The development of jazz music has a very interesting history. This brand of music stems from a mix of traditional African sounds and the need for self-expression. Everyone it seems needs some sort of voice and African-Americans were (and sometimes still are) extremely oppressed, which resulted in the suppression of ideas.
These creative thoughts found other avenues of vocalization through music. The traditional sounds brought from the African continent became creatively folded together with a few very diverse instruments and the term “jazz” was coined to describe the sound.
Traditional Jazz Instruments
1. The Trumpet
The beautiful trumpet is the highest-pitched instrument used in a jazz band. The tonal quality is so clear and clean when played by an experienced musician. In a jazz band, a piece can be expressed with either an extremely fast tempo or with slow long drawn-out notes.
By some cosmic convergence, the trumpet was around at the inception of the genre and therefore is a staple member and a strong identifier of any jazz band. There are two well-known trumpeters who were extremely skilled: Louis Armstrong who traveled internationally and Dizzy Gillespie who had a six-decade career.
These gentlemen made Jazz popular across different cultures. Lee Morgan is said to be the greatest trumpeter of all time.
2. The Piano
The lovely piano, when playing a jazz piece, utilizes the vast range of harmonic and melodic notes known to man. Like the trumpet, the piano was in the right place and at the right time when Jazz was being heard in the hearts of the men who developed the sound and penned the notes onto paper.
There is a wide range of sounds that can be manifested through jazz when played by a skilled musician and can almost truly be heard as a voice in the music. The tone of a piano can be more delicate than the trumpet and be played aggressively in order to evoke whatever emotion the composer intended.
Expert Tip: Some exceptional pianists who specialized in playing jazz are Scott Joplin, who perfected the style called “ragtime” and Art Tatum whose reputation touted him as the very best.
3. The Double Bass
The mellow double bass creates some of the lower tempo notes that traditionally define jazz music. This instrument can be played fast, with a thump-thumping action to elicit a bouncy tune or it can be traditionally slow to create a more somber and bluesy jazz composition.
The double bass instrument started being used in jazz bands in the 1890s. Famous bass players include Ray Brown, who was married to Ella Fitzgerald, and Charles Mingus. He played music with some of the greatest jazz artists such as Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.
4. The Drums
The use of the awesome drums in jazz music started in the early 1900s and the purpose of this instrument was to keep time. The drums were also used as a way to change the temple or mood of the music. The drums are used in many forms of jazz as early as 1910 in Dixieland music and as late as the 1980s in Latin jazz.
Drums are played differently in jazz music as compared to other forms of music. Drummers had to be versatile as well as keep the beat. It is said that Sid Catlett was one of the first drummers to adapt to the drums proficiently in this new genre.
Joe Jones, another innovative jazz drummer, was the first to use the hi-hat to keep the tempo instead of the snare drum.
5. The Saxophone
Invented by Adolphe Sax invented the wonderful saxophone in 1842. His intention when he developed this instrument was to create something with the best qualities of a woodwind instrument and the best qualities of a brass instrument. It has been a part of jazz music since the beginning days of the jazz sound.
The saxophone has a wide range of slow sultry notes, like the clarinet and yet it can still reach the high clean pitched notes like a trumpet.
Expert Tip: The saxophone is a very versatile instrument that has been featured in solo pieces within jazz compositions. The use of a reed in the mouthpiece makes it a woodwind instrument.
The saxophone is a major player in jazz bands, like a brother in a family. It has never gained the same notoriety in other musical genres though. Some famous sax players are (The fathers of jazz sax) Coleman Hawk and Lester Young who developed the softer smoother sounds in jazz music.
6. The Clarinet
The clarinet like the trumpet and piano has been a part of jazz since its inception. This instrument is prolific in New Orleans jazz and the during the 1930s and 1940s swing eras. The versatility that the clarinet offers propels this instrument into the focal point of any jazz band like an exceptional singer stands out as a soloist.
Some of the most famous clarinet players were Sydney Bechet who was the first jazz soloist and Jimmy Dodds who started playing the clarinet at 17 and was groomed by Louis Armstrong and Joe “the King” Oliver. He was also one of the most significant musicians in Benny Goodman’s band.
7. The Banjo
The banjo was also one of the first jazz instruments used to define jazz music. Just like the drum’s “job” was to keep the beat, the banjo’s “job” was to keep the rhythm of a composition. Later in the 1930s and 1940s, the guitar was used sometimes instead of the banjo. This instrument rounded out the final “Rythm and Blues” type of jazz.
