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All About Jazz: The web's most comprehensive jazz resource


Why Is Jazz A Dirty Word?

By Published: February 26, 2011
That jazz music has, at its very roots, a strong rhythmic element is a well-established fact. But probing deeper into our history as human beings reveals a universal need to have an ecstatic experience—to step outside of ourselves, so to speak, and dancing to a beat is one of the most powerful methods for achieving this. This ecstatic element was another key ingredient that helped create jazz music that the common listener loved, because it made listeners want to get up and dance. The unique swing rhythmic factor in jazz is closely connected to body and dance movement. To illustrate this point, imagine back to when you were a child, joyfully skipping on the playground in a rhythmic pattern. This skipping is rhythmically very similar to the swing elements present in jazz music.

Dancing to music or even tapping your foot also takes the listener out of the role of just being a passive spectator to being an active participant.

Another significant element that help make jazz unique is rhythmic syncopation. Syncopation in music includes using a variety of rhythms which are, in some way, unexpected in their deviation from the strict succession of regularly spaced strong and weak beats. Extra stress and emphasis is placed, and accented on beats out of the norm, adding elements of surprise and playfulness in jazz. Much like children at play, spontaneously and playfully making something up on the spot, jazz has always had this quality at its core. Once again, the dictionary defines the word playful is:

Full of fun and high spirits; frolicsome or sportive: a playful kitten. 2. Humorous; jesting.

Surprise and playfulness in music is fun, can help relieve monotony, and has always been a part of jazz composition. However, in the early 1940s, jazz musicians started looking for new directions to explore. A monumental paradigm shift occurred within jazz, and a new style of jazz was born, called bebop. It had lightning-fast tempos, intricate melodies containing angular intervals, and much more dissonant and complex harmonies. Bebop was considered jazz for intellectuals. No longer were there huge big bands playing jazz music in dance halls, but instead smaller groups that played this new form of jazz for a listening, rather than dancing, audience. Many of the playful elements disappeared, only to be replaced by a more serious focus on technical expertise, and the analysis of jazz as an art form.

Today, the typical listener really enjoys music that has roots that stem from jazz—but just don't call it jazz. People still want to dance to music and be participants, not just spectators. So rock music, R&B and rap dominate the popular music listened to and purchased by music lovers today. Ironically, all these musical styles were birthed right out of jazz. They all have a strong rhythmic element, with plenty of syncopation.

Jazz historian Joachim E. Berendt, in his 1952 book, The Jazz Book offered the following observation about how jazz has continued to evolve: "Today, the jazz musician must be fluent in many styles, not just of the main reasons why rock elements can be so smoothly integrated into jazz is that, conversely, rock has drawn nearly all its elements from jazz—especially from the blues, spirituals, gospel songs, and the popular music of the black ghetto, rhythm and blues and soul music." Drummer Shelly Manne
Shelly Manne
Shelly Manne
1920 - 1984
once said, "If jazz borrows from rock, it only borrows from itself"! Saxophonist/educator Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
Dave Liebman
shares that "To me 'fusion' doesn't mean a rock beat or an Indian drum. It's a technical word that means to put together...of course all music is a of course it's commonplace to put together styles; everybody does this every day" (Downbeat Magazine January, 2011). Bassist/educator Dr. Lou Fischer states that "Fusion, to me, represents a juxtaposition of any and all genres of music. In the broadest sense, we play fusion music any time we play jazz. Even in straight-ahead jazz, there's a fusion of all elements—classical, African traditions and rhythms, Brazilian music." So we can rejoice that the true ingredients in jazz music continue to have a major impact and influence on many styles of music.

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