The History and Characteristics of the Jazz Combo

Jazz is an American art form whose roots date back to the mid-19th century slave songs and chants. The early 20th century saw the art form blossom as instrumental music in the southern United States, mainly along the Mississippi river and specifically New Orleans, Louisiana.

Early instrumental jazz combos of New Orleans varied in instrumentation.  More often than not, these early jazz groups generally consisted of trumpet, clarinet, trombone, tuba and drums.  This instrumentation became what is known as the “dixieland” combo, making its way up the Mississippi river to Chicago where the music became popularized by jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong.

Dixieland combos can be thought of as groups that play “polyphonic” improvisational music.  Each instrument is independent of every other instrument, with each player creating separate musical improvisations based on known melodies, or “tunes” of the day.

The players of these early jazz combos each had a separate role within the group.  The trumpet player was depended upon to state the melody of the song, while the clarinet would improvise complex lines above him.  The trombonists role was to improvise or “fill in” the middle register with lines and notes that were essential to the chord changes of the song itself.  The tuba player (or bass player) generally laid down root notes (and 5ths) of each chord on beats 1 and 3 of each measure.  The tuba served as the harmonic anchor for the group. Lastly, it was the drummers role to keep everyone together by keeping a steady beat throughout the entirety of the song.

As jazz music developed throughout the 1940s and 1950s, jazz combo instrumentation began to become more standardized.  The jazz “quintet” and “sextet” became very popular during this time.  The quintet consisted of trumpet and alto (or tenor) sax as the main melodic instruments while the rhythm section (piano, bass and drums) took care of rhythm and harmony. 

The sextet added a trombone to form what essentially was a three horn front line, with rhythm section accompaniment.  The extra melodic instrument of the sextet made it possible for the horns to add more harmonic depth to the sound of the group.  Each instrument had a role not only as a melodic voice, but also as an integral component of the harmonic structure as well.

Modern jazz combos consist of a variety of instrumentation – 4, 5 horn combos are common place.  As the group grows in size however, the name “combo” is replaced by “band” or “little big band”. 

The jazz combo has provided a musical and creative outlet for countless musicians over the last 100 years.  The jazz combo continues to provide jazz musicians the opportunity to work together to make music not only as a group but also to develop their own voice as individual jazz improvisers.  It is, and probably always will be, the perfect vehicle for learning the art of jazz improvisation.

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