A quintessential African American art form, jazz is among the most beloved and celebrated musical genres in the world. NMAAM’s A Love Supreme gallery, named for John Coltrane’s masterpiece, pays tribute to some of jazz’s greatest artists, legendary compositions, and iconic moments, and explores its rich history from the 19th century to the modern age.

Not unlike its predecessors, gospel and blues, jazz’s roots derive from African musical customs that evolved during the course of the slavery and colonial eras. Its earliest iterations emerged in the mid-late 18th century in New Orleans, specifically in Congo Square, where enslaved African Americans would gather on Sundays to socialize. Music and dance were central to these gatherings, which frequently included drum circles that married African and Caribbean rhythms and sounds. Similar to the blues before it, indigenous African, European, and distinctly African American musical traditions comprise jazz’s DNA. These early drum circles in Congo Square often incorporated horns, providing a crucial cultural tie to the burgeoning musical form’s African lineage. The polyrhythms and synchronization that have become synonymous with jazz are equally important to its African and Caribbean heritage, and serve as the foundation for jazz’s signature structure.

In the latter part of the 1800s, brass bands began to gain popularity in large urban areas, further advancing the genre that would become jazz. Ironically, brass bands relied on horns and drums, instruments that had been outlawed by slave codes prior to Emancipation. In many circles, music held the distinction of being one of a few appropriate occupations for the formerly enslaved, and learning to read, write, and play music became integral to African American culture.  

Among jazz’s premier architects is cornetist Charles “Buddy” Bolden, considered among many historians and purists as the father of jazz. An innovative and intriguing soloist, Bolden co-mingled elements from gospel, blues, and ragtime for his popular compositions like “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”

Scott Joplin, whose ragtime composition “Maple Leaf Rag” sparked a frenzy among both audiences and musicians, is another of the genre’s pivotal figures. His most famous piece, “The Entertainer,” inspired bandleaders and artists far and wide, and helped introduce Black composers and their music to audiences in the U.S. and overseas. 

As more and more African Americans headed to the north, west, and midwest during the Great Migration, jazz experienced its own evolution, eventually becoming the soundtrack to the Roaring ‘20s. Despite its growing popularity, record companies had been hesitant to record much jazz music up to that point; when they did, it was almost always with white musicians. With the rise of race records at the start of the 1920s, however, record labels changed their tune and began recording jazz records with African American performers. Jazz continued to thrive in urban areas throughout the decade, introducing audiences to the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Jellyroll Morton, and countless others. Jazz found its way to Broadway in 1921 by way of the all-Black production, Shuffle Along, which starred Armstrong, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, and Ethel Waters, and featured music composed by James Herbert “Eubie” Blake and Noble Sissle.

Just as the field hollers and spirituals of the slavery era carried messages of resistance and protest, and post-Reconstruction era blues songs often spoke to individual dreams and aspirations, jazz served not only as entertainment but also as social commentary. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” chronicles the terror of the American south and would become one of the most recognizable and long-lasting treatises on racism and racial violence ever put to music. While African Americans enjoyed slightly greater levels of mobility and access in cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, racism remained alive and well throughout the United States–not just in the south. Black performers regularly faced the humiliation of having to use separate entrances, green rooms, and dressing areas from their white counterparts, despite sharing the stage each night.

As jazz’s popularity continued to grow, new ways of expressing the music emerged. Bandleader Benny Goodman, a Jewish American clarinetist who played with Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Lionel Hampton, among others, was among the artists who pioneered what came to be known as swing. Count Basie, Cab Calloway, and Louis Jordan also popularized the style. During WWII, with jazz having been designated as “degenerate” music according to Nazi Germany, swing came to symbolize freedom, resistance, and American individualism. 

By the early 1950s, bebop had begun to take centerstage, particularly among younger players and aficionados who felt swing had become too homogenous. Bebop distinguished itself from earlier styles of jazz with more complex harmonies, fast-paced solos, and a modernized approach to piano playing. Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Max Roach are just a few of the musicians who helped usher in this new sound. At the same time, Latin jazz reasserted the genre’s Caribbean roots and returned danceability to the artform; and with the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s, jazz musicians ventured even further to discover and incorporate musical influences from across the African Diaspora, India, South America, and Asia. Jazz became a global musical phenomenon, pushing boundaries and borders.

Jazz’s evolution continued well into the late 20th century, with legends like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock building on the genre’s earlier expressions and introducing new elements, instruments, players, and sounds to the art form in the 1980s. Electric jazz and fusion jazz traded in traditional instruments for electric guitars and basses, synthesizers, and other so-called “plugged-in” instruments, and eventually, hip-hop rhythms and sounds. Neo-traditional jazz shared this timeline, signaling a return to jazz’s origins with an eye towards a more pure sound as heralded by trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis. Towards the end of the Millennium, the artfully-dubbed “Young Lions” breathed new life into jazz by blending a throwback ‘60s hard bop vibe with a decidedly futuristic attitude. Artists like Roy Hargrove, Terri Lynne Carrington, and Marcus Miller contributed to the genre’s revitalization, particularly among African American audiences. 

As we approach the second decade of the 21st century, jazz remains a vital global musical art form. Musicians such as Esperanza Spalding, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter, and Kamasi Washington uphold jazz’s core principles of experimentation, improvisation, and spontaneity, and jazz veterans like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Wayne Shorter, and Jimmy Cobb continue to perform and mentor young artists.

Be among the first to experience the A Love Supreme exhibit and all of our galleries when you become a NMAAM Legacy Member. Visit nmaam.org/membership to join!