Magoosh English Class: Jazz Music in America

Welcome to the next lesson in our free English class series about Music in America! We’re going back in time a bit to explore the origins of jazz music in America.


  • Explore some of the history, influences, and genres of Jazz music in America
  • Learn basic English terms used around musical topics
  • Explore a literary device used in English

Difficulty Level:

C2 Learners


Approximately 15 minutes

Jazz Music in America

Click below to listen to a recording of this passage.

There are many American contributions to the world of music, but none compare to the influence of jazz. Known by many as “America’s Classical Music,” the improvisational and individualistic styles were the inspiration for modern music. Jazz also had a lasting effect on literature, fashion, and culture that has continued into the 21st century.

The genre originated in the African-American of neighborhoods of New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 19th century. Its roots can be traced back to older blues and ragtime styles that were mixed with European military band music. But more importantly, the foundations of jazz come as a means of music expression that originated in West Africa.

However, as a musical style, jazz is difficult to define because improvisation is one of its key characteristics. Classical music is played with loyalty to a musical score, whereas jazz makes use of musical ornamentation and accompaniment.

Supported by a rhythm section, a soloist improvises songs within the arrangement. A tune could sound different every time based on the mood and interaction between the performers and the audience.

Jazz is a musical form, but it became so much more. The 1920’s in America are known as both the Roaring 20’s and The Jazz Age. This time period would forever change the landscape of America. It was a cultural revolution where the foundations of ethnic bridges were built, as jazz bands in the 1930’s featured members who were both black and white. This changed some of the common attitudes towards race in America.

Today, many contemporary jazz artists have found their way into mainstream music albums. You can hear their influence on the radio, in concert halls, and on through the turntables of internationally renowned DJ’s. It’s a musical style that’s always evolving and changing with the times.

Learn more about the history of jazz music in America with this great clip from the Smithsonian:

Word Focus

  1. Improvisation – (verb) – To make, produce, create, or perform something without preparation.The band last night played some famous songs, but they improvised many of the melodies.
  2. Ragtime Music – (noun) – A popular form of music from the early 20th century with African American origins. It is defined by its “ragged” or off-beat rhythms.Ragtime was one of the first styles of African American music well known within American culture.
  3. Ornamentation – (noun) – Added or extra notes added to a melody. They’re not essential to carry the melody.The guitarist used a lot of ornamentation in her songs.
  4. Accompaniment – (noun) – A piece of music that is played with another piece of music.A pianist can play a tune with the left hand and an accompaniment with the right.
  5. Rhythm Section – (noun) – A group of musicians who play the rhythm and beat accompaniment for the rest of the band or the soloist.He’s a wonderful pianist and singer, but his rhythm section is phenomenal.
  6. Tune – (noun) – A song or melody played in a certain pitch or key.The band played an arrangement of classical tunes.
  7. Turntables – (noun) – The plate that supports and spins a record as it is played.The DJ was spinning amazing tunes on the turntables last night.

Grammar Center

Look at this sentence from the passage:

It was a cultural revolution where the foundations of ethnic bridges were built as jazz bands in the 1930’s featured members who were both black and white.

As an intermediate to advanced learner, you’re probably familiar with metaphors. To review:

  • Metaphor – A figure of speech that compares two things that are unrelated but may have similar characteristics.

However, as an ESL learner, you may not be aware that metaphors have a wide range of difficulty based on your level of comprehension. Writers use metaphor in both literary writing as well as academic writing like the passage above. So it’s important to be able to identify metaphors when you see them.

To start, know that metaphors are not always a direct comparison. Sometimes they’re implicit (implied but not clearly expressed), implied (suggested but not stated directly), or even hidden.

Let’s break down the metaphor from the above passage:

It was a cultural revolution where the foundations of ethnic bridges were built as jazz bands in the 1930’s featured members who were both black and white.

The writer obviously isn’t talking about an actual, physical bridge that was built. However, the meaning isn’t as easy to identify as a metaphor like: laughter is the best medicine.

This is a metaphor with layers. To understand, you have to know that physical bridges begin with a foundation like most structures. You have to understand the definition of ethnic (a population within a certain group). In addition, the term ethnic bridge is also a metaphor. So the metaphor could be considered a double metaphor!

That’s why this is a metaphor for an advanced ESL learner. If you want to take your learning to the next level, you must be able to identify and understand metaphors like this one, as they will appear in both literary and academic texts.


  1. Based on the information from the passage it could be inferred that:A. Jazz will most likely exist within the world of music for decades to come.B. The 1920s were a chaotic time in American history.C. Ragtime music no longer exists.

    D. Life in late 19th century New Orleans was difficult.

  1. After reading the passage, what word would best describe the author’s feeling towards jazz music?A. HonoredB. DisturbedC. Indifferent

    D. Appreciative

  1. Which word is nearest in meaning to Improvise?A. DeviseB. Ad-LibC. Contrive

    D. Rig

  1. Based on your understanding of the concept of jazz, which word best describes it?A. Musical styleB. MovementC. A Cultural Revolution

    D. All of the Above

  1. The internet isn’t a mysterious labyrinth that we can’t understand. We created it. But we created a massive blue ocean full of underwater mountains, plants, and dangerous animals.Based on this metaphor, one could infer that the internet is:A. SimpleB. Baffling

    C. Complex

    D. Annoying

  1. What is meant by landscape in this metaphor from the passage?This time period would forever change the landscape of America.A. OutlookB. Terrain

    C. Aspect

    D. Structure


Show Correct Answers:
  1. A
  2. D
  3. B
  4. D
  5. C
  6. D
Jake Pool

Jake Pool

Jake Pool worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade and left to pursue his career as a writer and ESL teacher. In his time at Magoosh, he's worked with hundreds of students and has created content that's informed—and hopefully inspired!—ESL students all across the globe. Jake records audio for his articles to help students with pronunciation and comprehension as he also works as a voice-over artist who has been featured in commercials and on audiobooks. You can read his posts on the Magoosh blog and see his other work on his portfolio page at You can follow him on LinkedIn!
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on whatsapp