Forged in the multicultural melting pot of early 20th century New Orleans—a place where clanging cymbals from China accented the bluesy wail from the Deep South—jazz is America’s great indigenous music. The genre grew up in prohibition-era speakeasies, when soloists like trumpeter Louis Armstrong (another genius from the genre’s birthplace) were complemented by ever-more sophisticated compositions and arrangements by the likes of Duke Ellington. The music was popularized in the ‘30s as the swinging sound of Benny Goodman and Count Basie entertained dancing masses in grand ballrooms and on radio broadcasts. At the same time, pop tunes from Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley composers—including George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin—found new life in the hands of jazz musicians, particularly stylists like Billie Holiday.

But the ‘40s and ‘50s held some of the genre’s greatest leaps forward, when it became a groundbreaking medium for artistic expression. The small bebop bands were a nimble vehicle for off-the-cuff solos from the likes of alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Thelonious Monk. While Dave Bruebeck became a sensation on college campuses in the ‘50s, Miles Davis’ mid-century trajectory—from bebop to cool modal jazz on the landmark Kind of Blue to electric fusion jazz inspired by Jimi Hendrix on the pivotal Bitches Brew—encapsulated many of the changes happening within the music for the next 30 years. The avant-garde power of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane in the ‘60s took jazz to new artistic heights as it challenged audiences as much as musicians. Acoustic music made a comeback in the ‘80s thanks to the so-called "young lion” traditionalists led by the Marsalis family and others, while smooth jazz mingled with R&B and singers like Diana Krall kept the repertoire of standards alive at the end of the century. Jazz in the new millennium continues to evolve with technologically savvy musicians who know their history but aren’t bound by it.