Things worth learning: the history of jazz


“Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, Louisiana, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its roots in blues and ragtime.” (Wikipedia)


Many different kinds of history are worth learning – political history, military history, intellectual history – but I’ve found that the histories I most enjoy are the ones that help me understand the context of other things I am passionate about, such as art, music, and technology. The history of jazz is one of those.


When I was growing up I didn’t know anyone who was interested in jazz, or I didn’t know that they were. I came to it by an accident of curiosity, looking through albums at a store when I was 16. “It” was one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.

Not long after that, Linda Batty took me to the Tulsa Central library for the first time. There were shelves of jazz albums patrons could borrow. I listened to Billie Holiday for the first time, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie – names I had seen mentioned in books.

In my first summer semester of college at Oklahoma University I took a course titled History of Jazz. The instructor was a jazz musician who played on the weekends – the first jazz concert I ever went to. He would come into class looking tired, like he’d stayed up far too late, and put on a record. Then he would stare into space as we all listened to it.

Our teacher was creative with assignments, too. We had to listen to the local jazz station (another first, for me) and take notes about what we’d heard – who was playing and what, but also about how it was played. I learned about the different eras of jazz history – swing, bebop, and so on – and the body of jazz standards. It was a great experience.

From there my interest grew in the usual meandering way, listening to new music, going to shows occasionally, reading biographies and histories. I watched Ken Burns’s fantastic Jazz documentary series and listened to the early Louis Armstrong records. The Hot Fives & Sevens records are amazing.

In 2012 I met my friend and colleague Mike Johnston, a native New Yorker and jazz afficionado. Mike introduced me to Phil Schaap’s “Bird Flight” program on WKCR, the Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington biographies by Terry Teachout, the Louis Armstrong House in Queens, and many great recordings.

It’s been a haphazard sort of education, but I would recommend it, trying a bit of everything and learning in breadth.