing music. These musicians included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach and Ray Brown. In addition to a new music full of complex rhythms, harmonies and improvisation, Beboppers created their own slang, attire and life style. Despite white America’s initial resistance to Bebop, it flourished in small clubs and in late night jam sessions. The complex structures and raging technical ability of Bebop musicians endured for two generations to become the principal musical language of jazz musicians worldwide. Then, in 1948, the record industry gave birth to the revolutionary long playing records, known as LPs!


In Post-World War II America, the 1950’s were an era of prosperity and domestic calmness, at least on the surface of society. But below the surface, conditions of inequality and social injustice were still present for people of color, poor people and those on the edge of society.

Similarly, jazz of the era lets us hear this dichotomy. By the 1950’s jazz music was exploding, and many people were involved in delivering diverse kinds of music, sometimes to very different audiences. The biggest contrast can be heard in the styles of Cool Jazz and Hard Bop, both signature sounds of the ‘50’s. East Coast Hard Bop reconnected jazz with the blues. West Coast Jazz turned mellow. The Newport Jazz Festival was born in 1954, an idea that came from Europe and would spawn American jazz festivals for years to come.

This was also the decade when the “Beat Generation”–– a counter cultural movement led by the Beatniks of Greenwich Village in New York City. It was the beginning of Spoken Word poetry form, or Slam Poetry as we know it today. They also turned jazz into a way to protest what was going on in society. Along with the Beat Poets, African American musicians, especially in the Free Jazz movement, used their music to express their anger and frustration about unfair acts of racism in America in a new spirit of revolution.

Hard Bop, movement, spearheaded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Birth of the Cool was recorded in 1949, opened the door for the experimentation of the Hard Bop musicians.

And finally, rock and roll arrived–the child of boogie-woogie, rhythm and blues, and country music–to infatuate America’s youth and further shape the popular music all over the world.


As the Civil Rights Movement and resistance to the Vietnam War intensified, jazz music truly reflected the mood of America’ political climate. Soul jazz became the music of the Black Power movement. Free jazz invented a musical vocabulary for revolutionary expression, and Avant Garde jazz trenched up the old to use with the new, combining contemporary instrumental formulas with the sounds of early jazz. Finally, a technological revolution produced the electronic instruments and rock rhythms that steered jazz toward Fusion, which was the predecessor to Rap that would emerge in the ’70s.


This decade was when the music opened up and raised its’ voice to a shout. All across the nation, it was a time of protest against the Vietnam War, opposing racism and discrimination based on race and fighting for the rights of the underclass. African American leaders like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X talked about freedom, and moved the country to action on these issues.

The music of jazz musicians reflected the raw emotions of the times like a mirror. Traditional African American Spirituals were sung during demonstrations, “sit-ins” and Freedom Rides as songs of protest and as solace to the troubled times.


Jazz became a universal idiom in the 80’s, and continues to develop today, often as the vanguard, in conservatories, schools, clubs, concert halls, and recording studios. Virtually all of the different kinds of jazz music across our timeline are still being performed by live bands today. Jazz is extremely diverse and enjoyed by a wide range of audiences in many settings. Wynton Marsalis, who comes from a family of great New Orleans jazz musicians, was the first musician to ‘cross over’ and win 2 Grammy Awards in the same year, for Best Jazz Recording and Best Classical Recording.

Into the 21st Century!

Today, a celebrated, revered art form, jazz is still evolving and growing. The rhythms of African American music lie underneath modern forms like rap and hip hop. And Hip Hop techniques are beginning to influence the sound of jazz today. It’s obvious that jazz musicians simultaneously continue to look back and look ahead, while paying attention to what’s going on right in front of them. Since jazz is America’s own music––JAZZIstry explains––the history of jazz is our history. As always, the unique language of jazz melds histories, traditions, improvisation and experimentation in order to express the most fundamental conditions of the human experience. It is an art form treasured around the world as one of America’s greatest legacies and gifts!