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William “Count” Basie

Arts Days: August 21, 1906: The Count of Jazz
As a jazz bandleader, pianist, and composer, Count Basie had few peers. He learned to play piano as a youngster, making up music to go with the early silent films of the day.

Working in Harlem and Kansas City, Missouri, Basie absorbed the regional styles of jazz into his own signature “jumping” sound, which referred to his spare piano, pulsating rhythm section, and riffs—a series of notes that are repeated throughout a song—created by his horn players. His band was less formal than others, demonstrating a new lightness and solo originality.

This 1981 Kennedy Center Honoree made jazz history night after night in concert halls and clubs around the world.
America, Composers, Jazz, Music, Music Legends

Charlie Parker

Arts Days: August 29, 1920: Rare Bird
As a musician who could improvise jazz and blues music on the fly, Charlie “Bird” Parker has few equals. With his alto saxophone and his deep reservoir of talent, Parker thrilled listeners with his playing on tunes like “Ko-Ko” and “Billie’s Bounce.”

He was one of the leading developers of bebop, a jazz form featuring four or five musicians, fast tempos, and jagged-sounding, complex melodies. He also crafted new ways of playing long solos that shattered the usual conventions. For example, he experimented with creating melodies using higher intervals of a chord than had traditionally been played.
America, Jazz, Music, Music Legends, Musical Instruments

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet

Arts Days: August 04, 1901: Horn of Plenty
The great trumpeter Louis Armstrong soaked up all the pains and joys of a young man growing up poor and unequipped yet possessing an extraordinary musical talent. These emotions can be clearly heard in the jazz music he grew up to both play and sing.

There's little doubt that Armstrong was the most gifted and influential trumpet soloist in the history of the instrument. His innovations included playing high notes that had never been hit before, and holding these notes for long periods of time; creating vibrato or trembling sounds with his lips; and experimenting with rhythm to make music move, or "swing."

Armstrong's combination of singing and playing (both trumpet and cornet), plus his larger-than-life personality, made him one of the world's greatest and most memorable solo entertainers.
America, Jazz, Music, Music Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Musical Instruments

Benny Carter

Arts Days: August 08, 1907: They Call Him “King”
What aspect of jazz did the great Benny Carter not master? This 1996 Kennedy Center Honoree played alto sax, clarinet, and trumpet. He composed and arranged songs, some of which, like “When Lights are Low,” are now considered jazz standards. And he was an in-demand bandleader for much of his career.

Largely self-taught, Carter began playing in Harlem nightspots in his teens. At 21, he made his first recordings with Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra, and in the 1930s, he lived in and toured Europe, spreading the gospel of this uniquely American music form.

This jazz legend shaped the big-band jazz sound more than just about any other musician before or since. As jazz great Miles Davis once said, "Everyone should listen to Benny Carter. He's a whole musical education."
America, Music, Music Legends, Jazz

Betty Boop

Arts Days: August 09, 1930: The First Boop-Boop-Bee-Doop
Cartoonist Grim Natwick had no idea the little brunette who emerged from under his pen would captivate millions with her squeaky Brooklyn-accented voice and “va va voom” persona.

Betty Boop debuted in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes. She was originally drawn as half French poodle, half human (her famous hoop earrings, for example, were poodle ears in the beginning). But within a couple of years, the poodle parts were ditched, and Betty became the first animated sex symbol.

Modeled on a jazz-era flapper, she sported a large head on a small body, lending her a childlike quality. However, her developed figure and flirty gestures were decidedly those of a grown-up woman.
Cartoons, Comics, & Animation, Popular Culture, Jazz, Movies & Movie Stars

The Cotton Club

Arts Days: December 04, 1927: Setting Up Shop in Harlem
Go back to the corner of Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street in Harlem and the very night Duke Ellington and his orchestra first played for an adoring crowd at New York City’s Cotton Club. This evening marked the beginning of a tremendous four-year residency. Ellington and his musicians provided dance music for the club's performers, African American dancers in incredible costumes who performed songs, dances, and comedy routines for all-white, high-society audiences.

Ellington’s trumpet players, trombonists, and saxophonists—from Bubber Miley to Harry Carney—were each amazingly gifted in their own right; under Ellington’s direction, the orchestra melded into a rock-solid, jazz-playing unit. Soon enough, Ellington, his band, and their music were exposed to a national audience when these shows were broadcast weekly on WHN radio.
Art Venues, Jazz, Music, Composers, Music Legends, America

Scott Joplin

Arts Days: November 24, 1868: The Ragtime King
Pianist and composer Scott Joplin was undoubtedly the best-known composer of ragtime, or “ragged time,” music. Ragtime’s main hallmark is its syncopated rhythms—marked by a stress on what would normally be an unaccented beat in the music, or a rest where there would normally be an emphasis. Popular in 19th-century dance halls, ragtime captivated music fans for a couple of decades before jazz became all the rage.

