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What is jazz? Here are some (attributed) answers from the best and most influential jazz musicians of all time:

"Man, if you have to ask what it is, you'll never know."

I'll play it first and tell you what it is later.

"Jazz is the type of music that can absorb so many things and still be jazz."
Sonny Rollins

"Jazz is freedom. You think about that."
Thelonius Monk

OK, OK, that probably didn't help much, but in our defense, defining jazz really is hard (just look at the Other Wiki has to say about that!). So maybe we can just stick with the following: At its heart, jazz is about spontaneity. That usually means improvising, the art of playing (to a greater or lesser extent) without a script and being free to play whatever you like, sometimes without even confines of traditional music structure (which is what Free Jazz is all about).

Jazz started out in the United States in the beginning of the 20th century as 'black music' and is closely related to Blues, to the extent that many famous jazz compositions can be considered Blues pieces. Since then, there have been different forms of jazz, listed roughly in historical order: New Orleans, Swing/Big Band, Bebop, Cool, Modal, Free Jazz, Fusion, Nu Jazz... and this is a very incomplete list.

Jazz itself probably started out in a small band format in many different cities throughout the US, most famously New Orleans. It became the most popular type of music in the US in its Big Band format (10-30 musicians) during the Twenties to Forties. Then it evolved into a multitude of different styles, pretty much all of which were played by small bands (duos to octets), starting out with Bebop. The emphasis also changed back to playing more in Jazz clubs and having fewer concerts (with some important exceptions, such as the Newport Jazz Festival). The ascension of pop music and Rock and Roll in The Fifties led to the fading of Jazz's popularity. Jazz today has, for the most part, a sizable but 'cult' following. Somewhat amusingly (and probably shockingly to the original founders of the genre), Jazz has become "respectable" music thanks to the development of technical artistry; jazz is now taught alongside Classical Music in many university music departments across the US--unheard-of for any other genre.

Jazz has left a deep impression in music. Improvised and/or extended solos are the primary example of this. Jazz also contributed to the development of musical instruments, most famously the modern drum set, which was largely developed by early Jazz musicians.

Jazz is one of the most unique cultural contributions that the United States brought to the world, along with Rock and Roll.

Finally, a note on the name: there are many, many, many ideas for where and how the word originated.

Notable Jazz artists include (note, some of these musicians belong in multiple categories!):

Big Band Era

  • "Jelly Roll" Morton: New Orleans-style jazz pianist and the genre's first great composer. Also an inveterate braggart who claimed to have single-handedly invented jazz.
  • Buddy Bolden:
  • Dominic "Nic" La Rocca: A highly controversial figure in jazz history, trumpet/cornet player La Rocca was the leader of the Original Dixieland Jass Band. He's probably the first jazz musician who was ever recorded, and the first to outsell John Phillip Sousa, who had the best-selling artist in America at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the same time, he was notorious for claiming that jazz was exclusively an invention of white musicians and trying to bribe other trumpeters to leave New Orleans so he could be the best in the city.
  • Paul Whiteman: Known as the "King of Jazz", Whiteman was one of the first white bandleaders and arguably responsible for bringing jazz as a genre to mainstream attention. Having been trained as a classical violinist, he received some criticism from other classical musicians for "playing below himself", while some black musiciains felt he was becoming famous by copying their style. Nonetheless, he helped to introduce the style to white audiences and did his best to give credit to black musicians whenever he could.
  • Louis Armstrong: A massively influential jazz musician, played the trumpet and cornet, and engaged in a fifty-year career in jazz. He is considered the Trope Maker or Trope Codifier for many basic elements of jazz, including improvisation and scat singing.
  • Duke Ellington: One of the greatest popular composers of all time, and a damn good pianist and bandleader too.
  • Count Basie: Jazz composer and bandleader (and pianist as well) at the same time as Ellington, Basie's unique styles mark him solidly as a quintessential Big Band leader, along with Ellington. Developing his style with a number of orchestras, Basie specialised in riff-based jazz, which is Exactly What It Says on the Tin.
  • Benny Goodman: A classically trained clarinet player known as the "King of Swing", Goodman was responsible for helping to bring hot swing which focused on improvisation into the mainstream in the 1930s, and made an effort to employ black musicians at a time when the music industry was segregated.
  • Fats Waller
  • Art Tatum: An almost completely blind jazz pianist, whose technique is something that, that, ... Just see for yourself. No wonder too, as (so legend goes) he learned to play by repeating the movements on a autopiano... which played pieces for four hands!
  • Bix Biederbecke: A celebrated trumpeter and cornetist whose playing foreshadowed cool jazz and bebop. He played with a number of groups, recorded prolifically and was said to be Louis Armstrong's only true equal as a horn player before dying at a young age.
  • Django Reinhardt: The first non-American jazz innovator, and one of the most influential guitar players of the 20th century. With the Quartet/Quintet of the Hot Club of France, he replicated swing with an all-string ensemble, inventing the sub-genre known as Gypsy jazz.
  • The Andrews Sisters : While they were actually a singing trio, they worked with many bands during WWII and were the original Blonde, Brunette, Redhead.
  • Ella Fitzgerald: One of the most well-known jazz vocalists of all time, her range, accuracy, sense of swing, and the cheerful quality of her voice led many to consider her one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, period. Expect Vocal Dissonance (Sorry Ella). She was the singer in Chick Webb's orchestra and took over as leader after his death. After the swing era came to a close she remained popular and pioneered singing in a bop style.
  • Cab Calloway: One of the other Trope Codifiers of scat singing, like Louis Armstrong. He was one of the first African-American performers to make it big, performing alongside Al Jolson at one point. He was also known for his dance moves, and brought Jazz to a wider audience by appearing in Betty Boop cartoons.
  • Glenn Miller: One of the most popular band leaders, he led his orchestra as one of the biggest record sellers from 1939 to his (literal) dissappearance in late 1944. His greatest hit was "In The Mood", not counting his work with the Andrews Sisters. Expect on of his pieces in any WWII setting.

