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10 Important Musicians of Early Jazz

Best known as a bandleader, King Oliver was also Louis Armstrong’s teacher and was responsible for launching Armstrong’s career by featuring him in his band. Oliver played with many of the great musicians of early jazz including Jelly Roll Morton. He famously turned down a regular gig at New York’s Cotton Club in 1927 that was snatched up instead by Duke Ellington and which subsequently helped Ellington rise to fame.

A prolific performer who began by playing in New Orleans brothels, Jelly Roll Morton combined ragtime with various other musical styles, including blues, minstrel show tunes, Hispanic music, and white popular songs. His virtuosity at the piano and his mixture of composition and improvisation had a lasting effect on jazz performance. Near the end of his life, folklorist Alan Lomax recorded a series of interviews with the pianist. To this day, the recordings of Morton speaking about his early days in New Orleans, and playing examples of various musical styles, provide a valuable glimpse into the beginnings of jazz.

Growing up listening to Scott Joplin’s rags, James P. Johnson was one of the originators of the stride piano style. His music, which used most of the conventions of ragtime, also included improvisation and elements of the blues, two aspects that were widely influential in the development of jazz. The music of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk is due in large part to the innovations of James P. Johnson.

With his unique lyrical approach to the trumpet, Armstrong changed the face of jazz, shifting the focus from collective improvisation to personal expression through soloing. He was also a singer with a distinctive voice and had a knack for scat singing. Throughout his career, he never lost the ability to appeal to a wide audience, and because of his celebrity and his lovable persona, he was selected by the U.S. State Department to represent his country as a musical ambassador, promoting jazz on international tours.