Jazz 101: Europe


Today we’ll be continuing our discussion of John Szwed’s “Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz“, with a look at the direction taken by jazz in Europe.

Last time, we touched on the influence that jazz-rock and free jazz had on the 1980s and 1990s. We saw how the continued diffusion of jazz styles, along with other factors, made it difficult to chart the progress of jazz at the time. We also saw how this didn’t stop new and interesting music from being made. Even while newspapers and magazines reported on the death of jazz, the reality of its progress was largely ignored.

Now, we’ll turn our attention toward Europe. Although we’re only now covering it, jazz was big in Europe, as it had spread worldwide within the first twenty years of its existence.


The spread of jazz throughout the world had a large effect on the music of every genre, and distinctly shaped the music of the 20th century. “But it is only in the last thirty years that American jazz musicians and audiences have become at all aware of the role the music has played elsewhere and of the original music that has developed” (p. 278).

Europe was well aware of jazz from the very beginning. Some of the first and most important writing on jazz came from Europeans, who saw it as the musical equivalent to the painting styles of futurism and fauvism. In part, it was the critical reception of jazz in Europe that made Americans aware of it as a cultural phenomenon.

“The first European musician to receive serious recognition from Americans was Django Reinhardt, the Gypsy guitarist who appeared in the 1930s and whose brilliance on the instrument forced Americans to think again about who owned the future of jazz” (p. 279). His style was alien, yet undeniably jazz. His ability to bring a mixture of novelty and familiarity to his music played a big role in his success.

It wasn’t until after World War II that Europe began to make considerable contributions to the landscape of jazz. And really, Europe came into its own only in the last thirty-five years, with the revival of big bands.

European Improvisational Music

In the last part of the twentieth century, more than a handful of musicians started breaking away from American improvisation. Instead, they spearheaded a new movement of European improvisational music, or spontaneous music.

“This is music that is rooted less in a tradition than in individual interests and abilities, especially the ability to improvise with minimal regard for existing forms or styles like the blues or the pop song, and with firm disregard for grooves or swing” (p. 281).

European improvisational music seemed to owe little to jazz. The techniques they used were different. And they weren’t holding themselves to follow or improve on any forms. At the same time, it was also intensely collective music, even more so than its American counterpart.

The break with American free jazz was real and clear enough. But there’s no denying the influence it carried forward, through both America and Europe. While European improvised music broke away, even it was not safe from the influence of free jazz.

“European improvised music is as good a name as any for a music which has pushed the idea of improvisation to its furthest extremes, for we still have no language for talking about music which seeks this degree of freedom” (p. 282).

Final Thoughts

To be fair, we should have been looking at the changes of jazz in Europe throughout this whole series. As it is, there are bound to be connections and influences that were traded back and forth that we’ve missed. But this series was never meant to be the end-all-be-all for the jazz enthusiast. This is Jazz 101. A nice introduction and overview for the curious jazz fan.

As we make our way through the last chapters of John F. Szwed’s “Jazz 101”, keep that in mind. With our discussion of Europe at an end, we’ll pick up next week with the penultimate chapter.

Next time, we’ll look at Acid Jazz, Drum ‘n’ Bass, and Neo-Swing.


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