Skip directly to content

The Story of Jazz: From Country Blues to Fusion

Authors Donald D. Megill and Richard S. Demory offer readers a cohesive introduction by examining the history of jazz from its beginnings to the present in their book Introduction to Jazz History. They concentrate on two specific areas: an exposition of jazz styles as they evolved and biographical sketches of significant musicians. Presently they have written six editions of this book, getting better each time. 

Jazz is a type of music of African-American origin that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century and centered in the city of New Orleans. It is characterized by improvisation, syncopation, and usually a regular or forceful rhythm. Donald D. Megill and Richard S. Demory, authors of Introduction to Jazz History, believed that jazz was much more than a just a noun. They believed that jazz “occupies a unique place in American cultural history.”1 The authors split this book into four equal parts; the blues, rock and roll and Dixieland, bebop, and fusion.

The blues were known as the “roots and foundation of jazz.”2 The blues started in the 1890s. African-Americans, many being slaves at the time, sang work songs, otherwise known as the country blues, so that the workload seemed less punitive. The three major characteristics of the country blues were freedom from traditional rhythmic restrictions, reliance on only a few harmonies per verse, and feelings of simplicity and personal identity. As the country blues became more famous, the music went to the city and became known as the city blues. The city blues were sung mostly by women. One woman in particular was Bessie Smith. Bessie Smith was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee on April 15th, 1894. She was originally a dancer when she was 18. However after listening to and becoming influenced by Ma Rainey, often called the “Mother of the Blues”3 Smith became a famous blues singer, selling over 780,000 albums. However the blues started to become less and less popular and a new music industry approached: rock and roll and Dixieland.

“Rock and roll and Dixieland started to become famous in the 1930s.”4 Rock and roll evolved in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Originally rock and roll used either a piano or a saxophone as the lead instrument. Rock and roll ties in with jazz in that rock and roll uses the jazz rhythm. Dixieland, another type of jazz, was founded in New Orleans and is sometimes known as New Orleans Jazz. Dixieland spread from New Orleans to New York City by New Orleans bands in the 1910s. A famous Dixieland player is Joe “King” Oliver. Born on May 11th, 1885 in the Garden District of New Orleans, Oliver grew up in a big-city environment. His mother died in 1900 and his half-sister took care of him until he went on his own. In New Orleans, Oliver was more of a “sideman in bands,” 5 playing for famous musicians who would later play for him. His real success was when he moved with Louis Armstrong to Chicago to start his “Creole Jazz Band.” It was in Chicago and the north that many “jazz musicians started to become famous and wealthy.” 6 It was also the same time that the music in the north started to influence jazz music.

Bebop, the combination of jazz with fast tempo music of the north, was developed in the early and mid-1940s. Somehow, in the early 1940s bebop created a “foothold that traditional jazz musicians and critics could not dislodge.” 7 It drew small audiences to after-hours clubs, primarily in New York’s Harlem. Only a few musicians were capable of performing it well. The sophisticated chord structures, irregular melodies, and flashing speed left uninitiated listeners befuddled. It was far from the commercial music scene of the blues, rock and roll, and Dixieland and required a certain amount of study on the part of performers and listeners alike. One famous performer who helped contribute to bebop was Charlie “Bird” Parker. Born on August 29th, 1920, Parker came from a poor family. His mother worked full time and left Parker unsupervised. When he was thirteen, Parker began going to a “nightclub near Kansas City to listen to Jazz.” 8 Though his family couldn’t afford one, his mother sacrificed a lot to buy Parker an old alto sax for $45. Even though it was in bad condition, Parker would practice with it day and night. He began his professional career in New York at the Parisian Ballroom; where every 60 seconds, he had to play a new tune. Since then Parker started to become famous all over the United States, going to big cities like Chicago, New York, and finally Hollywood, California.

Lastly, Megill and Demory write about the elements of fusion. The style had three easily identifiable qualities: the instruments were electronically modified to alter their sounds, the keyboard player used synthesizers to create a multitude of new effects, and the basic rhythmic presence drew from the heritage of swing but leaned toward the more universal rock beat, and Latin-influenced percussionists playing “wood blocks, cow bells, congas, bongos, chimes, gourds, and whistles began to be featured.” 9 One keyboardist in a particular fusion group, the Weather Group, was Joe Zawinul. The Weather Group merged rock and jazz into a single genre; fusion. Zawinul’s inexplicable genius led the Weather Report to become successful in the 1970s. 

Megill and Demory state that people who play jazz create the complexities and individual nuances that make history of jazz so difficult to formulate. Both agree that no clear-cut category can encompass jazz. They believe that each performers idiom is a style unto itself; “if [the performer’s idiom] were not so, the music would hardly be jazz.” 10

Megill and Demory see jazz from an objective point of view. They remain neutral throughout the book and basically define jazz as if it were in a textbook. Both authors write about jazz and continue to expand on the details of jazz with more and more content per edition. The neutrality of the book and the unknown information concerning the two authors gives hindsight that the authors want the reader to pull out information that is useful for their research and expand upon it with their own points of view.

Though Megill and Demory published a great volume concerning the history of jazz, many, such as Lawrence, a reviewer in Goodreads, agree that the book is too general and that it needs to be a “less general writing about jazz history” 11 (Lawrence) Goodreads, on the other hand argued against this accusation and believes that the book “brings the various historical styles to life by exploring them through the lives of the musicians and a study of their recordings.” 12 (Goodreads) From these two reviews it can be inferred that a person reading these volumes might have mixed feeling about reading it. Both Goodreads and Lawrence gave it three out of five stars.

In the opinion of a reader, this book gives every detail concerning the art of jazz. It relates great musicians of the past and highlights them for the present. Demory and Megill wrote an informative yet interesting book with a plentiful amount of descriptions, images, and audible aid. From these great authors came a book with a great knowledge of jazz. Megill and Demory relate the whole book to the jazz of the United States. The authors concentrated on the jazz of New Orleans and the move up to the North in Chicago and New York and the West in Hollywood. The effect of Jazz, according to the book, gave a whole new line of music that spread throughout the United States and that branched out other genres such as Rock and Pop.

Megill and Demory devoted their whole book to the evolution of jazz and the famous artists who took part in these great eras. From the blues to fusion these two authors explained each time period piece by piece.


1. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. Introduction to Jazz. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1993.ix
2. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 14
3. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 23
4. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 11
5. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 55
6. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 55
7. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 144
8. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 148
9. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. 269
10. Megill, Donald D., and Richard S. Demory. Ix
11. Lawrence. Reviews for Introduction to Jazz History. Goodread, 2009.1
12. Goodreads. Reviews for Introduction to Jazz History. Goodread, 1992.2