Classical Jazz Music


Europe sent classical music to America – but America introduced jazz to the world. It grew out of the rhythms of Africa and the Caribbean, blossoming in cities from New Orleans to New York. That free-spirited sound soon found its way into the concert hall, and voilà! Classical jazz was born. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample ragtime, Gershwin and even a fun taste of Broadway – Russian style!


Louis Armstrong said it best: “If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know.” That may be true, but it's a musical genre that most of us can recognize after only a minute or two of listening. Jazz has foot-tapping, syncopated rhythms and a spontaneity, unpredictability, virtuosity and, most of all, unbridled joy that few can resist. By the early part of the 20th Century, it had begun to exert its sway in this country, mainly in big cities such as New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago and New York. It was heard in speak-easy clubs and dance halls, sending couples out onto the dance floor to shake and shimmy to the lively, finger-snapping beat. Soon, it showed up in Broadway shows and revues, inspiring a generation of young song-smiths – among them a Brooklynite named Gershwin. When George Gershwin sat at the piano in New York City's Aeolian Hall and premiered his Rhapsody in Blue, accompanied by Paul Whiteman's orchestra on that memorable afternoon in February, 1924, his audience went crazy. Among those packing the room were Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Heifetz, Sousa, Stokowski and other stars of the concert hall, who were quite impressed. Jazz had crossed over to classical, and soon serious composers would be experimenting with it, excited by the new possibilities of the music's infectious rhythms and unlimited possibilities. Some of the results were more successful than others, with Gershwin leading the pack thanks to his natural affinity for this new genre. It didn't take long for classical jazz to cross the Atlantic to Europe and points east. In France, Debussy and Ravel were smitten by it and produced a handful of works that captured the flavor of this truly American sound. Even Shostakovich and Prokofiev in Russia tried their hand at it. Back home, a number of brilliant African-American jazz musicians, led by Duke Ellington, emerged from the smoky world of those hidden dance halls and clubs to bring a more authentic feel to this increasingly popular idiom. And it wasn't just the men creating jazz classics – a talented young woman named Dana Suesse (known as “The Girl Gershwin”), who'd penned a number of hit tunes, including the Hollywood anthem, “You Ought to Be in Pictures,” began writing jazzy pieces for orchestra. Composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein created bouncy works for the concert-hall and Broadway stage, along with ballet and film scores that mixed snappy dance rhythms with slithery, blues-flavored melodies. These days, jazz isn't as big as it once was, having been supplanted by the unstoppable popularity of rock 'n' roll, but the music born in that exciting stretch between the '20s and the '60s produced a variety of memorable tunes by a diverse group of composers and gifted players. By hooking onto this American sound, they brought a much-needed vitality and fun to the culture of this country, and gave the world a new music.

Exploration Questions

  • What was the relationship between Gershwin and Ravel?
  • What earlier types of music helped pave the way for jazz?
  • Who were the most prominent jazz musicians who also played classical?

Reflective Questions

  • Which jazz styles do you prefer – big band, cool, be-bop, fusion, free-form, solo piano?
  • Why are instrumental jazz performances so dominated by men?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Szwed, John. Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. Hachette Books. 2000. 368 pages. It's an impossible subject to cover in a single volume, but Szwed does an admirable job of touching on the long and fascinating history of this American art form – doing so in clear, readable fashion. Recommended performances and recordings are listed.
    Click here to order
  • Blesh, Rudi. They All Played Ragtime. Oak Publications. 1974 (revised edition). 347 pages. Lovers of this music simply must have this authoritative source, which has long served as the “bible” for ragtime fans.