Make a difference: Support jazz online

Support All About Jazz Your friends at All About Jazz are looking for readers to help back our website upgrade project. Of critical importance, this project will result in a vastly improved design across all devices and will make future All About Jazz projects much easier to implement. Click here to learn more about this project including donation rewards.

438

What is Jazz? Round 2

By

Sign in to view read count
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 or Sun Ra is the furthest thing from jazz. They might think it is noise.

Bottom line: If it feels like jazz to you—It is jazz. That's the beauty of this music!

Tags

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read You Too Can Be A Jazz Fan! Jazz Primer You Too Can Be A Jazz Fan!
by AAJ Staff
Published: April 23, 2016
Read Thinking Outside The Musical Box Jazz Primer Thinking Outside The Musical Box
by Donal Fox
Published: April 22, 2016
Read John Coltrane and the Meaning of Life Jazz Primer John Coltrane and the Meaning of Life
by Douglas Groothuis
Published: January 22, 2015
Read How to Listen to Jazz Jazz Primer How to Listen to Jazz
by Douglas Groothuis
Published: January 22, 2015
Read What is Jazz? Good Question... Jazz Primer What is Jazz? Good Question...
by Jason West
Published: January 12, 2012
Read Miles Davis: Unlimited Miles Jazz Primer Miles Davis: Unlimited Miles
by Bill King
Published: September 29, 2009
Read "Jean Luc Ponty Band at the Boulder Theater" Live Reviews Jean Luc Ponty Band at the Boulder Theater
by Geoff Anderson
Published: June 17, 2017
Read "The Free Musics by Jack Wright" Book Reviews The Free Musics by Jack Wright
by Daniel Barbiero
Published: May 10, 2017
Read "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe  Edition" Extended Analysis Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th...
by Doug Collette
Published: May 27, 2017
Read "Vorcza at Nectar's" Live Reviews Vorcza at Nectar's
by Doug Collette
Published: January 20, 2018
Read "Take Five with Dave Potter" Take Five With... Take Five with Dave Potter
by David Potter
Published: August 24, 2017
Read "Jazz from the US Virgin Islands' new breed" Multiple Reviews Jazz from the US Virgin Islands' new breed
by Nigel Campbell
Published: November 4, 2017