There's one word you can use against all those American culture bashers, all those noses-held-high-ers, a word that even invites reverence from the French: jazz. Part of the silver lining of a very stormy cloud in the U.S.'s history, jazz was the first (and some say the only) American-born art form.

Wait isn't jazz, like, a bunch of horns and stuff? We know, it's a bit overwhelming at first. Without understanding the history of jazz, it's damn near impossible to appreciate it. So we're here to teach you jazz's history and lead you through its progression. We'll introduce you to the forefathers, acquaint you with the sub-genres, and fill you in on all the terms. So put on your sunglasses, grab a glass of bourbon, and think of this as "Jazz 101." We'll collect your tuition money later.


Jazz began with slaves who were originally brought to the U.S. from West Africa. When these slaves got a break during the day or night, they would get together and make music. This particular music was a reminder of their home; a music full of rhythmic complexity and syncopation. Syncopation is when the accentuation comes off the beat. In other words, if you've got a 1-2-3-4 beat going, and you hit beat 3 a little before or a little after its turn, you've got syncopation.

Being in America, slaves were exposed to many types of European music-and especially instruments-while in captivity. The result of this hybrid slave music is jazz. So, to understand jazz, it's best to compare African music with its European counterpart at the time of slavery, and then imagine how the two might meld together. Here's a step-by-step explanation:

  • As we just mentioned, the rhythm of African music had syncopation. It was also additive, meaning that there were many lines of rhythm playing at once, each musician entering on top of the other. It usually wouldn't have a steady beat; rather, it was asymmetrical. European rhythm, on the other hand, was fairly rigid; time was divided evenly and almost always adhered to.

  • The two forms of music used different notes. European music used the diatonic scale, which is simply the twelve notes you see repeated on piano keyboards, A through G with flats and sharps in between. The diatonic is still by far the most popular scale in Western music. African music also used the diatonic scale, but they incorporated other sounds as well. Over time, this became known as the blues scale.

  • The diatonic can be played in the major scale, which will sound more positive, or it can be played in the minor scale, for (often) a sadder sound. There are other variations, but the major and minor are the main scales, and they are played through choosing certain notes out of the diatonic and excluding others.

  • The blues scale is neither major nor minor; it is a combination of both. Because of this, it produces many odd-sounding notes, which are called blue notes. You instinctively hear these notes as differing from normal scales and, when listening carefully, they are liable to really stand out. This is because, whether you know the terminology or not, you know the major and minor scale from all that music you've already heard, all the times the soundtrack of a movie made you feel the way you're supposed to at that point in the story. You already know what diatonic music is like, so you recognize the notes outside the normal sound (that is, the blue notes). Jazz uses both the diatonic and blues scale.

  • African music would bend notes and go to the in-betweens often as well, creating what are called tambral effects. European music had little of this, partially because many European instruments were incapable of tambral effects (you try bending a piano key).

  • African music also was not written, was not memorized, but was spontaneous and improvised. Contrast that with the score of Mozart opera, and you see what we're getting at.

  • Since it kept to relatively rigid guidelines, European music had to find its creativity elsewhere. This emerged in harmony. Not used in Africa, harmony is when two or more notes are played together and they sound especially nice. Play two lines of such notes at the same time and you've got a melody echoed by a counterpoint, if you're into vocab.

  • In addition to these differences, African music also practiced call-and-response, where a leader sings a line and the listeners all repeat. Call-and-response can still be seen all over the place, in some church meetings, in banjo wars, and of course, in jazz.