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Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion

Narrated by: Bill Messenger
Length: 5 hrs and 59 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (53 ratings)

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Summary

Jazz is a uniquely American art form, one of America's great contributions to not only musical culture, but world culture, with each generation of musicians applying new levels of creativity that take the music in unexpected directions that defy definition, category, and stagnation.

Now you can learn the basics and history of this intoxicating genre in an eight-lecture series that is as free-flowing and original as the art form itself. You'll follow the evolution of jazz from its beginnings in the music and dancing of the antebellum plantations to its morphing into many shapes as its greatest innovators gave us ragtime, the blues, the swing music of the big band era, boogie-woogie, and big band blues.

You'll follow the rise of modern jazz in all of its many forms, including bebop, cool, modal, free, and fusion jazz. And you'll learn how the course of jazz was changed by key technological innovations, such as the invention of the microphone, which allowed smaller-voiced singers like Bing Crosby or Mel Torme to share a limelight once reserved for the bigger voices of stars like Bessie Smith or Al Jolson.

Beginning the story on those antebellum plantations, Professor Messenger reveals how the "cakewalks" of slave culture gave birth to a dance craze at the end of the 19th century that was ignorant of its own humble roots. And he explores the irony of the minstrel shows, which derived from Southern beliefs of black cultural inferiority yet eventually spawned a musical industry that African-American musicians would dominate for decades to come.

As a bonus, the lectures are also very entertaining, with Professor Messenger frequently turning to his piano to illustrate his musical points, often with the help of guest artists.

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying reference material will be available in your Library section along with the audio.

©1995 The Teaching Company, LLC (P)1995 The Great Courses

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  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Performance
    3 out of 5 stars
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars

A nice introduction but needs more content

This course covers various styles of jazz as it developed from the late 19th century until the mid to late twentieth century.

Starting from ragtime, the professor discusses the development of African music into an American art form in an interesting and clearly well informed manner. I have a couple of issues with the course which is why I've given three stars but it's really more like a 3.5 star course.

Firstly, the level of detail in the theory is very uneven. In some cases we get really detailed descriptions of what to listen for in a certain style of jazz. In others, words like Dorean mode and modulation seem to get thrown in without much preface. I've done a fair amount of musical theory and in the last lecture I pretty much lost track of what was being said.

I will say that the quality definitely decreases as you move forwards. The negatives below really only apply as the course progresses.

Secondly, the professor seems to assume we already know many jazz artists names and songs going into the course. The reason I chose to listen to this course was to learn who I should listen to and what to listen out for. But we don't get much help in that regard (except in the early sessions) - he throws names around and we just have to assume they are relevant to the topic at hand but there is little introduction or narrative about who they are or how they fit in to the topic at hand.

Finally, the final lecture definitely needed to be spread out over several lectures. After covering maybe one style of jazz a lecture, we suddenly have four or five in one go and there's little chance to understand how they all relate to each other.


This course was a let down to me and I hope they do a second edition that does the topic justice. If you are really into the topic this might be worth your while, but I'm going to get a book on the history of jazz and read that instead (along with some records...).

9 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Excellent introduction to The history of Jazz

Where does Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion rank among all the audiobooks you’ve listened to so far?

I have listened to a lot of Great Courses. This is one of the best. It is very accessible, entertaining and illustrated with examples played by the lecturer who is a fine jazz pianist.

What was one of the most memorable moments of Elements of Jazz: From Cakewalks to Fusion?

One of Rachmanino's prelaudes was being 'ragged' when the composer (unknown to the pianist) was in the room....but I won't spoil the story.

What about Professor Bill Messenger’s performance did you like?

Bill Messenger is a fine jazz player and loves his subject. This came across very clearly in the course. An inspirational teacher.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Not advisable. I would recommend listening to some of the music talked about after each lecture.

Any additional comments?

The course material is adequate but not as comprehensive as some other courses. And I wish the course was longer!

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars

Great jazz primer but could have been much better

I'm a jazz fan and ordered this instantly when I saw that the Great Courses series had a course on jazz. I had previously listened to Bob Greenberg's excellent course on How to Listen to and Understand Great Music so my expectations were high for this. Bill Messenger isn't as exuberant or as articulate as Greenberg, few people are, but I was a little disappointed by his, sometimes hesitant, delivery style. Having said that, this is a good romp through jazz history from Cakewalk through to Swing, Bebop, Free Jazz, Fusion and very briefly even touching on (shock, horror) non-American jazz styles. The demonstrations are well delivered and Messenger obviously knows his stuff and is more fluent when playing than speaking. Sadly this is the only jazz course available on Great Courses and it seems that this was recorded some time ago. There is a gap in the market here for a more comprehensive course that has greater depth.

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Really enjoyed this.

Lots of interesting nuggets of info. Well thought through and fascinating. A history of jazz with examples. Brilliant and highly recommended. Thanks

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Absolutley fantastic!

Hands down one of the best lectures i've heard! Jazz history with examples.A great listen!

3 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

The vacancy is still open...

I have listened to some great lecture series from the Great Courses stable but alas this isn't one of them. It certainly has interest but the overall package doesn't add up to much. While Bill Messenger seems to have taken the elements of jazz, notably improvisation, to heart and tried to mirror this in the series form it doesn't always work and overall leaves this being a superficial and overly brief saunter through the history of jazz. Bop gets one lecture which with all the playing adds up to about 20 minutes talking.

So there is still a vacancy for a good audible book on Jazz or, even better, another Great Course from a different voice.

5 people found this helpful

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Learning about music as it should be: with music!

I'm quite curious about jazz and I've listened to another book previously. The problem was that, being a complete novice in this form of music, I was unable to link what was explained to the actual music. As interesting as it all was, it remained dry and uninformative.

Not here! Bill Messenger plays the music he talk about, with gusto and quite some virtuosity. When needed, he even invited other musicians to play along. Fantastic!

This is by far the "greatest course" I've listened to yet!

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Highly recommended

This was a true delight. The ideas have led me onto new paths and to return more knowledgably to old paths. The narration and content was beautifully delivered. I enjoyed every moment.

  • Overall
    3 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    2 out of 5 stars

Missed Opportunity

It may be that if I hadn’t listened to any of the other Music Great Courses (which are awesome!) I would have a higher opinion of this one. Alas it is not so. Despite picking up in a few places this was not very entertaining, pretty weak on history, and theory, and contained few interesting anecdotes. I undoubtedly did learn one or two things along the way, but I find it hard to make this a solid recommendation.