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Essay on Jazz: Definition, Origin and Its Main Subgenre – Orchestral Jazz – Free Essay Example

This essay covers the definition and origins of jazz, how jazz started developing over the years and the changes involved. It will then focus on one of the many subgenres of jazz, orchestral jazz, and one of George Gershwin’s orchestral jazz compositions called ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.

Starting off with what jazz is. Since jazz was described as “a piece of music entirely surrounded by noise” in 1919, countless attempts have been made to give it some kind of definition, but none of them were completely acceptable (Boulton, 1959, pp. 97). There were the technical definitions which described the music in terms of rhythmic and harmonic structure, and the sociological definitions which described it in terms of a specific place, time, and circumstances. “Jazz is a form of art music developed by black Americans around 1900 that draws upon a variety of sources from Africa, Europe and America” (Townsend, 2000). Jazz, as a part of American music, can be identified through its rhythms, repertoire, use of improvisation and its approach to instrumental sound and technique. These characteristics are indicated in the description of jazz music. Jazz was the first fine-art form created by the American Negro with its richness of content, complexity of development, and distinctive musical character. According to Boulton, “Jazz must be viewed in perspective against the background of music as a whole”, the background of folk-music, art music and the various forms of commercial music” (Boulton, 1959). It considers itself a mystery. When Louis Armstrong was asked what jazz music was, he answered, “If you gotta ask, you’ll never know” (Collier, 1978, pp. 4).

Jazz emerged around 1900 in New Orleans, by the merging of several existing popular musical styles, mainly ragtime and the blues. Ragtime was very popular in all sectors of the American population from 1890 onwards, having a solo piano performance with a rhythmically lively style which made use of syncopation patterns that had long been known in black American music, possibly even in its African origins, and improvisation which was an element in the musical culture surrounding ragtime. The blues, which emerged in the late nineteenth century, was based on a three-line verse form with an easy repeated harmonic sequence. The earliest forms of what current listeners would recognize as jazz resulted from the combination of the materials and the approaches, mainly of ragtime and blues. As ragtime and blues drifted towards jazz, what was produced combined the musical discipline and respective complexity of ragtime, the individualized and improvisatory characteristics of the blues and the musical materials of both forms. The third element was the more formal and European brass-band tradition, which influenced the instrumentation and the repertoire of early jazz.

In New Orleans, soon after liberation, an exceptional sequence of circumstances took place that could not have happened elsewhere and can never happen again, even there. From them jazz emerged. It began not only as one more form of Negro folk music in America, but as a combination of all the Negro music already present. “Jazz is the music that the whites in New Orleans saw only as ‘nigger’ music, scarcely as important, even, as those silly, shallow, and condescending white imitations of Negro song, the minstrel melody and ‘coon’ song’ (Blesh, 1949, pp. 3-4). According to Blesh, it was something to be listened to with cautious pleasure in the honky-tonk or in the Negro street parades that, even today, the white children are not freely allowed to follow. In the years of World War I, jazz was welcomed by the white public as nothing than a delightful aid to dancing or as a phenomenon of war hysteria. In the early 1900s, early jazz music began to be important in social events, which arose many job opportunities for musicians. Jazz was now very common in and around New Orleans, and each ethnic group in New Orleans contributed to the very lively musical environment in the city, which led to the development of early jazz. A famous example of early ethnic influences, which was documented in New Orleans, significant to the origins of jazz is the African dance and drumming tradition. By the mid-18th century, slaves got together socially on Sundays at a special market outside the city’s rampart. The area was then known as Congo Square later on, whereby its African dances and the preservation of African musical and cultural elements were very well known. As it became more successful, early jazz started to move towards other cities and it gradually became a part of show tours.

The earliest recordings in the New Orleans style were created by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), beginning in 1917. Their popularity caused an extensive amount of uncomprehending press comment which marked the first prevalent acknowledgment of jazz’s existence. This led to the band becoming the earliest jazz group to perform outside the USA. The year of the ODJB’s emergence into fame, which was in 1917, has also constantly been referred to as the date of the ‘birth’ of jazz. New Orleans musicians and musical styles continued to influence jazz nationally as the music faced a rapid sequence of stylistic changes. During the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, jazz became the unchallenged popular music of America. Later innovations, such as bebop in the 1940s and avant-garde in the 1960s, left further from the New Orleans tradition.

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“The period of jazz history since the early 1980s has been variously described as one of conservatism, pluralism or fragmentation” (Townsend, 2000, pp. 7). However, the variety of styles of jazz music being performed was wider in the 1990s than ever before. According to Townsend, one development seems possible in the long term even to challenge the idea of jazz as an American music. To the jazz foundation of rhythmic improvisation, musicians of other traditions and nationalities have included their own folk music segments, and a particular American jazz has been included in a global view of improvised music which is still usually classified as jazz, but which sometimes strains the elasticity of the term to its limits. At the same time, the entire range of old and new jazz styles continues to be played. Throughout the USA and in almost all other industrialized societies, there are groups of musicians who have decided to recreate and keep all the past styles of jazz alive, from turn of the century ragtime to 1970s jazz-funk.

