What Is Jazz?

The headline for this post is a bit deceptive. I'm really not interested in offering one more definition of jazz, or of discussing elements such as swing, syncopation, improvisation, blue notes, and so on. All of that has been abundantly covered in a bazillion books on jazz history, jazz theory, and jazz musicians. A better title, though a more confusing one at first glance, might be, "What ISN'T Jazz?" It's a question I've contemplated off and on. In that respect, I guess I'm no different from a multitude of other jazz musicians who have pondered the same issue over the years and ventured their opinions. Often you don't hear the question expressed as a question, but as a conviction delivered with some heat: "That isn't jazz!" Let me say up front that I consider the topic of what is and isn't jazz to be pretty academic. I'm more fascinated by the fact that some people get so passionate about defending a sacred ideal, some essence of jazzness, than I am by the subject itself. Yet I have to confess that I find the same attitude rearing up in me on occasion--times when it bothers me to hear the word "jazz" used to describe something I wouldn't consider to be even close to jazz. Improvised music, quite possibly; jazz, no. So what am I, an elitist? If I am, I'm certainly not hardcore about it. Frankly, the intensity and hair-splitting that I've witnessed over the jazz/not-jazz issue has struck me as ridiculous, not to mention pointless, since it's one of those debates that will never be settled. That being said, I think the word "jazz" does get used too freely at times. Case in point: I've played in lots of church worship teams over the years. Most of them have involved a lot of white folks playing guitars. Nothing wrong with that, but I cringe whenever I hear someone say, "Let's jazz it up." It's kind of like hearing a mariachi accordionist say, "Let's rock and roll!" What does it mean to "jazz it up"? I'm not sure, but I can testify that the results I've witnessed have never resembled jazz. Musicians who rarely if ever listen to jazz, let alone practice it, aren't going to just suddenly produce it like Bullwinkle pulling a rabbit out of the hat. So here I am, caught between two extremes. On the one hand, I can be a jazz racist, aggressively and vehemently defending the purity of the form (according to my ideal of it) and getting my undies all in a bunch over musical miscegenation. On the other hand, I can adopt so inclusive a perspective that the word "jazz" can mean just about anything under the sun, and consequently mean nothing at all. It seems like there ought to be a less polarized option. Maybe there is. If so, finding it is probably best begun by defusing some of the negativity inherent to this topic. Coming from a jazz purist, the words, "That's not jazz!" come across as an indictment. Upon hearing Weather Report in concert, Ben Webster is reported to have flown into one of his famous rages, walked onstage, and overturned Joe Zawinul's electric piano. Such behavior is an extreme, but it captures the attitude of those who are so entrenched in an ideal that they judge and attack whatever doesn't match up. It doesn't have to be that way. It shouldn't be that way. How can any two people have a decent, productive discussion with that kind of Hatfield-McCoy mentality? So let me be plain: When I say that something isn't jazz, I'm not saying it's bad music. Neither am I saying it's good music. I'm not making value judgments at all. I'm just saying that I don't consider the music I'm hearing to fit under the jazz umbrella. That's all. Why try to make something be what it isn't? Why not just let it be what it is and recognize that, if it's done well, it has its own legitimacy? Distinguishing between jazz and non-jazz involves at least a certain amount of subjectivity. That's certainly true of me as I share a few of my own thoughts on the topic. With that acknowledgment, I'd like to address what I think are a few misconceptions about jazz: * IMPROVISATION. Some people use the word "jazz" to describe extemporaneous playing. But while improvisation is a crucial hallmark of jazz, it's not an exclusive one. Rock musicians improvise. Bluegrass musicians improvise. Classical musicians improvise. Beethoven wove melodies and harmonies out of thin air long before Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet ever played a blue note. * THE BLUES SCALE. Playing the blues scale is not the same thing as playing jazz. Playing the blues scale is playing the blues scale. The blues scale and blue notes are components of a good jazz vocabulary, but they're only a part of it, and, as with improvisation, they're not exclusive to jazz. Rock guitarists use the blues scale extensively. * HARMONY. The chords associated with jazz are usually quite colorful due to the use of upper tones and creative voicings. Ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths are normative, along with various chord alterations. In jazz, a V7 chord is rarely just a V7 chord; keyboard players and guitarists add upper extensions as a matter of course. While simple triads are used from time to time, jazz is not a triadic idiom. It is vertically complex, giving rise to sophisticated voice leadings. That's one big reason why non-jazz musicians who decide they're going to "jazz up" a piece of music usually wind up sounding hokey rather than hip. Conceptually, they don't have the harmonic (and rhythmic) know-how to pull it off. If that's you, don't let me discourage you from making the attempt. Rather let me encourage you, while you're in the process, to learn a bit about jazz harmony and voice leading. There's plenty of knowledge that's available on the topic both in print and online. This Wikipedia article is a good place to start. * HORNS. Adding a sax or trumpet to a tune, or even using that tune to showcase a horn player, does not automatically result in jazz. * TUNES. Jazz is not a matter of the song that's played but of how it's interpreted. Playing "In the Mood" or "Take the A Train" doesn't mean that a band is playing jazz. It means they're playing melodies and chord changes that were written in the Big Band Era, but stylistically, the way a tune is handled might be closer to a polka than to jazz. I could easily add to the above list, but what I've written is enough to get the idea across. Again, though, the topic of what is and isn't jazz is prone to subjectivity. It's safe to say that at some point, a piece of music--or rather, how that piece gets interpreted--crosses a jazz/non-jazz line. But different people, including and especially jazz musicians, will have different ideas about where that line lies. That's one reason why I don't work myself into a lather over whether, for example, the stuff that Kenny G. puts out is jazz. Does it really matter? Kenny's music may not be my personal cup of tea, but I have a hunch that if you hired the guy for a standards gig, he'd make it through the evening just fine. As it stands, what he does for a living beats delivering pizzas. As for the debate over what is and isn't jazz, a more fruitful question to ask is, do you like what you hear? Do you like what you're playing? Then enjoy it and don't worry too much about defining it. It may or may not be jazz, but good music is good music no matter what you call it.

