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History of jazz and classical music

History of Jazz and Classical Music

Upon entering a modern record store, one is confronted with a

wide variety of choices in recorded music. These choices not only

include a multitude of artists, but also a wide diversity of music

categories. These categories run the gamut from easy listening dance

music to more complex art music. On the complex side of the scale are

the categories known as Jazz and Classical music. Some of the most

accomplished musicians of our time have devoted themselves to a

lifelong study of Jazz or Classical music, and a few exceptional

musicians have actually mastered both. A comparison of classical and

Jazz music will yield some interesting results and could also lead to

an appreciation of the abilities needed to perform or compose these

kinds of music.

Let's begin with a look at the histories of the two. The music

called classical, found in stores and performed regularly by

symphonies around the world, spans a length of time from 1600 up to

the present. This time frame includes the Renaissance, Baroque,

Classical, Romantic and Contemporary periods. The classical period of

music actually spans a time from of 1750 to 1800; thus, the term

Classical is a misnomer and could more correctly be changed to Western

Art Music or European Art Music. European because most of the major

composers up till the 20th century were European. Vivaldi was Italian,

Bach was German, Mozart and Beethoven were Austrian; they are some of

the more prominent composers. Not until the twentieth century with

Gershwin and a few others do we find American composers writing this

kind of art music. For the sake of convention, we can refer to Western

Art Music as Classical music.

Jazz is a distinctively American form of music, and it's history

occupies a much smaller span of time. Its origins are found in the

early 1900s as some dance band leaders in the southern U.S. began

playing music that combined ragtime and blues. Early exponents of this

dance music were Jelly Roll Martin (a blues player) and Scott Joplin

(ragtime). The terms "Jazz" and "Jazz Band" first surfaced in the year

1900. Some say this occurred in New Orleans, although similar music

was played at the same time in other places. The most prominent

exponents of this early music, called Dixieland Jazz, included Louis

Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. After World War I, Jazz music had evolved

and was aided by the development of the recording industry. The

small dance band ensemble grew into the larger orchestra known as the

"Big Band". The music of the Big Bands became known as "Swing." Two of

the more famous Swing band leaders were Tommy Dorsey and Harry James.

In the late 40s and through the 50s, a different kind of Jazz became

popular. This music, played by a very small ensemble, was much more

sophisticated and complex . Its rich harmonic changes and melodic

counterpoint were not conducive to dance. It became known as "Bop,"

with Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie being the early proponents.

In the last twenty years there has been a combination of Jazz with

popular music of the US and Latin America. This modern Jazz music has

been called "Fusion." Present day exponents include Pat Metheny and

Chic Corea. There has also been a return to the sound of Bop in the

last ten years by such musicians as trumpeter Winton Marsalis and his

brother Branford, a saxophonist.

Let's focus on the instrumentation of the two kinds of music. In

Classical music, both large orchestras and small ensembles are used.

But generally, the greatest and most prominent compositions are for

the larger symphony orchestra. The largest part of the orchestra is

the string section consisting of violins, violas, cellos and string

basses. These instruments were invented very early in medieval times

but really matured into their present form during the late 18th

century. The wind instruments, comprised of brass and woodwinds, took

longer to mature. The brass section in particular did not posses the

ability to play chromatically (in all keys) until the advent of valves

which allowed the length of the instrument to be changed while

playing. This occurred around the middle to late 19th century.

Consequently, the brass instruments are less prominent in the music of

Bach, Mozart and Beethoven along with their contemporaries. Late 19th

and early 20th century composers make use of a very large orchestra

with all the fully developed wind instruments. Some of the master

orchestrator/composers of this time were: Wagner, Rimskey-Korsakov,

Ravel and Stravinsky. Currently, composers also make use of the full

orchestra but with the addition of increasingly larger percussion

sections which add many unique and unheard of sounds than in earlier


Early Jazz music was played in small ensembles making use of

clarinet, tuba, cornet, baritone, drums, and piano. Dixieland groups

of New Orleans had similar instrumentation. During the Swing era,

larger groups were employed to achieve more of an orchestral sound.

