Jazz Influences in Bluegrass

Robert Cantwell’s article, Hillbilly Music, outlines the influences of 1930s industrial America on Bill Monroe and his music.  I was most interested in New Orleans and Chicago’s contribution to bluegrass through jazz.

New Orleans jazz followed the tradition of one lead instrument throughout an entire song.  Louis Armstrong changed all that by introducing “breaks” or solos for different instruments.

“Breaks” also allowed for shifting intensities of sound marked by a change in volume and/or pace.  Bill Monroe’s time in Chicago arguably provided bluegrass with its characteristic “breaks.”  His 1976 mandolin recording, “Milenberg Joy,” is a quicker paced version of a song Louis Armstrong recorded with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

Bill Monroe used “breaks” to avoid silence and promote his aggressive sound.  These “hot licks” set bluegrass apart from similar genres like traditional country music.  Monroe, one of many twentieth century rural-to-urban migrants, found a vibrant jazz scene in Chicago after leaving Kentucky.  Louis Armstrong’s innovation in jazz also set the stage for another bluegrass trait: reinterpretation of existing sounds.

Questions for discussion:

What other genres (similar to bluegrass) draw on jazz influences?

How else did urban migration impact bluegrass–in terms of audience, sound, composition, etc.?

One thought on “Jazz Influences in Bluegrass

  • February 13, 2015 at 4:19 pm


    These are wonderful questions that highlight the importance of the genre’s innovative spirit and historical roots in the region. I find it interesting that both jazz and bluegrass allow for a re/presentation of oneself while pulling from the immediate soundscape. It would be interesting to compare the material components of performance– what the performers wear, the audience, setting etc.

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