Audiences clamored for Joplin’s many compositions, like “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Pineapple Rag,” and “The Entertainer.” He even wrote a ragtime opera called Treemonisha. By combining natural piano talent and classical European training with the rich sounds of African American gospel hymns, spirituals, blues, and plantation songs, Joplin created a new American sound.
Composers, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Music, America, Jazz

The Nat King Cole Show

Arts Days: November 05, 1956: A First of Its Kind
When this 15-minute program debuted on this day in 1956, Cole became the first African American television show host. As a jazz singer and pianist with a large following of avid fans, Cole was excited to host the program, which featured performances by some of the biggest names in pop music.

Racist attitudes held by some, however, prevented the show from reaching success. You see, advertising agencies were unable to convince enough clients to buy commercial time during the show. When the program was cancelled, a bitterly disappointed Cole remarked that “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark.”
Innovators & Pioneers, Television, Jazz

Louis Armstrong

Arts Days: July 08, 1922: When Satchmo Went North
Born in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong was a trumpeter who profoundly influenced the development of jazz music, both with his instruments as well as with his gravelly, instantly recognizable voice.

With the encouragement of his mentor Joe “King” Oliver, Armstrong left the south, joining thousands of other young African Americans in search of better job prospects in Chicago. As people secured work, they found they had money to spend in their free time—and they would often go listen to music.

In jazz clubs around the city, Armstrong’s star was on the rise. He played with Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and musicians in New York, and then returned to Chicago to make his first recordings. Far from home, Armstrong blazed a trail countless other musicians would one day follow.
Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Jazz, Music, Musical Instruments

Quincy Jones

Arts Days: March 14, 1933: On Q
Quincy Jones, a 2001 KC Honoree, wears an extraordinary number of hats in musical genres from jazz to hip-hop. As a composer, he’s created music for movies like The Color Purple and The Pawnbroker, and TV shows like The Cosby Show. As an arranger, he’s shaped songs for artists ranging from Peggy Lee to Sarah Vaughan. As a record producer—someone who oversees a recording from start to finish—he enjoyed unparalleled success working on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Off the Wall, which have collectively sold tens of millions of copies. Playing his trumpet, Jones toured the world in the 1950s with Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats. And as a conductor, he led Frank Sinatra’s band and others in live concerts and recordings.
Music Legends, Music, Hip-Hop, Jazz

Apollo Theater

Arts Days: January 26, 1934: Where Stars Are Born…
The Apollo Theater originally opened in 1913 as one of the city's leading burlesque venues for white-only audiences.

In 1932, powerful theatrical landlord Sydney S. Cohen purchased the theater and went to work refurbishing the entire venue. When it reopened its doors in 1934, patrons and performers of all races were welcomed.

The new Apollo Theater featured an "Amateur Night," which invited talented singers and dancers to the stage. "Amateur Night" helped launch the careers of numerous stars, including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, James Brown, Sarah Vaughn, Aretha Franklin, and Lauryn Hill.
Art Venues, Music Legends, Hip-Hop, Jazz, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll

Benny Goodman

Arts Days: January 16, 1938: All Jazzed Up
Though jazz music originated in the early 1900s, it took several decades until it was commonly recognized as a serious musical form.

While there’s no way of putting an exact date on when this happened, jazz music did make history on this day in 1938. The prominent New York City music venue Carnegie Hall hosted its first jazz concert, performed by the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Guest artists included Count Basie and members of the Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras.

Initially, Goodman was hesitant to play at Carnegie Hall fearing mainstream audiences were not ready to accept jazz music. He was happy to be proven wrong by the 2,760 sold-out seats.
Art Venues, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Jazz

George Gershwin

Arts Days: January 07, 1924: George’s Big Break
At 15, American composer and pianist George Gershwin dropped out of school to pursue his passion for music. He got a job in New York City playing the piano for a popular music publisher, and immediately began writing his own music. He had his first national hit, "Swanee," at age 20, but it was another five years until he composed "Rhapsody in Blue."

Written in less than three weeks, the composition's soaring clarinet solo launched Gershwin’s career and began a new era in American music. He went on to write some of America's most popular and important original music, often for Broadway or the concert hall, including the musical scores for Funny Face, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess.
Composers, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Jazz

Chicago

Arts Days: June 23, 1927: Razzle Dazzle Man
From the hip roll to the finger snap to the perfectly angled hat—these are just some of the signature moves of the unmistakable “Fosse look.”

Jazz choreographer Bob Fosse invented so many moves that are now essential in modern dance that the casual observer may not even be aware of how widespread his influence continues to be. He broke new ground with dances that were demanding, entertaining, and provocative—often by creating one sharp, simple isolated movement. He honed his style in musicals like The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Pippin and saw his creativity peak in the musical Chicago and the autobiographical film All That Jazz.

