Jazz Theory: Its History, Evolution And Opportunity

jazz theoryJazz is more than a music form. It’s a language that is as complicated as it is unpretentious. It’s at odds with itself. Consider this, for example: in order to be able to jam freely with other jazz musicians, you would have had to spend a great amount of time practicing. Practicing and improvising – it’s an oxymoron. But it’s jazz.

Jazz theory centers on understanding jazz harmony and chords and how we organize those sounds into a logical pattern, and inside that pattern is an opening to freestyle or improvise while staying with those chords and harmony. In the end, though, it ‘s all about the sounds put all together and how much it pleases the human ear. Learning and playing jazz is a little more complicated than picking up a guitar or keyboard and cranking out a tune.

Perhaps it would be helpful for someone just taking an interest in jazz to go over some basic concepts of music before delving into the throes of jazz theory. Learn music notation, including note values and rests if you read music, key signatures, flats, sharps and accidentals and something that’s not on a sheet – rhythm. Indeed, even a seasoned musician, especially one who has come up playing by ear, would benefit from this course.

Whether you enjoy a live jam session at a back alley juke joint in New Orleans or like listening to the so-called smooth jazz sounds of someone such as Kenny G or Huge Groove, you’re being treated to an American art form that has continued to evolve into a world favorite. However, its roots are undoubtedly in the Black community.

A Little History is in Order

The word “jazz,” also said as “jass,” is actually based on a Creole word that means African dance and also copulation. That’s not a typo. In its beginnings, it was referred to as peppy dance that came out of the nightlife. Jazz has actually only been around for a little more than 100 years, but in that short time, it has shifted and evolved and become a worldwide phenomenon. Indeed, while rock stars come and go, jazz enthusiasts continue to pack international venues and events, such as the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, to spend hours listening to musicians who have made it their lives’ work to entertain with their unique music stylings. There are jazz cruises, Caribbean jazz festivals and even Broadway plays about the genre, as well as radio stations that only play jazz music.

Jazz historians say it all began in the early 1900s in the southern mecca of New Orleans, where the Afro-centric and developing urban culture were coming together to form a new style. Musicians the likes of Louis Armstrong and Jellyroll Morton, who played music filled with self-expression, soon began to attract music lovers from the North and even Europe. Soon it was a favorite in cities such as Chicago and Kansas City. By 1917, the first jazz album was recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. In came the roaring ‘20s and jazz blossomed into an art form and an outlet for musicians to literally blow their horns without inhibition.

Even in the ‘30s when the Great Depression hit, jazz music was on fire, as people still packed parties and dance halls to rock to what was then being called swing music. Swing evolved in to bebop, but it was all still jazz in reality since it was based on the rapid rhythm and the freestyle of its original beginnings.

By the ‘50s, jazz became a more sophisticated art form and some of the renowned names of the genre began to emerge: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins and the genius Miles Davis, as well as iconic vocalists Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.

Over time, a more structured jazz evolved also called smooth jazz. Its rhythms are less complicated and while expressive, it tends to be less frenetic and more predictable.

Today, more traditional jazz survives alongside its smoother brother. And possibly more than any other genre, it has always been a forum for social integration. Indeed, at one point, jazz was associated with the Civil Rights movement as it evolved into a more sophisticated music form that was considered “cool” and tended to attract intellectuals and social misfits.

In 1987, jazz was officially recognized by the U.S. Congress when it was declared a “rare and valuable national treasure.” There are jazz classes at major colleges and universities, and some of the most renowned music training institutes in the country – the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Julliard School in New York City, for example – recruit and actively train jazz musicians. While it is not as popular as it was in the swing era, it is still alive and kicking on a worldwide stage.

Getting Down to The Basics

Learning jazz theory won’t make you a great player. What it will do is enhance your natural abilities and enable you to take your musicianship to a whole new level. Understand that jazz music in particular is about expression, grooves, chords and harmonies,, and the perception of the player as well as the listener.

The piano or keys and the guitar typically are the instruments that establish harmony and the chords for a jazz tune. However, they can also be the ones that improvise. A lot of jazz bands may seem like they are led by the sax man or trumpet player, but in reality, the keyboard or piano player or the guitarist are the ones that lay down the backbone.

If you have the basics of playing the keys down, it would be to your advantage to delve into the world of jazz piano. Take your piano playing to a whole other level and play with rich chords, bass lines and improvising.

For those that are more verse in guitar, find out from a professional jazz musician what it takes to make your guitar playing more averse to jazz. While some of the structure of good playing is there, jazz guitar opens another dimension. Find out what is preventing you from becoming a well-versed jazz guitarist.

We’ve talked about the fact that harmony and chords are intricate elements of jazz theory. With that in mind, it would be beneficial to look into this course on how to play chords. OK. Some of you may already have that down pat, but again, jazz is a different animal, and this little piece of information is time well spent.

It’s Not Easy to Define

Rock has certain elements that make it easily defined, as does R&B and certainly the more popular forms of music, pop and hip-hop. Here’s the kicker – jazz can incorporate all of them. It’s honestly not easily defined. Jazz trombonist best put it when he said, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.”

As much as it’s established, jazz is also ever evolving. So for young musicians or any that want to be heard, it provides a prime opportunity. The field is wide open. Whether you like the mellow sounds and incandescent vibes of a Miles Davis or the thumping tempos of a Louis Armstrong jam, or perhaps you dig the more subtle approaches led by the Kenny Gs or Diane Kralls, your own rendition of jazz could be the one that starts a new revolution or trend.


The avenues are out there for you to not only explore jazz theory, but also create your own, share it and even sell it.

It may not be as difficult or complicated as you think. If you have skills and even if you are just working on developing your jazz skills, the opportunities are there. College campuses are a good way to start, as well as your local arts newspaper that will post and list bands looking for players and singers, clubs looking for acts and other opportunities for you to put your jazz talent to use. Let’s help you out.

Sure jazz theory involves a bit of structure when it comes to chords and harmony, but its biggest asset is self-expression. Jazz has always evolved and constantly reinvented and redefined itself. It’s centered on the human experience and its walls are non-existent. Everyone can enjoy it, and better yet, anyone can create it. So when should we expect to see your expression of jazz theory at Carnegie Hall?