Journey of Jazz Music from Afro-American Heritage to Arabic Culture


If all the trademark characteristics of the Afro-American culture is listed, one of them would surely be “Jazz” music. This exotic genre of music emerged as an indie music style and garnered immense popularity.

In this article, we’ll discuss the journey made by Jazz music from being an integral part of US culture to being adopted by some of the stalwart Arab musicians.

Our discussion will touch base the socio-historical background behind Jazz music at the time of its inception and also during the initial years. We’ll also extensively discuss the role of the saxophone in Jazz music and some of the notable saxophonists.

Jazz Music in the 20th Century

Jazz started to influence the US pop culture from late 19th century. Today, the influence is quite palpable as countless references from literature, sports and films point at Jazz and its sub-genres. From 1920s, Jazz music started to make impact on the literary domain. Jazz poetry is perhaps the best illustration of the overwhelming impact that Jazz made on US literature.

The journey hasn’t been smooth all the way. It was slammed by conservatives as an obscene form of entertainment because the listeners happened to feel jittery after listening to it.

But the attack of the puritans actually helped the bottom culture to grow. Jazz music not only earned the exclusive identity of an Afro-American art form, it also started to motivate the forerunners of women’s liberation movement. 1930s was the decade when Jazz got incorporated with Swing music. Some maestro soloists such as Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Tommy Dorsey became highly famous and Jazz music received the midas touch from them.

Saxophone in Jazz Music and Famous Saxophonists

It’s hard to imagine Jazz without the Saxophone. The Saxophone was developed in the 1930s and named after its developer Adolphe Sax. At the time of its development the Saxophone had no use in Jazz music. It was 1930s when the Jazz bands were using saxophone in their shows that the instrument music incorporated into the ensembles. Typically, the ‘sax’ section comprised of two altos, two tenors and two baritones.

Any discussion on Saxophone finally turns into a discussion on the saxophonists. That’s because world’s best saxophonists flaunted their unique style and contributed to the development of Jazz. So it’s not surprising their names creep into any discourse over Jazz.

Some of the best saxophonists, who enriched Jazz music with their distinctive style are;

1. Ornette Coleman

Alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman released an album called The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959. Free jazz and avant-garde jazz were his areas of forte. He developed free musical compositions that were free from contemporary tonal centers. Coleman had an innovative side. While developing the Free Jazz, he used inventive instrumentation such as Double Quartet. Some of his best performances are below;

1. Stan Getz

Stan Getz is renowned for his relaxed and ‘exotic’ style. Getz worked in bossa nova albums along with singer and guitarist Joao Gilberto and pianist Antonio Carlos Jobim. Bossa nova is a unique musical genre. It’s originally Brazilian and a lyrical fusion of Jazz and Samba. Getz tone in bossa nova was brilliant and the genre soon amassed huge following. In 1961 a Jazz album called Focus was recorded. Stan Getz was featured in that album as tenor saxophonist. He performed alongside a string orchestra. He played a fluid and gorgeous style. Below is the link to the album;

and here’s the link to an album called Getz/Gilberto in which he Getz performed with João Gilberto, a Brazilian guitarist;

1. Joe Henderson

Henderson’s debut album as a Jazz tenor saxophonist was Page One in 1963. Page One was one of the 30 albums in which Henderson appeared for Blue Note Records, an American jazz record label. His other albums for Blue Note were Our Thing, In ‘n Out, Mode for Joe, Inner Urge, etc. Hender signed with Milestone label in 1967 and worked in some unforgettable albums like The Kicker, Black Is the Color, Power to the People, Black in the Color, Canyon Lady, In Pursuit of Blackness, etc. Below are the links to some of his albums;

1. Wayne Shorter

Shorter is regarded as one of the great living Jazz saxophonists. In 1959, Shorter joined bandleader Art Blackey and became the musical director of the band. Shorter was originally a tenor saxophonist. But in the 60s, he switched to playing soprano saxophone and soon bagged fame and recognition. Some of his famous records for Blue Note are Adam’s Apple, Night Dreamer and Speak No Evil. In 1960s, Shorter joined the Second Great Quintet of the legendary Miles Davis. He later co-founded a band called Weather Report.

1. Sonny Rollins

Rollins is one of the most esteemed saxophonists ever. Some of his famous compositions such as Airegin, Oleo, Doxy, etc have become Jazz standards. Rollins started his career in Jazz music in the 40s as an alto saxophonist. In 1946 however, he switched to tenor saxophone. He exhibited a unique ability; even during the lengthy solos, he would hardly repeat himself. His career as a saxophonist spanned over six decades. Links to some of his famous compositions are below;

Jazz Music in the Arab World

Jazz music in the Arab peninsula has a multidimensional origin. Arabic jazz is often portrayed as a paradigm of the classic adage; “West meets East”.

Assi Rahbani and Mansour Rahbani, two Lebanese musicians, known commonly as Rahbani brothers had hands in the incorporation of jazz elements in Arabic music. Assi Rahbani’s wife Fairuz worked with the brothers and the trio became immensely successful. Ziad Rahbani, the son of Assi and Fairuz brought a new wave in Arabic jazz music. He composed many jazz songs and spearheaded the oriental jazz movement.

A direct link between Arabic and American jazz music was established by Dave Brubeck, the American composer and pianist when he paid a visit to the middle-east in late 1950s. He performed in various middle-eastern countries like Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He invited many local musicians to perform with him onstage, which fuelled the popularity of Jazz music among the Arabs and inspired Arabic musicians to come up with their own styles that involve Jazz elements.

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington made tours across the Arabian countries to popularise jazz music. Albeit conspiracy theorists often labeled such tours as Jazz Diplomacy, they agree that tours from US jazz ambassadors paved the way for Arabic-Jazz fusion, distinct from the oriental jazz, discussed above.

Some of the famous Arabic jazz musicians are;

Rima Khcheich – Below are links to her performances;

Ibrahim Maalouf – Some of his popular pieces of music are below;

Mohamed Mounir – Links to his famous albums are below;

Ahmad Kaabour – His famous performances are below;

Reem Kelani – The links below are some of her best performances;

Future of Arabic Jazz

The future of Arabic jazz looks bright. Even though jazz never became a mainstream Arabic musical genre, it is now inherently related to Arabic culture. Experiments on fusions and jazz subgenres are being carried out by jazz bands and independent musicians with instruments used for Arabic jazz.