Influential Jazz Musicians
Photo Credits to Victor Freitas
Tracing its origins to African American communities in New Orleans, jazz has grown from its humble beginnings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to become popular across the globe. As the popularity of jazz grew and the genre spread beyond New Orleans, different styles emerged, giving rise to Kansas City jazz, cool jazz, free jazz, and other forms. Along the way, various musicians have put their own unique stamp on jazz. The following are just a handful of the many influential jazz musicians who have helped to elevate this unique genre of music to one of the most popular in the world.
- Jelly Roll Morton (1890-1941): New Orleans native Jelly Roll Morton, a pianist and songwriter, honed his piano-playing abilities in the bordellos of the Big Easy. In fact, it was in those establishments where the man born Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe earned his distinctive nickname. Biography.com notes that while his claims to have been the inventor of jazz might have been dubious, Morton is considered to be the first jazz musician to commit his arrangements to paper.
- Scott Joplin (c. 1868-1917): Born into a musical family that included his mother, a singer and banjo player, and his father, a violist, Scott Joplin grew up in Texarkana, learning to play the guitar and later the piano at a very young age. By the time Joplin was a teenager, he was working as a traveling musician and eventually became the foremost composer of ragtime jazz. Biography.com notes that Joplin was a true student of music, studying at the George R. Smith College for Negroes in Missouri during the 1890s. Though one of history’s most celebrated jazz musicians, Joplin also composed ballets and operas.
- Bessie Smith (1894-1937): While there are female instrumentalists in the genre of jazz, in the early days many, such as Bessie Smith, were vocalists. Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Smith would come to be known as “Empress of the Blues” thanks to her powerful voice. By the 1920s, Smith was among the highest paid black performers. Tragically, Smith’s life was cut short when she died from injuries sustained in a car crash on her way to a show in Memphis in 1937.
- Miles Davis (1926-1991): Compared to other jazz legends, Illinois-born Miles Davis was introduced to music rather late. It wasn’t until Davis was 13 years old that his father introduced him to the trumpet, an introduction that would dramatically alter the course of jazz music. Under the tutelage of local music school director Elwood Buchanan, Davis learned to play the trumpet without vibrato, which Biography.com notes marked a departure from the style of trumpet-playing popular at the time. A true pioneer, Davis is considered one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz and 20th century music.