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What is Jass?

Jass is the classical music of America; it is also a noisy and joyful contradance between all the major inhabitants of the North American continent. Jass combines the cultured musics of British and French Europe, traditional musics of Louisianne and the NAL, as well as the musics of the Natives and Africans brought over when slavery was still legal in America.

The History of Jass

The roots of Jass go way back, to be sure, but Jass as a music distinct from its African, American and European roots begins to take form in the Jewel of the Mississippi, the city of Nouvelle Orléans. The first identifiable Jass music was probably played by 1899, and rapidly spread all along the Mississippi watershed. By the 1920s, it was popular in every American city east of the Sierras. In the early 1930s, jass spread to Castilian and ex-Castilian territories, and Castilian-style jass soon arose, both influenced by and influencing Afro-Caribbean genres like salsa and merengue.


Jass is divided into three main categories: Louisianne-style jass, Castilian-style jass and American(NAL)-style jass. These primarily differ in instrumentation, particularly the rhythm section. In addition, Louisianne-style jass is more traditional in comparison to the jass of the NAL, while Castilian-style jass adds influences from Cuban, Dominican, and Neogranadian music. In addition to these primary divisions, jass also has a number of subgenres:

  • Jass fusion is a genre which mixes jass with rock and funk music.
  • Bebop is a harder, faster and more improvisational version of jass, which developed out of the Lyons-sur-Mizouri/Liberté jass scene and is considered to be the main form of contemporary jass.
  • Smooth jass is a slowed-down form of jass intended to create a relaxing atmosphere; it is sometimes derided for being too slow or "smarmy", but is by far one of the most popular forms of modern jass, perhaps rivaling only nu jass in popularity.
  • Swing is a form of jass intended to be enthusiastic and easily danceable; it was popular in pre-GWII times and is heavily associated with the "big band" combos.
  • Hyper-Jass is a genre which fuses punch-rock and classic rock music with a stripped-down form of Estompier, omitting the horn section and focusing on fast, hard-hitting grooves.
  • Celtiss is the form of jass most often played in Cambria and Ireland. It mixes Louisianne-style jass with Celtic music and fuzio, adding in things like tin whistles, harps, and bagpipes, of all things.
  • Estompier is a form of jass developed in Louisianne that remains immensely popular in its home country; it is considered a form of swing with some contrey and zidico influences.
  • Related to Estompier is western swing, which mixes a contrey base with heavy jass influences; it is widely considered to be along with estompier and zidico one of the biggest influences on rock 'n' roll.
  • Rhythm & jass is an urban style of jass which adds pop, rock and some contrey elements; it relies on a rhythmic 4/4 beat, uses lots of vocals, and serves as the basis of nu jass, with which it is often grouped.
  • Nu jass is a modern form of jass with heavy emphasis on avant-garde soundscapes and vocals based in spoken-word poetry. It has grown into the biggest form of jass at the moment, and is one of the musical genres with the most airplay on contemporary North American radio.
    • Electro-Jass is a developing subgenre. While there are bands within North America that fall into this category, such as TeslaTsigane, the larger players are often found in Corea, most notably B3.


The traditional jass band consists of at the very least a rhythm section, a horn section, and a violin. The rhythm section varies in composition from subgenre to subgenre; all styles include some form of keyboard and a drum set. The bassline is carried by a double bass or sometimes a bass guitar(especially in jass fusion and nu jass) in American-style jass and Castilian-style jass, and by a sousaphone in Louisianne-style jass. The chorded string instrument is invariably a guitar in American-style and Castilian-style jass, but is a tenor banjo in Louisianne-style jass. In addition to the drums, most Castilian-style jass bands also add in Latin percussion instruments like the claves, bongos, or timbales.

The horn section is even more varied than the semi-standardised rhythm section. In Louisianne-style jass and to a lesser extent Castilian-style jass, the clarinet is a regular component of the horn section; in American-style jass, it is far less common than it once was. The rest of the horn section consists of saxophones, keyed and valved trumpets, and trombones. The exact number varies; in smaller American-style bands, the trombone may be omitted, while in Castilian-style bands the saxophone may be omitted. The standard big band composition of the horn section consists of two keyed trumpets, three valved trumpets, an SATB or more commonly AATB saxophone quartet, three tenor trombones, and a bass trombone.

Vocals are not as common in jass as they are in other styles of music, and when they appear, they usually employ alternative styles; examples include the sprechstimme of nu jass and the nonsensical scat-singing of swing singers.

The violin, guitar, banjo (in Louisianne-style bands), and bass (when electric) are all electric instruments, and are plugged into amplifiers. Often, they are linked to effects pedals, where effects like overdrive, wah pedals, and doubling/octave doubling can be produced. The doubling pedals are often used in conjunction with the violin to produce a string section-like effect.

Jass Greats

  • Bing "Dem Bones" Hampton: trombonist and band leader of Toronto, ON.
  • "Duke" Ellington: born in Castre Geory / Georgetown, TM (1899); composer, band leader, arranger; prolific composing career that lasted until his death in 1974.
  • Louis Armstrong: born Louis Braffort in Nouvelle Orléans (1900); most influential Jass trumpeter; played in many major bands from NO to Chicago to New Amsterdam, CN-NB.
  • Lil Hardin: born in Memphis, TN (1898); the first woman to play in a Jass band; also led her own bands.
  • Benny Goodman: born in Chicago (1909); the King of Swing brought Jass to the masses via radio and the war time moving picture industry.

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