Famous jazz musicians most certainly influenced just about every music genre that is heard today. Characterized by African and European sounds, a swing tempo and big brass instruments, jazz music and its famous musicians paved the way for future rock, country and hip hop music alike.
Louis Armstrong may be the most well known and influential jazz musician of all time. Born and raised in New Orleans, the city known as the birthplace of jazz, Armstrong began playing music at a very young age. When he dropped out of school in third grade, he formed a street roaming vocal quartet to help earn money for his single mother and their family; later Armstrong had an opportunity to play cornet in a boy's band.
It wasn't long before someone took notice of his natural talent. Joe "King" Oliver, a jazz cornet great, saw Armstrong playing a gig in a small blues club and became a mentor for him. Armstrong lived in St. Louis, Chicago and New York over the next years, playing in bands and steadily increasing his recognition and popularity. Armstrong was so influential because of his ability to improvise and effortlessly hit the high notes. His singing voice was also something the world had never heard: gravelly, raw and one of the first to introduce audiences to scat singing. Armstrong even went on to perform in films, enhancing his lengthy and hugely successful career.
Charlie Parker was one of the first great jazz saxophonists of the 40s and 50s. He played with local bands in Kansas City as a boy, eventually leaving school to pursue a career in music. Like most other jazz musicians, Parker traveled to Chicago and then New York City, the epicenters of jazz music at the time. He participated in a jazz orchestra out of Harlem and created many solo tunes. Parker experimented with the big band swing music of the era of the 40s and 50s, using it to create a fast paced jazz called bebop. Parker was most known for his creative improvisations and the complex nature of his new style of music.
Miles Davis, another famous jazz musician great, began playing the trumpet at the young age of 13. Davis studied music and had classical training through high school, leading him to excel early on, even playing his first professional gig when he was only 17. Attending Juilliard School of Music in New York, Davis learned about jazz through professional teaching and from the clubs downtown. Davis eventually strayed away from both Juilliard and bebop sound, creating a new sound of moodier and smoother cool jazz.
While he went through a period of struggle and drug addiction, Davis returned to the professional music scene in the mid 1950s to join a quintet that also included John Coltrane. The ensemble would produce some of the most widely known and prolific jazz music of the time.
Billie Holiday inadvertently stumbled upon jazz music but came to be regarded as one of the best jazz singers of all time. Forced to move to New York City to live with her mother, Holiday was left to fend for herself. Using her talent and vocal abilities just to make money to survive, Holiday got jobs in bars and nightclubs in Harlem, where the jazz scene was exploding. It was there that she was discovered by a record producer; she was soon recording her own songs.
Holiday soon went on tour with Artie Shaw, but found life on the road hard because of segregation and racism during the 30s and 40s. Best best known for her unique timing and her ability to perform a song differently every time she sang it, and has gone down in history as one of the most compelling vocalists of the jazz era.
By the end of Duke Ellington's long career, which clocked in at about a half century, he had performed almost 20,000 times, received countless awards and honors and had changed the face of jazz music forever.
Ellington first heard a piano being played while on a summer vacation as a child, and from that moment on, the youngster was hooked. He quickly began playing at bars and clubs around the Washington, D.C. area; he dropped out of school to follow his dream of being a professional musician. Ellington became popular in New York after landing some radio air time; it wasn't long before he was recording in studio and touring the country.
Ellington was not only an incredible pianist, but a renowned composer who also created a concert series at Carnegie Hall. He was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon for his incredible career.
In keeping with the jazz spirit, jazz musicians often rely on a variety of jazz instruments. Jazz music showcases an exciting blend of Western and African musical styles.
To understand jazz in the 1920s, you not only have to be aware of the performers, like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, but also of the social, political and technological history of the time.
Three female jazz singers-Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan-prove that jazz music isn't about male composers and artists.