Timeline of African American Music
John Coltrane

Defining Genre in Jazz

7
By Douglas Henry Daniels, Ph.D.
Histories present the music as if it is fundamentally linear in its evolution. This, at best, tells only half of the story because musical evolution is also circular.

Genres are categories used to identify creative works characterized by similarities in form, style, and subject matter. At the same time, their use in the history of music—for example, bebop, cool, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, neo-soul, etc.—are of questionable validity. Journalists employ these and other terms to orient consumers to music. Although journalists and consumers find these categorizations useful, musicians often reject them due to the limitations they impose. Musicians perform in multiple styles and cross genre boundaries as they explore new ideas, experiment with advanced technologies, and engage with current trends. Duke Ellington said that music was far too varied and complex to be encapsulated by one term. Musicians simply call it “the music.”

Invariably, histories present the music as if it is fundamentally linear in its evolution. This, at best, tells only half of the story because musical evolution is also circular. Artists regularly return to the blues and gospel roots to revitalize the music, just as Thelonious Monk (“Blue Monk”), Charles Parker (“K.C. Blues”), and Miles Davis (“Kind of Blue”) were bluesmen extraordinaire as well as beboppers. Another example is the “funk” and “soul” of the 1950s (“Moanin’,” “Dat Dere,” and “Sister Sadie”), the decade when hard bop and cool received so much publicity. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, avant-garde jazz and the contemporary sounds of fusion are dominant. As an alternative, Wynton Marsalis returns to the basic values and performance styles of the pre-1960s era—drawing from New Orleans and the traditions that evolve through hard bop.

1950—2001
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The Timeline of African American Music by Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D. presents the remarkable diversity of African American music, revealing the unique characteristics of each genre and style, from the earliest folk traditions to present-day popular music.

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Jessye Norman

Carnegie Hall’s interactive Timeline of African American Music is dedicated to the loving memory of the late soprano and recitalist Jessye Norman.

© 2008 Richard Termine

Special thanks to Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and to the Advisory Scholars for their commitment and thought-provoking contributions to this resource.

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The Timeline of African American Music has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. The project is also supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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