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!

Shop

More Articles

Read Essential Buying Tips for Building a Jazz Collection Jazz Primer Essential Buying Tips for Building a Jazz Collection
by AAJ Staff
Published: April 23, 2016
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 "Essential Buying Tips for Building a Jazz Collection" Jazz Primer Essential Buying Tips for Building a Jazz Collection
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 "You Too Can Be A Jazz Fan!" Jazz Primer You Too Can Be A Jazz Fan!
by AAJ Staff
Published: April 23, 2016
Read "How To Listen: An Introduction to Getting Into Jazz" Getting Into Jazz How To Listen: An Introduction to Getting Into Jazz
by Mark Barnett
Published: March 28, 2016
Read "The Tierney Sutton Band at SFJAZZ Center" Live Reviews The Tierney Sutton Band at SFJAZZ Center
by Asher Wolf
Published: August 17, 2016
Read "Greg Lake & Keith Emerson: Their Best Work Together" Rediscovery Greg Lake & Keith Emerson: Their Best Work Together
by John Kelman
Published: December 31, 2016
Read "Allan Harris at SMOKE Jazz & Supper Club" New York @ Night Allan Harris at SMOKE Jazz & Supper Club
by Peter Jurew
Published: October 6, 2016
Read "Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight" Book Reviews Stan Levey: Jazz Heavyweight
by David A. Orthmann
Published: April 24, 2016

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Sponsor: ECM Records | BUY NOW  

Support our sponsor

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!

Buy it!