The second film Bob Fosse directed, 1972’s Cabaret, won eight Academy Awards® including Best Director.
Broadway, Choreographers, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Jazz

Shuffle Along

May 23: May 23, 1921: Breaking Broadway’s Barriers
The early 20th century ragtime and jazz musicians Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle had a major hit on their hands when they co-wrote Shuffle Along, the first major Broadway musical by, for, and about African Americans. All told, the show ran for more than 500 performances. It played in Washington, D.C. and other locales before lighting up Broadway, where police were assigned on show nights to help ease traffic congestion.

Shuffle Along also made stars of dancers like Josephine Baker and singers like Paul Robeson. Many songs became popular hits. But by today’s standards, some aspects of Shuffle Along are offensive. For example, though the actors were all African American, they applied makeup to their faces to darken them further, and borrowed stock characters from minstrel shows. As the show’s popularity spread by word of mouth, the audiences were filled with black and white theater patrons alike.
Broadway, Innovators & Pioneers, Musicals, Jazz, Controversial, Theater

Miles Davis

Arts Days: May 26, 1926: Miles Ahead
They’re called trailblazers: artists who test the traditional, the expected, and then break new ground by turning in new directions. Count jazz trumpeter Miles Davis as one such pioneer.

Perhaps the most influential musician in any genre of the 20th century, Davis bent the boundaries of jazz music into entirely new shapes. Working with saxophonist John Coltrane, Davis made stylistic advances featuring improvisations based on modal harmonies rather than chord progressions.

Davis later teamed up with Gil Evans, a gifted pianist, composer, and arranger, and produced Birth of the Cool, an influential recording that single-handedly kicked off the cool jazz movement. Davis’s fingerprints are everywhere on this and other jazz subgenres, including hard bop.
America, Innovators & Pioneers, Jazz, Music, Music Legends

Duke Ellington

Arts Days: April 29, 1899: The Duke of Jazz
One of the greatest musicians of all time was Edward Kennedy Ellington—more commonly known as Duke. He was a superb piano player, composer, and bandleader in a career which extended for over 50 years. Ellington’s leadership of his own “big band”—a term for jazz-playing orchestras that became popular in the 1920s—set the bar for all bandleaders who would follow him. In the beginning, Ellington’s orchestra landed a weekly gig at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club.

It lasted for over a decade and brought his music to untold fans who were there in person or listening on the radio. His arrangements, conducting, and charismatic personality all helped popularize the big band sound, and the songs he wrote alone or with his trusted collaborators, numbered nearly 2,000. Ellington’s music is a study of contrasts—dramatic and personal, traditional and innovative, strictly composed and loosely improvised—music often based on a highly personal memory, mood, or image.
Composers, Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Jazz, Music

Ella Fitzgerald

Arts Days: April 25, 1918: The First Lady of Song
At age 15, Ella Fitzgerald won the chance to compete at amateur night at New York City’s famed Apollo Theater. While she had originally planned to do a dance number, she got nervous. Fitzgerald changed her mind at the last minute, opened her mouth, and sang. That glorious voice stunned the audience and delighted jazz sax player Benny Carter, who happened to be there that night.

Carter went on to introduce Fitzgerald to people who might help this young singer find a greater audience. Fitzgerald later mastered a type of vocal improvisation called “scat singing,” in which she would sing in syllables, not words. Scatting lets a singer play around with sound, creating a vocal solo much like a clarinetist or trumpeter might invent a solo on his instrument. Fitzgerald, a 1979 Kennedy Center Honoree, made about 200 jazz records, whose collective sales would number about 40 million.
Innovators & Pioneers, Music Legends, Jazz, Art Venues, Music

Billie Holiday

Arts Days: April 07, 1915: The Lady Sang the Blues
Although vocally untrained, Billie Holiday possessed talents and characteristics far more critical to singing the blues—a natural ear for music and a life of turmoil and sorrow. Holiday changed the art of pop vocals with her smoky voice, unique word phrasing, and dramatic interpretations of classic songs. Her poignant renditions of love songs and ballads are considered classic; no one “carried a torch” like Holiday.

Discovered singing in a jazz club in the early 1930s, Holiday soon signed a record deal and began collaborations with musicians like Artie Shaw and Lester Young (who nicknamed her “Lady Day”). She shattered racial barriers by being the first black woman to front a big band composed of white musicians and by singing about lynching in the haunting “Strange Fruit.” Songs Holiday wrote with others, like “God Bless the Child,” rocketed to the top of the charts. Sadly, Holiday’s struggles with drug and alcohol addiction led to her untimely death at the age of 44.
Art Venues, Blues, Jazz, Music, Music Legends, Popular Culture

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