There’s so much more behind the term ‘jazz’, which is why it is very generic when using ‘jazz’ without being specific of what kind. There are so many different styles subgenres of jazz that began with Dixieland and gradually developed over time, moving drastically through the changes all the way to Fusion or new generation. Many brilliant famous musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis contributed and caused the evolution of jazz. Post-war depression and the break-up of the big bands also led to a focus on the smaller ensemble sound and the emancipation of jazz styles. Jazz developed many different styles including traditional jazz, swing, bebop, cool jazz, and others, while also spreading from the United States to many parts of the world at the same time. Since the 1920s, jazz went through various stylistic transformations.

The distribution of recordings continued to be of huge importance in the growth and evolution of jazz ever since, enabling the music to be known and studied at first throughout the USA followed by in other parts of the world, above all in Europe.

I will now be focusing on one specific jazz subgenre, orchestral jazz, instead of only speaking about the vague term ‘jazz’, whereby it has its own special characteristics that are different from the other jazz styles subgenres.

Orchestral jazz refers to music that combines jazz and classical compositional elements. In the 1920s, the genre became known as orchestral jazz, a term frequently credited to Paul Whiteman. Orchestral jazz of the 1920s significantly influenced a wide variety of American musical traditions well into the 1950s. In spite of its broad legacy, it is now often remembered as just a minor footnote in most modern-day histories of American music. One example of an orchestral jazz work is George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, which is one of the most famous concert works, being premiered with much fanfare by the dance band leader Paul Whiteman at his ‘First Experiment in Modern Music’ concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1924, and orchestrated by composer Ferde Grofe. “Orchestral jazz sound developed an unusual cultural breadth that spanned the concert hall, jazz and dance bands, radio orchestras, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musical theater, the variety prologue shows of the deluxe movie palaces, and certain genres of film music of the late 1920s and 1930s” (Howland, 2009, pp. 2).

Paul Whiteman (1890-1967) was the leader of America’s most popular orchestra-band in the 1920s, and is an influential figure to Gershwin. Whiteman supported the idea of orchestral jazz, which combined the sounds of classical, early jazz blues, and pop music. He was the first to write an orchestral score for jazz, and was credited as the person who brought jazz music from Tin Pan Alley into the concert hall. He worked with George Gershwin in 1922 and 1923 and felt that Gershwin might fit into his vision of orchestral jazz. Whiteman led an oddly large ensemble and explored many styles of music, by blending symphonic orchestra, fox trots, and early jazz blues.

In orchestral jazz works, American composers mainly use romantic orchestra, with a string section and piano as a solo instrument, and also including instruments of jazz tradition and effects inspired by swing bands. For example, the opening of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ started off with a trill, followed by a legato 17-note rising glissando of a diatonic scale, played by the clarinet. It is known as the famous opening clarinet glissando that became as familiar as the start of Beethoven’s ‘Fifth’. The glissando is inspired by the practice of jazz musicians, especially trumpeters, of pitch bending sounds through an ascending or descending glissando. Another feature of jazz found in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is flutter tonguing done by the woodwind players. It is a common jazz feature, especially in New Orleans or Vaudeville style.

Gershwin also combined classical orchestration with jazz orchestration, using jazz instruments such as the saxophones, and classical instruments that were used with a jazz perspective such as muted trumpets, so as to succeed in creating a classical and jazz combinations. The following shows the instrumentation of the 1942 version for full symphony orchestra of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’:

  • Woodwinds: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in B-flat and A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 2 alto saxophones in E-flat, tenor saxophone in B-flat;
  • Brass: 3 French horns in F, 3 trumpets in B-flat, 3 trombones, tuba;
  • Rhythmpercussion: banjo, timpani, crash cymbal, snare drum, bass drum, gong, triangle, glockenspiel and cymbals;
  • Strings: first and second violins, violas, violoncellos and double basses;
  • Piano: soloist.

Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was unforgettable in the history of American music. It impacted many composers and performers at the premiere, as well as on Gershwin himself, for the amount of support he received encouraged him to work on more serious projects. ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ had greatly influenced several classical composers and many later jazz musicians.

In conclusion, the term ‘jazz’ covers a very broad selection of musical styles and subgenres, and each of them have their own individual unique characteristics and traits that set them apart from others in the genre. Jazz has broadened our artistic horizons immensely and has influenced our own musical practice. But more importantly, it is an art in itself, that is extremely different in concept and practice from our own. Jazz remains to be an exceptionally advanced art that continues to evolve and grow in many directions, influencing other genres and spreading across the country and the world, with more jazz musicians and jazz festivals being found in many nations.


  1. Boulton, D. (1959). What Is Jazz? Jazz in Britain. W.H. Allen.

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