Each April, the United States celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), an opportunity to savor a major American contribution to world culture. Initiated by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, JAM aims to focus public attention on the music and the many talented composers, musicians and other contributors to the sound.
For the enthusiast who wishes to learn more about jazz, the following brief summary prepared by John Edward Hasse, the Smithsonian’s curator of American music, offers a useful starting point. For more information about Jazz Appreciation Month, see the Smithsonian Jazz web site.
Jazz. Jazz is the most consequential, influential and innovative music to emerge from the United States, and New Orleans, Louisiana, is widely known as the birthplace of jazz. No city, except perhaps for New York, has received more visiting jazz aficionados than New Orleans.
New Orleans residents and jazz devotees worldwide flock to the French Quarter and Preservation Hall, a bare-bones pair of wooden rooms that have served since 1961 as a shrine of sorts to the traditional New Orleans sound. Other New Orleans treasures include the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection, complete with the musical instruments of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and other early jazz masters, and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park Visitor Center, which offers self-guided walking tours and other information from its North Peters Street location.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Kansas City, Missouri, was a hotbed of jazz — Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams and other greats performed there. You can get a sense of the music by visiting the old jazz district around 18th and Vine streets, where you’ll find the American Jazz Museum and the historic Gem Theater.
In New York, jazz from all periods can be heard in the city’s many historic nightclubs, including the Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, and Birdland. Harlem’s Apollo Theater has seen many great jazz artists, as has Carnegie Hall, located at 57th Street and 7th Avenue. The city’s newest jazz shrine is Jazz at Lincoln Center, a $130 million facility, opened in October 2004, featuring a 1,200-seat concert hall, another 400-seat hall with breathtaking views overlooking Central Park, and a 140-seat nightclub, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
In the Queens borough of New York City stands the home of, to my mind, the most influential U.S. jazz musician, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong (1901–71). The Louis Armstrong House offers tours and a small gift shop.
Ragtime. This syncopated, quintessentially piano music is one of the roots of jazz. A small display of artifacts from Scott Joplin, “The King of Ragtime Writers,” is at the State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Missouri — the town where Joplin composed his famous Maple Leaf Rag. Sedalia hosts the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. In much larger St. Louis, you can visit one of Joplin’s homes, the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site.
Blues. The 12-bar blues is arguably the only musical form created wholly in the United States, and the state of Mississippi often is considered the birthplace of the blues. Certainly the state produced many leading blues musicians, including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Most came out of the broad floodplain known as the Mississippi Delta, which runs 322 kilometers along the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee, south to Vicksburg, Mississippi. This part of Mississippi boasts three modest blues museums: the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the Blues & Legends Hall of Fame Museum in Robinsonville and the Highway 61 Blues Museum, located in Leland.