Any discussion or analysis of jazz, the most American of musical forms, invariably will reference its colorful past. Jazz began in New Orleans through the mixing of multiple populations in the 19th century, which resulted in Dixieland. However, most of the best players are relatively unknown because the technology was not available to record them. Those who did leave a record of their performances, like Jelly Roll Morton, were not recorded well. So a study of jazz’s history reveals an evolution on not only its performers but of the technology that allows us to know about and appreciate their performances.
Arguably the best known historical jazz performer is trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong. It has been said that if one ever has a question about proper jazz phrasing, listen to Armstrong because his was perfect. He was raised in New Orleans, in the birthplace of jazz, but eventually followed so many other performers to Chicago where there was not only a thriving jazz scene but expanded commercial possibilities. The emphasis in Chicago remained, like New Orleans, on big bands that entertained audiences in live performances. Armstrong left behind a considerable body of work because he lived in a time when high-quality audio and video recording technology was available.
Jazz then traveled from Chicago to New York, which resulted in a harder-edged and faster form of jazz, bebop. Clubs such as Birdland opened in 1949 in Manhattan that provided a home for bebop and the musicians who played it, like saxophonist Charlie “The Bird” Parker. Bird was extremely talented but volatile and a drug addict, and he seemed to confirm that image when he died at the home of New York heiress. The New York newspapers, understandably, had a field day.
However, not all bebop musicians suffered similar fates. Trumpeter John Birks “Dizzie” Gillespie performed regularly in New York and eventually became a worldwide celebrity, even in the eastern bloc nations during the Cold War. President Eisenhower leveraged Gillespie’s celebrity by making him a jazz ambassador who traveled the Soviet Union helping to build diplomatic bridges to the United States. So respected was jazz in the eastern bloc that Gillespie helped convince the Soviets that American was not a cultural wasteland.