To celebrate Black History Month, let’s find out about the fascinating history of the musical genre of jazz…

A brief history of jazz

It’s difficult to say exactly when jazz began as it grew out of several different styles and musical traditions in the American south during the late 19th century. It originated in New Orleans, Louisiana, where both enslaved and free people of colour from a variety of cultural heritages would go to the Congo Square to meet and play music. Their music came from a wide variety of countries, principally from Africa and the Caribbean.

To learn more, watch The History of Jazz video. Can you find out:

  • When did the jazz age take place?
  • What are different genres of music which influenced jazz?
  • What’s the name of the fancy rhythms used in jazz?
  • What is improvisation?

Interesting facts about jazz

  • The word Jazz is believed to come from the word ‘jasm’ which is a slang word from the 1800s that meant “pep, energy”.
  • Jazz has evolved so much since its creation that there are now over 40 types and subgenres that have grown from it!
  • Many jazz musicians develop secret signals such as pointed fingers or head nods to cue in different parts of the songs they are playing.
  • Some of the most famous jazz performers of all time include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.

Listen to Ella and Duke performing It Don’t Mean A Thing.

Musical elements of jazz

The different jazz styles share 3 musical elements:


Improvisation is at the core of jazz, which means that it is often the case that no two performances of the same song will sound the same. Jazz players must be able to adapt or create their own music in the moment and show a level of originality in the composition.


Syncopation is a musical technique where stress or emphasis is placed on a normally unstressed beat. It can also include entirely missing a beat where a stressed beat would be expected.

Call and Response

An interesting element of jazz that has grown from its African and Black American roots is the call and response. It’s a simple technique where the soloist or singer will make the call – known as “raising the song” – and the supporting players/singers will respond – or “agree underneath the song”.

  • Why not have a go at call and response? Try out this fun jazz activity designed by our wonderful work experience students Paris, Kwadwo and Harry!

Jazz instruments

Any musical instrument can be used to play jazz. Back in New Orleans, the original jazz bands found their roots in marching bands and often comprised of a trumpet, trombone, clarinet, double bass and sometimes a piano. Let’s have a listen to some of the most popular jazz instruments of the last 120 years.


The trumpet is one of the most iconic soloist instruments found in a jazz band and famous for its screaming high notes and the unique trumpet “growl”.

  • Listen to Miles Davis improvising on the trumpet.


The saxophone was developed in the 19th century by Adolf Sax as a mix between a clarinet and a brass instrument. It is used in a wide range of musical styles, including classical music, and came into use by jazz musicians in the 1920s.

  • Listen to Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins improvising the saxophone


The piano has always been a staple of jazz bands. Its ability to play either individual notes or chords lends it a flexibility not found in many other jazz instruments.

  • Listen to Nina Simone improvising on the piano.


A key element of jazz is its focus on rhythm. While drums are often a supporting instrument, a well-executed drum solo is often a highlight of any jazz performance.

  • Listen to Buddy Rich improvising on the drums.

Double Bass

The double bass provides the bass line for a jazz ensemble, supporting the bands sense of rhythm. You can sometimes hear a distinctive ‘slap’ style where players will pull on the strings to make a slapping noise against the fingerboard.

  • Listen to Ray Brown improvising on the double bass.

Want to listen to some jazz played live?

The Howard Assembly Room often programmes jazz performances so keep an eye out!

Coming up next are the New Regency Orchestra on Saturday 28 October 2023 and Jasmine Myra + Emma Johnson on Sunday 26 November 2023.


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