American Music Through the Decades – From Jazz to Hip-Hop

In the 1940s, music united teenagers into a youth culture. This era saw the rise of doo wop, soul music and folk revival with politically and socially charged lyrics such as those of Bob Dylan.

In the 1980s, jazz musicians experimented with fusion styles that combined elements of rock, funk and R&B with traditional jazz. Pianist Robert Glasper is among the most notable of these jazz hip-hop fusion artists.


In the 1940s, jazz embodied the emerging modern American culture. Its youthful dynamism, formal flexibility, emotional honesty, and tolerant social norms supplanted entrenched Victorian ideals of hierarchy, purity, and moral discipline. Its stomping rhythms and pleasure-centered dancing fueled black popular culture, which gave rise to Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Etta James, and Elvis Presley.

Its cosmopolitan roots, embracing African and European vernaculars, and seasoned by what New Orleans jazz pianist Jelly Roll referred to as a Latin tinge, also helped to create a post-bellum cultural milieu that embraced the arts (music, dance, theater, painting, and poetry), social activism, and black self-consciousness. Amiri Baraka and other forward-looking African American artists, writers, and intellectuals positioned jazz as the bulwark of their interdisciplinary Black Arts Movement.

In the 1960s, jazz shifted into a deep state of permanent diversity. While avant-garde innovators like Taylor, Coleman, and Sun Ra pursued explicitly noncommercial projects, many musicians found steady, remunerative work in the studios, where various strains of modern jazz suffused film soundtracks and TV show themes.

The emergence of funk and fusion in the 1970s signaled that jazz had lost its status as the dominant force in mainstream American music. During the decade, artists who were highly skilled in post-bop styles such as Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Eddie Henderson, and George Benson achieved varying levels of commercial success with material that blended jazz-funk grooves with rock and R&B timbres.

By the 1990s, when America frantically stocked up supplies in preparation for the Y2K catastrophe, people bounced to the beat of hip hop and heavy metal, while pop stars like Mariah Carey and Britney Spears brought an upbeat texture to the genre. Country also experienced a resurgence, with acts like the Backstreet Boys and Vanilla Ice bringing a sexy side to traditional American country.


The 1940s saw an era of upbeat tunes that encouraged people to stay positive and motivated during times of war and hardship. Genres like rhythm and blues, whose stylists included Ray Charles, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Isaac Hayes, helped African American musicians spread their music to white audiences as well. Rock and roll, whose artists ranged from all-natural Janis Joplin to ethereal folk sensation Carole King to guitar-wielding legends Jimmy Hendrix, brought a new level of energy to America’s music landscape.

The 1960s were a time of sexual liberation and racial conflict, reflected in the musical styles that emerged. Doo wop peaked, girl groups sprang up, and genres like surf and psychedelic rock arose as part of a youth counter culture movement. Rock and country were also popular, with performers such as Merle Haggard and the Allman Brothers leading the rise of Bakersfield sound in country music and Johnny Cash giving the world a taste of classic American country.

Reggae and funk became prominent in the 1970s, while rock morphed into glam, punk and disco. The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd led southern rock to prominence, and artists such as Paul Simon, Carly Simon, and Gloria Gaynor gained widespread popularity.

In the 1990s, jazz and hip hop crossed paths on a wide scale. Groups such as A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets drew from the sounds of classic jazz recordings on their albums, while artists such as alto saxophonist Branford Marsalis collaborated with rappers Easy Mo Bee and DJ Premier on hip hop productions. Pianist Robert Glasper also pioneered a style of jazz hip-hop fusion, adapting the language of the beats and loops of hip hop to traditional jazz ensemble instrumentation.


Throughout the 20th century, American musical styles continually evolved to reflect new national trends and social attitudes. As the country grew and incorporated many different cultures into its population, genres like folk music, jazz, big band and swing adapted to reflect current situations.

The emergence of recording technologies allowed music to become more accessible, changing how people experienced it. Early phonographs and gramophones allowed singers to record their voices, making it possible for audiences to hear them at any time they chose. This shift to recorded music led to a dramatic change in how people enjoyed American songs.

Rock and roll emerged in the 1950s, drawing from blues, boogie woogie and jazz influences. Rock and roll became the youth culture of the era, uniting teenagers with music that had catchy rhythms and lyrics that spoke directly to their feelings. This music branched out into doo wop, soul and prog-rock. Rock and roll also became more political as the Civil Rights Movement brought racial integration into society, and lyrics took on more mature themes.

By the 1980s, Motown in Detroit helped produce soul legends like Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. In the same decade, the Folk Revival came to prominence and added politically and socially charged messages to America’s popular music. The 1960s also saw the British Invasion of bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, and Rhythm and Blues began to branch out into Surf music, disco and punk.

By the 1990s, pop artists like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston took center stage with their booming voices and infectious melodies. The decade also saw a rise in Indie singer-songwriters such as Liz Phair, Tori Amos and Sheryl Crow. Ska-influenced pop punk gave the world Sublime and No Doubt.


A localized movement originating in Seattle, grunge arose in the late 80s and was associated with bands like Mudhoney, Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. Its appeal was to the disenfranchised, a generation of young people who were worried about their future and the direction of America. Music was a form of rebellion against a corrupt society and a dehumanizing music industry. Grunge music was heavy rock and punk combined with a do-it-yourself, anti-commercial philosophy that emphasized authenticity. It was a genre that spoke directly to the listener and allowed a level of connectivity between band and audience that never existed before. It was not uncommon for a fan to see the band members walking down the street.

The 1960s was a pivotal time for music, as folk revival introduced politically and socially charged songs to American culture. This was also the decade that saw The British Invasion, with instant sensations like The Beatles and Rolling Stones influencing America’s music. Meanwhile, Motown Records in Detroit introduced soul music with stars like Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. And James Brown innovated funk, a style that incorporated psychedelic rock and was more rhythmic than soul music.

During the 1980s, the popularity of glam metal declined and grunge took its place. Grunge featured bands with distorted guitars and angst-ridden lyrics. It carried on music’s long tradition of rattling Middle America and challenging mainstream society. Hip-hop began in the mid-1970s when urban African Americans in New York City started isolating percussion beats from songs and speaking over them, creating rap music. It would soon explode out of the inner city and become a nationwide phenomenon as acts like Run DMC, Public Enemy, and the Beastie Boys made it popular.


With roots in blues and jazz, hip-hop grew as an American music genre when young African Americans met with young immigrants and children of immigrants from Jamaica to create rap and dance. Hip hop is not just a style of music, but a culture that is alive and well in New York City, where its earliest performers were born and raised.

In the early 1980s, rappers started performing in venues ranging from roller rinks to house parties to high school auditoriums. The first hits were party records, like Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, which eased unfamiliar audiences into the genre with a playful style. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five followed with the moving commentary “The Message,” which deviated from the funky party songs popularized by Sugar Hill Records and focused on the dangerous conditions that many inner-city Black Americans lived under.

Artists became known for their personas – cooler-than-life characters who might be super-smooth or gangland tough. They incorporated real street sounds like sirens and gunshots into their music and created internal rhymes to emphasize the beat (rather than repeating words that matched up with each other). By the 1990s, hip hop had become a major mainstream genre that included artists such as N.W.A, Run DMC and Public Enemy.

At this time, hip hop also made its way into American pop and country music, with artists such as Mariah Carey and Britney Spears giving a sweeter sound to pop and Shania Twain introducing the sexy side of country. The 1990s saw the rise of sampling, where musical elements from other songs were reincorporated into hip hop tracks. This technique was controversial, as original copyright owners of sampled material didn’t always want their work included without compensation.