Bebop, Cool and Modal

  • Miles Davis: jazz trumpet virtuoso started in bebop, went on to pioneer multiple styles of jazz (Modal jazz, Cool jazz, and Fusion, among others). His 1959 album Kind of Blue is the best selling jazz album in history, with 1970's Bitches Brew not far behind.
  • Art Blakey: Brilliant drummer whose band, the Jazz Messengers, created almost as many big names as Coltrane's various lineups. His style of playing Jazz is also probably the Trope Codifier for the hard bop that pretty much defines mainstream jazz.
  • Charlie Parker: Saxophonist whose virtuoso approaches to rhythm, harmony, and tempo laid the foundations of Bebop and revolutionized Jazz (and music itself!) like few others.
  • John Coltrane: Master saxophonist and spiritual thinker who covered nearly every jazz style of his time (even creating a few); many great jazz musicians, from the 50's to the 70's, and beyond went through his band for at least a short time.
  • The Dave Brubeck Quartet: Redefined what could be done with bebop, bringing avant-garde polyrhythm and polyphone to the masses with such oddly-timed instant classics as "Take Five," "Blue Rondo a la Turk" and "Unsquare Dance."
  • Thelonious Monk: Best known not for his beard, his odd onstage antics, or his collection of unusual hats, but for his idiosyncratic style of playing — you have to be a really good musician to play that haphazardly and still make it come out exactly right. He also wrote who knows how many Jazz standards.
  • Charles Mingus: The angry man of jazz, absolutely brilliant and over-opinionated in every place that counted. Known for taking pot shots at other jazz musicians, being a brilliant social activist, and writing a guide for how to toilet-train cats.
  • Dexter Gordon: A Tenor Sax phenom who helped spread bebop to other instruments.
  • Oscar Peterson: A Canadian jazz piano legend who was and still is often compared to Art Tatum in terms of virtuosity; indeed, Tatum was a major influence, but Oscar's style was more contemporary to the early bebop era of the mid 1940's (as opposed to the swing era of the 30's) while maintaining some of the more melodic idioms of swing as well as incredible ballad and blues playing.
  • Sonny Rollins: a saxophonist whose career is one of the longest and most influential in jazz history, starting from the late 40s to this very day! (please don't confuse him with Henry Rollins)
  • Wayne Shorter: together with Sonny, one of Bebop's last living legends, a saxophonist that was and remains very influential as a member of Miles Davis' group, the seminal jazz-rock band Weather Report and as a solo performer.
  • Joe Pass: one of the most influential guitarists of bebop.
  • Vince Guaraldi: A famous jazz pianist who is most famous for his scores for the early Peanuts animated specials. For instance, his A Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack has become a perennial holiday classic and many kids' first introduction to jazz.

Fusion, Free Jazz and Contemporary Jazz

  • Ornette Coleman: Made the legendary Free Jazz which broke every single musical rule possible.
  • Weather Report: A jazz fusion band formed by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and the afformentioned Wayne Shorter, both members of Miles Davis' jazz fusion-era quartet. Among the band's best known recordings is the Grammy nominated 1977 album Heavy Weather, one of the best selling jazz fusion records of all time. During the late 70's and early 80's, the band's lineup famously included...
    • Jaco Pastorius: Widely considered to be the most innovative bass player ever. Pretty much every modern jazz bassist cites him as a major influence.
  • Herbie Hancock: Wrote three of modern jazz's standards — "Cantaloupe Island," "Dolphin Dance" and "Watermelon Man." His lineup on the Headhunters album more or less created jazz fusion by adding funk influences into the mix. The first artist to have a jazz-hiphop crossover hit with "Rockit", memorable now for its Mind Screw of a video.
  • Medeski Martin & Wood: Brought fusion into the 21st century with a mix of funk and hip-hop.
  • Wynton Marsalis: a controversial musician, but probably the most famous and popular living jazz musician (together with Sonny Rollins), who plays a more 'traditional' Jazz, with heavy influences from anything up to the Bebop and Cool jazz era.
    • On the other hand, his similarly acclaimed brother Branford is much more open to new styles and experimentation - he played on a Public Enemy track, for starters.
  • St Germain: a French musician, he's among the pioneers of Nu Jazz and the most famous exponent, combining eletronic music with jazz.
  • Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band: An American big band led by tenor saxophonist, pianist, songwriter and conductor Gordon Goodwin, the Big Phat Band has played just about every style of jazz and has included or collaborated with many of the big names in contemporary jazz music.
  • Kenny G: He has to be mentioned to some extent. An American saxophonist, Kenny G is probably the most successful jazz musician worldwide in terms of record sales, but he's probably the most controversial musician on this list. He's the best known exponent of "smooth jazz", a sub-genre which has been criticized by jazz critics and fans[1] for being barely one step above Easy Listening lounge music. To his credit, though, he defines his own music as "instrumental pop" rather than jazz.
  1. Virtually anyone who enjoys the music made by ANY of the musicians listed above would seriously dispute whether Kenny G can be called a jazz musician