Jazz:  America's National Treasure.

It's been called the purest expression of American democracy. It's Dave Brubeck Quartet's Take Five and Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World. This is jazz-American-made, New Orleans-born, improvisation-rules-the-day, jazz.

History of Jazz

New Orleans was in the past and is today a tasty stew; the various ethnicities and cultures of the city add unique flavor to its gumbo! Such is how the musical genre known as jazz was created in the late 1800s. Jazz evolved from a melding of African American and European musical roots, as well as marching bands, blues, and ragtag music.

Jazz migrated alongside African Americans from the south to northern cities such as New York City and Chicago. From the 1920s through the 40s, jazz was arguably the most popular music in the United States and was commonly played in nightclubs, living rooms, dance halls, and on the radio. However, in the 50s, with television and rock 'n' roll increasing in popularity, jazz diminished. Nevertheless, the genre continues today with a loyal following. Recently, Congress designated jazz as a rare and valuable national American treasure.

Music Styles

Over the last century, many different jazz styles have been played. What ties all styles together, however, is improvisation - carrying out or changing a beat or tune in the spur of the moment.

One of the earliest styles of jazz music was Dixieland Jazz, often referred to as New Orleans Jazz. "When the Saints Go Marching In" is a popular Dixieland Jazz tune. Dixieland Jazz is traditionally performed by a 5-member band playing the banjo, clarinet, trumpet, string bass, and trombone. Louis Armstrong (1900 - 1971), with his distinctive voice, is undoubtedly the most famous New Orleans jazz musician of all time. Born in New Orleans, Armstrong spent his adult life primarily in Chicago and New York City, playing with bands such as the Hot Five and King Oliver Creole Jazz Band. Armstrong recorded popular songs such as "Heebie Jeebies" and "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." Jazz styles may have changed since Mr. Armstrong began playing, but Dixieland Jazz thrives in New Orleans to this day. For more on New Orleans jazz, visit New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park.

Swing Jazz evolved in the Harlem dancehalls of the 1930s and defined an entire generation of Americans. Swing involves larger bands, often harmonizing, or "grooving" together, thus bringing audience members to clap and dance to the beat. The Lindy Hop, Jitterbugging and the Shag were born of Swing Jazz.

Cool Jazz, or light jazz, evolved in the 1950s and 60s as a less emotional, more composed style of music. Miles Davis was a Cool Jazz musician, as were the Dave Brubeck Quartet, whose hit album Time Out reached #2 on the Billboard charts in 1959.

Latin jazz appeared in the 1960s and 70s, combining Afro-Cuban drums with classical jazz orchestral music. Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald, even Frank Sinatra, helped bring this "bossa nova" style to mainstream audiences.

Contemporary jazz singers include Sade, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble - singers that have helped bring jazz back into the limelight.


Jazz musicians wear a wide variety of dress while in concert. In formal settings, jazz musicians often dress in tuxedos.


Common instruments of jazz include the piano, guitar, bass, trumpet, saxophone, trombone, drums, and vibes. While some bands include musicians that sing, many jazz bands are strictly instrumental.

Song Topics

The beauty of jazz is that it's about the music, not the message. Many jazz songs have no lyrics; preferring to focus on the instruments themselves. When jazz has vocal accompaniment, song topics can range widely from politics and racial tension to love and religion.

Modern Form

Jazz is timeless and has proven its ability to adapt to our ever-changing society. Jazz, like the United States, is a melting pot of cultures and musical styles. Jazz always has been, and always will be, about freedom; freedom of expression, freedom to improvise, freedom of individuality. As long as the human spirit yearns to be free, jazz will survive.

When Can I Experience Jazz at Chamizal National Memorial?

In the past Chamizal National Memorial has hosted blues and jazz festivals. Jazz acts are often a part of the Music Under the Stars (MUTS) summer concert series. Check the calendar of events or inquire at the visitor center for further information.


To return to the Cultural Performances home page, click here.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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