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In contrast to the efforts of commentators and enthusiasts of certain types of jazz, who have argued for narrower definitions that exclude other types, the musicians themselves are often reluctant to define the music they play.As Duke Ellington, one of jazz's most famous figures, said: "It's all music".Although jazz is considered highly difficult to define, at least in part because it contains so many varied subgenres, improvisation is consistently regarded as being one of its key elements.The centrality of improvisation in jazz is attributed to influential earlier forms of music: the early blues, a form of folk music which arose in part from the work songs and field hollers of the African-American slaves on plantations.Attempts have been made to define jazz from the perspective of other musical traditions, such as European music history or African music.

Intellectuals around the world have hailed jazz as "one of America's original art forms".Cool jazz developed near the end of the 1940s, introducing calmer, smoother sounds and long, linear melodic lines.The 1950s saw the emergence of free jazz, which explored playing without regular meter, beat and formal structures, and in the mid-1950s, hard bop emerged, which introduced influences from rhythm and blues, gospel, and blues, especially in the saxophone and piano playing.Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation.Jazz has roots in West African cultural and musical expression, and in African-American music traditions including blues and ragtime, as well as European military band music.

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