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The American musical genre called jazz has taken on many forms in the hundred or so years of its existence. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where or when jazz came into being, but its early days, in the early 20th century, are heavily associated with the southern city of New Orleans. Early jazz was probably an amalgam of blues and ragtime musical forms, with both African and European influences. Originally played by black musicians in festivals and at street funerals, jazz became popular among both white and black performers and audiences by the 1920’s, known familiarly as the “Jazz Age.”

One of the great pioneers of jazz was New Orleans native Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), whose manner of phrasing on the cornet and in his inimitable singing style deeply affected subsequent American popular music, both white and black. During the first half of the 20th century, African-American band leaders such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington were extremely influential. They were joined in the 1940s by white bandleaders such as Bennie Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Les Brown and others, in what was called the “swing” era.

The post-World-War II era saw the decline of the big bands and the onset of successive forms of highly creative introspective jazz done in smaller combos. The late 40s, early 1950s bebop form was spearheaded by saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Max Roach, among many others. After this era, jazz is difficult to classify, but most jazz devotees agree that two of the absolute giants from the 1950s on were trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist John Coltrane.

Although all the musicians mentioned in the preceding paragraph were black, it is important to note that white musicians like pianist Dave Brubeck and saxophonist Stan Getz have been enormously influential in popularizing jazz as a distinct American musical form. Jazz today has many sub-genres: fusion jazz, cool jazz, Latin jazz, funk jazz, smooth jazz, and others, as well as traditional forms such as swing, bebop, and Dixieland that remain extremely popular.

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