The Big Bands of the this era were predominantly wind orchestras

containing alto and tenor sax sections, trumpet and trombone sections,

along with piano and drums. When Bop music arrived, the alto saxophone

and trumpet were the preferred instruments of the major soloists who

were backed up by piano, string bass and drums. With the advent of

Fusion, electric instruments such as the electric guitar and keyboard

synthesizer became prominent.

How has each of these kinds of music been transmitted to later

generations of musicians? Early in the evolution of classical music, a

system of notation was gradually developed which for the most part

remained stable from the Renaissance on. This gave the composer

control over how his compositions were to be played. Throughout the

history of Jazz, however, notation was more like a rough sketch. This

was because the syncopated rhythms of ragtime and the melodic riffs of

the blues were not easily notated. Also, early Jazz musicians were not

formally trained; they usually learned by ear. Some songs were

transcribed and written down, but not in precise ways. Jazz music

became more of a passed on tradition that a musician learned through

interaction with other players. In a similar way, the modern Jazz

musician must rely on previous recordings to get a feel for the

style and technique which he desires to learn from. But in classical

music, one composer can learn from an older composer by looking at and

analyzing the music that the previous composer wrote down. Likewise,

classical musicians can master the parts they must play by practicing

the music that has been written or published beforehand. These two

approaches to passing on tradition are both valid. However, without

the recording medium Jazz music might have developed much differently

than it has.

The cohesive element that keeps a musical group together is also

an interesting contrast. In Classical music, the conductor uses a

baton and plays the orchestra as if it were his instrument; he looks

at a complete score of all the events happening in the composition and

interprets these events based on his knowledge and intuition of what

the composer intended. Jazz groups rarely utilize conductors. The

swing era employed them for the sake of keeping the larger sized group

together but other jazz styles did not and do not to this day. The

drummer of the Jazz ensemble provides the beat that keeps the group

together but even he is interacting with the other soloists as the

song is performed.

Perhaps the most interesting point of comparison between the two

types of music is in improvisation. Improvisation is the ability to

play and compose spontaneously "on the spot" while the music is

playing. This has been an important element of Jazz from it's

inception. Although improvisation was less prominent during the swing

era, it regained importance with Bop and onward. Early Jazz was

improvised, using ragtime and blues as a loose structure. In the swing

era, popular songs were arranged by an arranger and soloists played

improvisations over the repeating sections in order to lengthen the

song for dancing. With the advent of Bop, improvisation assumed great

importance. The musicians memorized the chord changes to a song, along

with the melody, but then played very loosely and in the end

substituted new chords along with greatly embellishing the original

melody to the point of being unrecognizable. These factors, along with

the ability to interact with each other, became important and remains

so in the Fusion music of today.

In Classical music, modern listeners are mostly unaware of the

fact that many of the great composers of the past were not only

excellent performers but also great improvisers. Starting with J.S.

Bach (1685-1750), the greatest composer of the Baroque era, he in fact

made his living through his great skill as an improvisor. It was

common for the Lutheran Church organist of his day be able to

improvise on choral melodies and Bach was considered one of the

greatest at this. There are written accounts of other composers

improvisational abilities including Mozart (1756-1791), Beethoven

(1770-1829), and Franz Liszt (1811-1886). Yet, as time went on,

improvising gave way to the composer's desire to exert complete

control over his music. By the late 19th century, improvising was rare

and not used at all in public performances of classical music.

In summation, we can say that Jazz and Classical music represent

two approaches to Art Music. The Classical composer or performer has a

long and rich body of music in written form that he uses to learn from

while the Jazz musician uses a body of recorded music to learn.

Because of it's small size, the modern Jazz ensemble allows loose

interaction while the symphony orchestra's large size and diversity of

instruments provides many different sounds and wide dynamic range. In

classical music the composer strives for control; he uses printed

music to guide and direct the musicians through the conductor. In Jazz

music, the songs are loosely composed, thus forming a basis for

individual expression within an ensemble. When you go to hear a

symphony, you hear an orchestra conducted by the conductor playing a

composition. When you go to a Jazz club you hear a small jazz ensemble

interacting and improvising a song. Both of these kinds of music

provide rich expression and detail to the serious listener. They take

different paths to reach their final form but give a person equal

opportunities to appreciate the creative output of each.

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