Some Reflections on the Icons of Jazz and Storm Chasing

I just finished looking through a couple forum threads on Stormtrack.org, one of them about what makes a person a "true" storm chaser, and the other about storm chasing legends, about the forerunners who have risen to icon status. In reading the latter thread, I was struck by a similarity between jazz and storm chasing that I had never seen before: each is a distinctively American art form. While today both jazz musicians and storm chasers hail from all over the world, yet we owe our respective crafts to a handful of American pioneers who, guided by passion and a quest to learn and excel, first set forth into uncharted territory and showed the rest of us the way. Both pursuits are young. Jazz has been with us for only a century. Storm chasing has existed half that time, a little over fifty years. In the history of both, the progression of discoveries and advancements has been rapid, even dizzying. One obvious difference is that the patriarchs of jazz have passed on, whereas most of the veterans of storm chasing are still with us. Louis Armstrong is long gone, but David Hoadley remains a present inspiration, and while I've never met him, I assume from his occasional input on Stormtrack--the online descendant of Hoadley's trade magazine for chasers--that he's still fairly active. I suspect that Hoadley wouldn't see himself in the same light as Louis Armstrong. From all accounts of David, he's a humble man who likely would feel surprised to be compared with the likes of Louis. Yet both men are innovators. Both followed their instincts to accomplish something that had never been done before. In Armstrong's case, the result was the birth of a brand new musical language of feeling, inflection, and improvisation. With Hoadley, it was the acquisition of knowledge and insights that could only come from actively pursuing tornadic storms rather than passively waiting for the storms to come to him. Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. David Hoadley, Tim Marshall, Jim Leonard, Chuck Doswell, Al Moller, Howard Bluestein. The lists are only partial, and over time they will grow. Storm chasing probably has more potential for true innovators to rise within its ranks than does jazz, for similarities aside, jazz is driven primarily by creative explorations that have for the most part already been made, whereas storm chasing deals with a subject about which much still remains unknown, and is influenced to a much greater degree by advances in meteorology and technology. Regardless, the icons of each field occupy a special, venerable position that can never be duplicated. The rest of us--whether we're small-town musicians or world-renowned artists, or whether we're neophyte chasers or OKU grad students with plenty of chase seasons under our belts--can only do the best we know how to carry the torches lit by our predecessors. From our ranks, too, new knowledge will come and new beauty will be birthed, and from time to time, someone truly remarkable will rise to the surface. Let's hope that person's generosity of spirit will be in keeping with his or her abilities. As was Louis' Armstrong's. As is David Hoadley's.

