Jazz has roots in the combination of West African and Western music traditions, including spirituals, blues and ragtime, stemming from West Africa, western Sahel and New England’s religious hymns, hillbilly music and European military band music. After originating in African American communities in the early 1900’s, jazz styles spread in the 1920’s, influencing other musical styles.

The origins of the word jazz are uncertain. The word was originally spelled “jass”. Some say that was a common misspelling of the word between groups. For example, the success of the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917 with the first jazz recording was immense. The Victor Talking Machine Co. had placed advertising posters in the New York subway cars (the same long thin rectangular posters you see on buses today) and the first letter in the word jass was defaced. Of course, this wouldn’t do and the Victor Talking Machine Company (for certain with permission from the ODJB) changed the name to Jazz.

The word “Jazz” and the word “Cool” have also been used interchangeably. Prior to 1916 the word “jass” was supposedly used in general language slang meaning to do something with vigor and energy. As in – “Let’s jass it up on the dance floor.” Since the 1950’s the word “cool” has been used in general language slang meaning something is good, likable or great. In the 1960’s Miles Davis recorded in a style that became known as the “Cool” jazz period.

The popular use of the word “jass” as slang, a hit recording, and changing the name from jass to jazz by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band forever secured the word jazz a musical definition term. Jazz is rooted in the blues, the folk music of former enslaved Africans in the U.S. South and their descendants, which is influenced by West African cultural and musical traditions that evolved as black musicians migrated to the cities. Jazz musician Wynton Marsalis states that “Jazz is something Negroes invented…the nobility of the race put into sound…jazz has all the elements, from the spare and penetrating to the complex and enveloping.”

The instruments used in marching bands and dance band music at the turn of the century became the basic instruments of jazz; brass, reeds and drums, using the Western 12-tone scale. Small groups of black musicians, mostly self taught, who led funeral processions, in New Orleans played an important role in the articulation and dissemination of early jazz; traveling throughout black communities in the Deep South and to northern cities.

Jazz as a genre is often very hard to explain, but improvisation is a key element of the form. Improvisation has been an essential element in African and African-American music since early forms of the music developed, and is closely related to the use of call and response in West African and African-American cultural expression.

That is why jazz is the perfect accompaniment for the poets who are featured on my show. In as much as Jazz represents the best in musical interpretation, poetry represents the best in lyrical interpretation. Next month we’ll take a look at how poetry has developed and from there discover together some of the milestones within both genres of expression.