What is jazz? Those three words form one of the toughest questions in music. Ask a hundred people and you are likely to get as many different answers.
Few things have given me more pleasure in life than listening to the music we call jazz. Even after hearing several thousand recordings in over 15 years and seeing countless live shows, I cannot offer a definitive definition of the word "jazz."
The challenge may lie in the term "jazz" itself. Can a living music, one that may well be the most colorful and varied art form in the world, be defined by a single word? After pondering that question for this feature, I'd have to say no. The music that falls into the jazz idiom takes on infinite faces and influences including swing, bebop, cool, fusion, smooth and avant-garde. As jazz spread across the globe, the music took on more and more sounds.
Let's go back to our fictional survey of 100 people. What kind of responses would we get? Some may call anything with saxophone or trumpet jazz. Others may base their definition on the feel of the music. Does it swing? Still others base their views of what defines jazz on the reputation of the musicians. Some say there must be improvisation for it to be jazz.
There is little argument that two key elements of jazz are improvisation and swing. Let's briefly look at each:
Unquestionably, most jazz involves a degree of improvisation. In most jazz settings, someone is usually improvising. But, not all improvised music can be called jazz. The Grateful Dead rarely played what was written, but they certainly are not considered a jazz band. Conversely, not all music found in the jazz bins is improvised. Consider some of Duke Ellington
's tightly arranged suites. While improvisation is without a doubt an integral part of jazz music, it is not an absolute.
Swing is even harder to define. What is swing? It is a feeling more than a concrete concept. Swing is that element that makes you move your body or want to dance. It is a buoyancy that lives in much of what we call jazz...the propulsive beat and forward momentum. But, does jazz always swing? Absolutely not. Anyone familiar with the works of Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton knows that their music is the antithesis of swing, yet most would define their music as jazz.
So, that brings us back to the main topic, "What is jazz?" In his book Jazz Styles, Mark Gridley offers that music need only to be associated with the jazz tradition to be called jazz. Instead of a strict definition, we use the word "jazz" to describe a character of the music. The lines have been blurred. Is Bitches Brew jazz or rock? I'd file it under jazz. My father would call it rock.
What you call jazz, I might not consider jazz at all. I can't tell you how many times I mention my love of jazz, only to hear "Oh, I love Kenny G." To me, Kenny G and the rest of his so-called smooth jazz cronies, do not play jazz. It certainly neither swings nor contains much, if any, improvisation. To them, Cecil Taylor