Some well-known pickers were Early Scruggs and Roy Clark. Mr. Clark and Grandpa Jones, another well-known picker, often appeared together on Hee-Haw in the 1970s. Another well-known banjo player is Steve Martin. He performed a lot of his stand-up comedy with a banjo.
Early Jazz Instruments
The earliest combination of sounds came from the drums, the piano, and the main horn. It could be the saxophone, the trombone, or the trumpet. The most popular horn instruments were the trumpet and the saxophone so they quickly became staples of any proper jazz band.
Two other main instruments are the double bass, to generate that low thump thump beat, and the banjo or guitar to keep the rhythm of jazz pieces where those instruments are featured. In jazz music as a whole, each instrument gets focused on as if they are the star of the show.
Expert Tip: The final original instrument was the clarinet which of course rounds out the full-bodied jazz sound.
In each piece of music, the way instruments collaborate in jazz could be representative of a great conversation. The piano will talk to the bass, the trumpet will talk to the clarinet, or the banjo will talk to the bass and the piano. It’s always two or three instruments seeming to have a smooth and easy conversation with one another.
The other instruments are not left out. They periodically jump in to add a little flavor here or a little flavor there.
Sometimes, in jazz composition, it sounds like two instruments or three instruments are having a heated conversation, perhaps there’s some disagreement, only to find lies in a smooth transition of peace and tranquility among these beautiful sounds.
The creators of this style of music seem to communicate the emotions and passions of a culture that were not acceptable around the turn of the century and the beginning of the 1900s. It became a wonderful outlet to share thoughts and hidden feelings with the world by playing these instruments in such a uniquely creative way.
The range and depth of each instrument are quite an excellent thing to listen for. Very much like a choir, all these instruments have their own range of sound. The piano seems to have the widest range and versatility, very much like a person who can sing soprano alto, tenor, and bass.
The trumpet sings the very high soprano and some alto notes. The clarinet sings low soprano and alto and the saxophone sings alto and tenor. The drums and the double bass take care of the lowest notes in any composition of jazz music. Listening to jazz is a beautiful synchronized sound that is focused on the original tones of each instrument.
The player of this music used simple reverberation to talk where words were not allowed. The creators of jazz used instruments as tools to substitute for the normal means of communicating pain or sorrow/joy or happiness. Where there was no way, a way was made through this music. It seemed to say: “We will not be silenced”.
The piano has 88 keys to make its range of sound. The saxophone has 22-23 openings to make it sound. The clarinet has 17 keys, and the drums have it set of sounds that can be arranged diversely. The double bass in the trumpet, with its extreme ends of sound ranging from soprano to Bass, has a couple of openings or strings.
And of course, the banjo has its unique sound. All these instruments, when put together in such a unique way, as in a jazz band, formulate an exceptional musical style. Jazz does have several dialects, ranging from big bands to blues. This makes the whole genre so diverse, as diverse as the players themselves.
As I alluded to before, Jezz seems to have its own voice with its own personality. The purpose of jazz seems to have been to give the player the instruments of voice, a platform, or a way to express themselves. The most important and distinctive sound in jazz music is the saxophone.
The music was a workaround for the oppression of a people and the suppression of the thoughts of that same people. I don’t think anyone had the forethought that this creative genre would become so popular with other nationalities and be peddled all around the world only to take on further cultural flavors that only added to the beauty of this music.
The conversation that happened between the instruments is an interesting thing to ponder as you listen to one instrument defer to another instrument and then go back to the first instrument like to people playing tennis, one loves the ball over the net only for the other one to send it back.
The other instruments of course chime in in the background rounding out the thoughts of the original two instrumental speakers. Sometimes there are three instruments sharing thoughts. Other times it seems like debate ensues, opinions flare up between instruments only to be finalized and worked out in the end.
It beautiful correlation of sound produced to evoke emotion whether it be urgent or smooth.
All in all, each instrument that is used in jazz not only tells its own story but also that of those who play jazz itself. Then to further enhance jazz as an amazing expression of sound, this music embodies the struggle of a large part of society which allows it to have a voice and be recognized as a valued part of creation, throughout history, have not been accepted.
The acknowledgment from other cultures that jazz is an important form of music, meant to be enjoyed by all, justifies the existence of the original creators of that sound. So readers, enjoy each instrument: the piano, the trumpet, the clarinet, the drums, the banjo, the double bass, and the saxophone.
And remember as you listen to the many conversations between the instruments sounding out of your radio or TV or phone, that the heart of jazz is in the exceptional “working together” motto of the different instrumental sounds.
I completely assure you that you will totally enjoy the wide range of wonderful music from the very deep double bass to the highest pitch of the trumpet.