Jazz rhythms tend to be syncopated, meaning they contain unexpected accents. Also important is the concept of swing, which has to do with creating a sense of momentum and danceability. Some styles of jazz make use of counterpoint, which occurs when several melodies with different rhythms are played simultaneously. Together, the attributes of syncopation, swing, and counterpoint create a rich rhythmic background that is one of the most important elements of jazz.


The cornetist Buddy Bolden led a band often mentioned as one of the prime movers of the style later to be called "jazz". He played in New Orleans around 1895–1906. Bolden's band is credited with creating the big four, the first syncopated bass drum pattern to deviate from the standard on-the-beat march.[1] As the example below shows, the second half of the big four pattern is the habanera rhythm.

Buddy Bolden's "big four" pattern.
No recordings remain of Bolden. Several tunes from the Bolden band repertory, including "Buddy Bolden Blues", have been recorded by many other musicians. Bolden became mentally ill and spent his later decades in a mental institution.
Morton published "Jelly Roll Blues" in 1915, the first jazz work in print.

Afro-Creole pianist Jelly Roll Morton began his career in Storyville. From 1904, he toured with vaudeville shows around southern cities, also playing in Chicago and New York. His "Jelly Roll Blues", which he composed around 1905, was published in 1915 as the first jazz arrangement in print, introducing more musicians to the New Orleans style.[2]

Morton would perform habaneras, such as "La Paloma." He considered the tresillo/habanera (which he called the Spanish tinge) to be an essential ingredient of jazz.[3] The habanera rhythm and tresillo can be heard in his left hand on songs like "The Crave" (1910, recorded 1938). In Morton's own words:

"Now in one of my earliest tunes, “New Orleans Blues,” you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz"—Morton (1938: Library of Congress Recording).[4]
Excerpt from Jelly Roll Morton's "New Orleans Blues" (c. 1902). The left hand plays the tresillo rhythm. The right hand plays variations on cinquillo

Some early jazz musicians referred to their music as ragtime. Jelly Roll Morton was a crucial innovator in the evolution from ragtime to jazz piano. Morton could perform pieces in either style.[5] Morton's solos were still close to ragtime, and were not merely improvisations over chord changes, as with later jazz. His use of the blues was of equal importance however.


Morton loosened ragtime's rhythmic feeling, decreasing its embellishments, and employing a swing feeling.[6] Swing is the most important, and enduring African-based rhythmic technique used in jazz. An oft quoted definition of swing by Louis Armstrong is: "if you don't feel it, you'll never know it."[7] The New Harvard Dictionary of Music states that swing is: “An intangible rhythmic momentum in jazz . . . Swing defies analysis; claims to its presence may inspire arguments." However, the dictionary does provide the useful description of triple subdivisions of the beat contrasted with duple subdivisions.[8] Swing superimposes six subdivisions of the beat over a basic pulse structure or four subdivisions. This aspect of swing is far more prevalent in African American music than in Afro-Caribbean music. One aspect of swing, which is heard in more rhythmically complex Diaspora musics, places strokes in-between the triple and duple-pulse “grids.”[9]

Bottom: even duple subdivisions of the beat. Top: swung correlative—contrasting of duple and triple subdivisions of the beat

New Orleans brass bands are a lasting influence contributing horn players to the world of professional jazz with the distinct sound of the city while helping black children escape poverty.[10] The leader of the Camelia Brass Band, D'Jalma Ganier, taught Louis Armstrong to play trumpet. Armstrong popularized the New Orleans style of trumpet playing, and then expanded it. Like Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong is also credited with the abandonment of ragtime's stiffness, in favor of swung notes. Armstrong, perhaps more than any other musician, codified the rhythmic technique of swing in jazz, and broadened the jazz solo vocabulary.[11]

The Original Dixieland Jass Band made the music's first recordings early in 1917, and their "Livery Stable Blues" became the earliest released jazz record.[12][13][14][15][16][17][18] That year numerous other bands made recordings featuring "jazz" in the title or band name, mostly ragtime or novelty records rather than jazz. In February 1918 James Reese Europe's "Hellfighters" infantry band took ragtime to Europe during World War I,[19] then on return recorded Dixieland standards including "Darktown Strutters' Ball".[20]


  1. Marsalis, Wynton (2000: DVD n.1). Jazz. PBS
  2. Cooke 1999, pp. 38, 56
  3. Roberts, John Storm 1979. The Latin Tinge: the impact of Latin American music on the United States. Oxford.
  4. Morton, “Jelly Roll” (1938: Library of Congress Recording) The Complete Recordings By Alan Lomax.
  5. In 1938 Morton made a series of recordings for the Library of Congress, in which he demonstrated the difference between the two styles.
  6. Gridley, Mark C. (2000: 61). Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 7th ed.
  7. Schuller (1968: 6).
  8. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986: 818).
  9. Peñalosa, David (2010: 229). The Clave Matrix; Afro-Cuban Rhythm: Its Principles and African Origins. Redway, CA: Bembe Inc. ISBN 1-886502-80-3.
  10. Illustrated well in HBO's program, Treme (TV series)|Treme, which has succeeded in researching the jazz culture of New Orleans.
  11. Gridley, Mark C. (2000: 72-73). Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, 7th ed.
  12. Schoenherr, Steven. "Recording Technology History". Retrieved December 24, 2008. 
  13. Thomas, Bob (1994). "The Origins of Big Band Music". Retrieved December 24, 2008. 
  14. Alexander, Scott. "The First Jazz Records". Retrieved December 24, 2008. 
  15. "Jazz Milestones". Retrieved December 24, 2008. 
  16. "Original Dixieland Jazz Band Biography". Retrieved December 24, 2008. 
  17. Martin, Henry; Waters, Keith (2005). Jazz: The First 100 Years. Thomson Wadsworth. p. 55. ISBN 0-534-62804-4. 
  18. "Tim Gracyk's Phonographs, Singers, and Old Records – Jass in 1916–1917 and Tin Pan Alley". Retrieved October 27, 2007. 
  19. Cooke 1999, p. 44
  20. Floyd Levin (1911). "Jim Europe's 369th Infantry "Hellfighters" Band". The Red Hot Archive. Retrieved October 24, 2007. 

Pages in category "Rhythm"

The following 12 pages are in this category, out of 12 total.

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