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American Music Through the Decades – From Jazz to Hip-Hop

From jazz to hip-hop, American music has been shaped by major social and political movements. The 1930s and 1940s saw the rise of swing orchestras with fun dance rhythms while gospel and blues flourished.

The 1960s ushered in the era of doo wop, surf, girl groups and soul singers as well as prog-rock and psychedelic rock. Lyrical maturity and complexity grew as well.


With its roots in blues and ragtime, jazz developed into a syncopated dance music with a distinctive sound. By the 1930s, it had begun to replace other genres as American popular music. The improvisational style of jazz made it a potent symbol of the dynamism and social upheaval of modern times. Its youthful vigor, formal flexibility and emotional honesty challenged entrenched Victorian notions of hierarchy, purity, moral discipline and cultural uplift.

Jazz influenced other musical forms as it grew, evolving into bebop, cool jazz and hard bop. Saxophonists Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis and pianists Thelonious Monk experimented with new melodies that incorporated popular styles of the day. The relaxed Cool jazz of the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool, Modern Jazz Quartet and Lennie Tristano schools was marketed as a less fiery alternative to bebop, while Dave Brubeck, Stan Kenton and jazz composers George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre pioneered a synthesis of jazz language and techniques with theories and structures drawn from European concert music.

As jazz embraced postwar discourses of anti-conformism and modernity, African American musicians like pianist Billy Taylor, bassist Stanley Crouch and singer Amiri Baraka used the music to articulate black self-consciousness. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago and Black Arts groups in Los Angeles nurtured a new generation of maverick artists that explored the limits of jazz through fusion, free jazz and avant-garde techniques.

The 1950s brought a new wave of singers who revolutionized singing styles and created a vision of superstar artists whose music was synonymous with the brand name of their record company. Pop artists such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones forged a link between rock music and popular culture while developing new studio techniques to add intensity to their recordings.


The 1860’s saw the first wave of immigrants from Southern America who brought their music with them. This allowed music that previously stayed within their respective ethnic groups to be disseminated to the general public, and to have its effect on American music.

As a result, popular music styles branched out into new genres – the Civil War period witnessed a general flowering of American art and literature as well, in addition to this development of new musical styles. Amateur musical ensembles began to appear in many communities, and this helped to develop a new style of music influenced by the African American culture. This became known as Jazz.

While jazz evolved in the early 20th century, hip hop developed during the 1970’s and grew out of a cultural response to urban African American issues such as poverty and unemployment. Hip hop developed from the fusion of a variety of other musical styles – jazz, R&B, and even funk. It was characterized by spoken lyrics over a rhythm created by a DJ (described as an emcee) using two turntables. The beats played on the records were arranged in such a way as to create an extended section of percussive sound, known as a break. During the 1990’s, Gang Starr’s DJ Premier and other producers began to incorporate jazz into hip hop, with artists such as saxophonist Lonnie Liston Smith, trumpeter Tim Hagans, and guitarist Charlie Hunter collaborating with them.

In the 2000’s, LL Cool J, Run DMC, and other rappers gave the music a street-style vibe; Mariah Carey and Britney Spears brought new age elements to pop; and Shania Twain introduced a sexy aspect to country. These music trends merged with each other and also with rock, giving rise to a multitude of subgenres from heavy metal to rap.


America is home to a variety of musical genres, including rock, country, R&B and jazz. These styles are renowned around the world. The nation’s multi-ethnic population also contributes to the country’s varied music scene. Musicians from other cultures put their own spin on American music styles, and these influences have had a huge impact on modern pop culture.

During the 1920s and 1930s, America experienced an era of swing songs and popular jazz artists like Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Swing music influenced the development of blues and gospel. Traditionally, these genres were only enjoyed by members of the specific ethnic groups that created them, such as African Americans or Irish people. However, these musical forms spread to other parts of the nation and to non-ethnic audiences as well.

The 1940s and 1960s saw a surge of new genres, such as doo-wop, bebop and rock. The emergence of these sounds influenced the next generations to follow. Rock and Roll introduced the concept of rock stars with songs that appealed to a larger audience. The all-natural Janis Joplin, enigmatic Johnny Cash and nostalgic Ray Charles exemplified this trend.

In the 1970s, hip-hop and rap music emerged from a mixture of genres like doo-wop, rock and R&B. Artists such as LL Cool J and Tupac Shakur honed their skills by sampling lyrics from other hits, and this practice became popular in all types of music. Today, many hip-hop and rap acts have become global superstars such as Jay Z, Kanye West and Drake.


Rhythm and blues, or R&B, evolved out of African Americans moving from rural southern areas to urban centers in the 1920s. R&B incorporated jazz, jump blues and black gospel into a style that had percussive energy, often with amplified guitar work and vocals. The style quickly became popular with white audiences as well. R&B music influenced rock and roll, and artists like Elvis Presley helped it become mainstream in the 1950s. The decade overflowed with national change as the Civil Rights Movement brought African American voices into the public ear. Television sets, electric appliances and commercial foodstuffs became commonplace in the home, and pop music reflected this newfound modernity.

In the 1960s, black artists embraced their culture and heritage and reclaimed music as a medium for self-expression. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act heightened America’s awareness of social injustice and societal turmoil. R&B musicians like Aretha Franklin, who is known as the Queen of Soul, reflected these concerns with uplifting, spiritual tunes. R&B incorporated elements of gospel, blues and jazz into a fast-paced dance style that appealed to young black and white audiences alike.

R&B influenced jazz performers who began to move away from swing and towards more complex arrangements and improvisational styles that culminated in hard bop. R&B also influenced popular rock, as singers like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Bob Marley embraced country and Southern rock genres.

In the 1990s, rap and heavy metal took over, with acts like Run DMC and N.W.A setting the stage for today’s rap music and the defiant grunge sound that gave us Nirvana and Alice in Chains. Girl groups like Backstreet Boys and NSync repopularized classic-soul inspired vocal harmony, while Mariah Carey and Britney Spears brought a sweeter side to pop.


As the 1970s rolled in, the American music industry had a change of pace. The jazz scene evolved into an experimental bebop scene while country and folk music sparked a new interest with singers like the Weavers, Bob Dylan and the Everly Brothers. Rock music continued to evolve into different styles such as doo wop, prog-rock and psychedelic rock. The decade was overflowing with national changes and technology, from television sets to electric appliances and commercial foods. It was also a time when the music that made women swoon grew in popularity with artists like Frank Sinatra, who flirted with young girls and dazzled them with his sonorous voice.

Hip hop was a cultural movement that emerged in the 1970s when urban African Americans began to perform spoken lyrics over a beat provided by an emcee. This genre became popular, and it has spawned several subgenres including West Coast hip hop, gangsta rap, crunk and mumble rap. The genre has also been influenced by different regional styles and is often a mix of various music genres, such as jazz, soul and R&B.

In the 1990s, rap and heavy metal gained popularity as well as a plethora of pop artists with strong vocalists such as Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, and Shania Twain. Singer-songwriters also saw a comeback with artists such as Alanis Morissette and Ska-influenced pop punk gave birth to bands like Sublime and No Doubt.

While hip hop remained popular, it was a time when producers started to use more original sounds instead of sampling songs that were already in the market. This caused the genre to take on a whole new sound and artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna became instant stars due to their creative music videos and skilled dancing.


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