The Influence of Jazz in Modern Popular Music

The influence of Jazz on modern popular music is sometimes overlooked. While the deep and

rich history of this American variety of music is sometimes misunderstood, many genres have

knowingly (or not) borrowed from it. The influence is so great that as we retrace the steps of

our favorite artists’ influences, it’s only a matter of time until we end up in the jazz world. Let’s

take a look at which factors have influenced pop the most and a couple of other factors

displayed various contemporary styles.

Harmony

A lot of the common chord progressions featured in Jazz can be found in various styles of

popular music, but R&B, blues and folk feature them especially. For example, the blues

progression and the famous II-V-I (or its close relative the IV-V-I) is found in most styles and has

been reinvented countless times. Some more advanced processes have also been borrowed

from jazz, like chord extensions, chord substitutions and modal interchange. All these features

are often portrayed in popular music and make up a lot of the material, even today.

Rhythm

Jazz features a vast array of various rhythms. The most famous is the swing rhythm which has

been adapted into popular music and also transformed into the shuffle groove, often featured

in blues. This syncopated rhythm really gets things moving forward with infectious energy and

brightness. Jazz also borrowed from other cultures to expand its rhythmic possibilities and

popularized various latin grooves such as sambas, bossa novas, afro-cuban and others. These

styles have transferred to pop, sometimes in a surprising way. Crafty artists integrate these

latin rhythms in original ways such as Taylor Hawkins’ bossa nova groove in Foo Fighters’

“Stacked Actors” uniting two completely different styles, latin and rock.

Jazz In Hip Hop

Hip hop is probably the genre that is most influenced by jazz and is arguably the most popular

style at this time. First of all, the amount of samples taken from jazz is enormous. Hundreds

and hundreds of rhythms and accompaniments are looped from various recordings of jazz

musicians, creating a completely new music serving as a rhythmic backdrop for a text

delivered by one or multiple hip hop artists. For example, according to whosampled.com, Miles

Davis’ music has been sampled 146 times, George Bensons’ 176 and Herbie Hancock’s a

whopping 282 times. The sheer amount of music borrowed from jazz is enormous and really

set the tone for hip hop on a whole.

A commonality between both genres can be also drawn when you compare the improvisational

aspect. Jazz musicians usually take turns improvising solos over recurring harmony and

bounce ideas off one another. Melodies, rhythms and quotes are used to create spontaneous

music that reflects the musician’s background, culture and artistic visions. In hip hop, you get

the same phenomenon, but with language over samples and/or loops. Rappers can use words,

quotes, rhythms and references to other raps in their prose to pass their message. On the spot,

improvised raps are common place and can get quite exciting when witnessing it in person,

just like a Jazz concert.

Jazz In Rock

Although more often related to blues, rock has taken from jazz in multiple ways. First of all,

the biggest rock acts of the 60s & 70s such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Neil

Young etc, all used improvisation to a large extent and often featured sections where a soloist

would come up with material on the spot for an unplanned amount of time.

While common chord progressions weren’t that much transferred from jazz to rock, the

musicians in the latter category didn’t shy away from extending their chords with additional

chord tones as Jazz musicians do. For example, chords are frequently expanded forming

Maj7s, Maj 9th, 7ths, 9ths, Min7 and Min9 in many songs, something that isn’t necessarily

common place in the other various influences of Rock.

Prominent Rock acts such as David Bowie, Frank Zappa and Sting often call upon the

musicality of jazz musicians. For example, David Bowie’s last album was mostly recorded by

acclaimed contemporary players including Ben Monder, Donny McCaslin, Mark Guiliana, Tim

Lefebvre and Jason Lindner. The album heavily draws its dark tone from the the deep musical

knowledge of the band and offers a completely unique experience for the listener.

Jazz Musicians In the Pop Genre

A lot of the time, the musicians involved in a popular music artist’s entourage and team come

from the jazz world. Since the style requires many skills such as sight-reading, improvising,

playing complex material or playing off the cuff without large amount of rehearsals, these

musicians are well-suited for the demanding situations of the pop world. This leads to a

definitive jazz flavour in music through arrangements, rhythms, solos and accompaniments. A

good example of this is Justin Timberlake’s live performances with his 12-piece band and the

re-arrangements of his material for concert performances.

Another interesting influence of jazz music is through producing. The best example of that is

the collaboration of Quincy Jones with Michael Jackson for 3 albums, including Thriller, the

highest-selling album of all time. Quincy Jones had previously worked as a trumpet player and/

or arranger with Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and many others.

This strong jazz influence can be heard on Michael’s melody lines such as “Baby be Mine”, the

spelling out of a minor 9th chord in “Beat It”’s main riff and “The Lady in my Life”’s jazz-like

arrangement. It is also interesting to note the appearance of musicians from Jazz influenced

Toto on many of the album’s tracks.

Apart from EDM, today’s music carries the torch of what jazz taught the musicians since the

fifties. You can still trace back various rhythmic, melodic and harmonic tools put forth in jazz in

most songs you hear on the radio, even if the end result seems far apart. From indie to hip

hop, the influence is always as present as jazz records in any serious musician’s collection.

About the Author

Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net,

the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both

as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from

all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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