When most people think of the Jazz Age, they think of the Roaring ‘20s, The Great Gatsby, flapper dresses, and sultry crooners. None of this is wrong, but it barely scratches the surface of what the concept and the cultural movement known as jazz really encompasses. In fact, many historians actually cite the Jazz Age as officially starting at the endof the Great Depression rather at the end of World War I, which would have placed its start at the beginning of the Roaring ‘20s. Regardless of the dates you pick for the initiation of this long-lasting cultural phenomenon, however, knowing these five surprising facts about jazz will help you better appreciate it in every era in which it has appeared and, even more importantly, its presence in music today.
Surprising Jazz Fact #1: There was a strong, organized opposition to jazz music when it first appeared on the scene.
While many people immediately loved the creativity and flexibility that jazz permitted musicians, a large population of classically trained musicians and people who appreciated classical music objected strongly to the concept of jazz even if they enjoyed the sound. The reason? Jazz musicians often learned their skills through practice and experimentation rather than through classical training. Whether traditional musicians felt threatened by the emergence of an untrained population of musicians or they just did not appreciate the new sound, there was an organized movement in the music industry against jazz before it was fully adopted as a new, exciting genre of music.
Surprising Jazz Fact #2: Early musicologists tried to classify jazz by race.
In a move typical of the era in many ways, early musicologists tried to establish different types of jazz for difference races. One musicologist went so far as to propose that there were three different types of jazz: white jazz musicians playing for white audiences, black jazz musicians playing for black audiences, and black jazz musicians playing for white audiences. He tried to clearly define each sound and make the case that the three “types” of music could not overlap, but soon was proven wrong as the jazz sound evolved and, ultimately, resulted in some of the earliest desegregation of music clubs and stages in the country.
Surprising Jazz Fact #3: There are at least 8 ways to spell “jazz.”
Jazz was originally a slang word and spelled in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes it was spelled jas, jass, jaz, or jasz. Some historians believe the word was originally pulled from slang used in baseball to describe a player who played with passion or fighting spirit, while others speculate the original manifestation of the term was a word with strong sexual connotations. Today, the conventional spelling is the familiar “jazz,” and all of the historical connotations of the word have been wrapped up in the full, flexible, strong and sensual sounds of this type of music over the ages.
Surprising Jazz Fact #4: Jazz musicians have secret signals.
Ever wonder how jazz musicians can all improvise together to make such incredible music, even when they are playing a timeless classic? Well the secret lies in the band’s subtle signals to each other that let each musician know what is coming next. For example, a musician playing a solo will usually give the rest of the band a heads-up that the solo is nearly done by nodding their head in a certain way or even pointing theatrically to the next musician up for the spotlight. They may also use a finger to point to their heads, meaning that it is time to return to the “head” or original melody of the song. Watch closely next time you attend a jazz performance and you will likely spot the secret signals passed from band member to band member.
Surprising Jazz Fact #5: Hipsters owe their nomenclature to jazz.
While most jazz musicians are not necessarily bearded and wearing beanies or berets, their musical movement originally coined the phrase that now describes a generation of somewhat disaffected young people with lumberjack beards and a fondness for flannel. Before jazz musicians began referring to themselves as “jazz cats,” they sometimes referred to themselves as “Hepsters” or “hep cats,” meaning they were cool and knowledgeable. This slang came from a 1930s term, “hep,” which eventually evolved into today’s “hip” and the generational description, “hipster.”
Now that you have some serious insider knowledge about jazz music, it is time to put that knowledge into action. Find a jazz venue near you and attend a live performance. The music will definitely be a new experience for you now that you are a hep-cat-in-training yourself.