One of the few music genres to truly originate in the United States, jazz was first developed in New Orleans, Louisiana. It was influenced by the sounds of the blues, ragtime, and traditional funeral music from the South. Generally a fast-paced genre, it is distinguished by its improvisational nature, syncopation, bent notes, and the “swing” created when musicians accent the beat by adding unexpected rhythm on the offbeat of a song.
To understand the spirit of jazz, one must understand the components that create its style. Listed below are the most common instrumental elements in the jazz genre.
Rhythm section instruments
To play standard jazz, a band needs rhythm instruments to provide percussion, a bass line, and harmony to its songs. The most common rhythm instruments in a jazz ensemble include bass, drums, piano, and guitar.
Though it can’t be heard as distinctly as other instruments, the bass plays a crucial role in jazz songs, laying a rhythmic foundation for the other instruments while simultaneously providing harmonic support. Early jazz bass lines were played on upright bass, though a majority of jazz bassists today prefer to play on electric models. Jazz bass is often played in the pizzicato style, in which a player forcefully plucks the instrument’s strings rather than strumming or tapping them.
As with many forms of contemporary music, the drums in jazz are responsible for pushing the movement of a song by keeping the beat. A jazz drummer, however, has the added responsibility of periodically altering his or her playing style to complement other musicians as they solo during a performance. This can mean that a jazz drummer plays softer in some parts of a song and then returns loudly in others, or may alter a beat mid-song in order to accent the notes of a soloist. Much of a jazz drummer’s performance is improvisational, as he or she must be able to react according to the improvisation of the lead musicians.
Jazz piano can be both a rhythm instrument and a harmony instrument. It can be played in such a way that it provides percussion to a song through a technique called “comping,” or it can be played softly, using single keys to create a melody. Jazz pianists often play rhythm with one hand while playing a melody with the other. The instrument’s 88 keys provide musicians with a wide range of notes to work with, giving it a dynamic role in jazz performance.
Like a pianist, the guitar player in a jazz ensemble can play a single-note melody in a song, or may play percussively, comping full chords to provide rhythmic support to the rest of the band. Some musicians will choose to use a solid body or semi-hollow body electric guitar in a jazz ensemble. However, hollow body archtop guitar has been a popular choice for jazz music since as early as the 1920s.
Horn section instruments
The horn instruments in a jazz ensemble are a collection of brass and woodwind instruments that are responsible for playing the melody of a song. The most common instruments in the horn section are the trumpet, trombone, and saxophone.
The trumpet is an iconic jazz instrument, first popularized by the likes of Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. Made from brass, the sound is controlled by three valves on the top of its body, which manipulate the notes created by a musician as he or she vibrates the lips and pushes air through the mouthpiece. Even with only three valves to work with, trumpet players are able to produce 45 distinct notes on the instrument, which they use to perform the energetic solos characteristic of jazz music.
The trombone is another brass instrument used to play melodies and solos in jazz songs. As with the trumpet, a trombone player vibrates his or her lips against the mouthpiece while blowing air into the instrument. A player uses a slide on the trombone’s body to change the pitch of the sound, producing loud, powerful notes that command attention during jazz songs.
Though it is made out of brass like the trumpet and the trombone, the saxophone is considered a woodwind instrument because of its single-reed mouthpiece. The saxophone’s brass body, combined with its woodwind mouthpiece, produces an intense vibrato in its notes, creating a popular, distinct sound. There are five different kinds of saxophone, including the soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass sax, with tenor and soprano being the most frequently used in jazz bands.
The voice as a jazz instrument
Though ensembles within the genre are frequently instrumental, some of the most popular jazz songs of all time feature vocalists. Singers like Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra all saw great popularity due to their work as jazz singers in the middle of the 20th century.
To perform jazz, vocalists sing at a pitch that is similar to a speaking tone. Professionals suggest that your singing voice in jazz should be a musical extension of the tone you use when talking. A jazz vocalist may also choose to employ an improvisational singing technique known as scat singing. To scat, a vocalist will periodically use emotive nonsense words or syllables to mimic a sound similar to that of a jazz instrument.