Finding Jazz in the World Around Us

My sweet lady, Lisa, and I took a trip to Meijer Gardens earlier this week. Today, sifting through the photos I took as our tram ride wound along the curvy path through the world-class outdoor sculpture garden, and afterward as we strolled through the remarkable plantings in the children's garden, I'm struck--as I often am--at how the elements of music are woven into the very fabric of our world. Jazz is all around us. Form, space, unity, diversity, rhythm, dynamics, improvisation, color, texture, contrast, creativity--whether in music, nature, speech, literature, art, human relationships, or above all, our relationship with God, you'll find the same qualities working together to create beauty and interest. Consider the qualities of space and contrast. In a jazz solo, the notes you don't play are as important as the ones you do. Too much clutter, too many notes in endless procession, ceases to communicate. As in writing and conversation, well-placed punctuation--held notes, brief pauses, and longer rests--helps to shape musical ideas and gives them breathing room. Yet the furious density of artfully placed double-time passages creates another form of color. Both space and density can be overdone; it's the contrast between the two that helps raise a solo from the doldrums to vitality. The massive red iron piece titled "Aria" is a great visual representation of the interrelationship between music and art. The piece has a rhythm to it, shape, space, contrast--all the aspects of a well-crafted jazz improvisation.
Aria: like a jazz solo cast in metal.

Aria: like a jazz solo cast in metal.

Here are a few more images from the sculpture garden and children's garden that remind me of music and jazz.

What musical elements can you detect? Space? Sequence? Color? Dynamics?

What musical elements can you detect? Space? Sequence? Color? Dynamics?

This landscape sculpture creates unity out of contrast and serenity out of movement.

This landscape sculpture creates unity out of contrast and serenity out of movement.

If only I could play a solo as creative, spontaneous, and cohesive as this!

If only I could play a solo as creative, spontaneous, and cohesive as this!

Lisa: the beautiful song God has brought to my life!

Lisa: the beautiful song God has brought to my life!

Emile De Cosmo and the Polytonal Rhythm Series

I got a most pleasant surprise today while checking my voice mail. A gentleman named Emile De Cosmo had left a message saying that he had run across my post on jazz contrafacts while researching the topic online, and inviting me to call him back. Emile mentioned that he is a jazz educator who has written twenty-six books, and wondered whether maybe I'd heard of his material. Are you kidding? Heck yes, I'd heard of his books, and of Emile. I've known of Emile since back in my college jazz studies days, when I first encountered an ad in Downbeat for his Polytonal Rhythm Series and ordered one of the books from that series.  Good grief--Emile De Cosmo, calling me? What an honor! Of course I returned Emile's call, and we had a most enjoyable chat. Besides being a passionate and thoughtful jazz educator, Emile is a genuinely nice, warm, down-to-earth guy, easy to talk to and well worth listening to. Unfortunately, our conversation got cut short by a bad signal on my cell phone, but I look forward to reconnecting with Emile and picking up where we left off. At 84 years old, he's still going strong, writing books and developing his didactic concepts in jazz. He may be retired from university instruction, but the educator in him doesn't appear to have taken so much as a breather. Having visited Emile's site, I'm struck by how much thought and time the man has invested into perfecting his ideas about helping others develop a fluent technique and "big ears." The Polytonal Rhythm Series was a magnum opus in itself, but Emile and his wife, Laura, have developed more material over the years. With my interest reawakened, I purchased The Diatonic Cycle and have my sights set on The Path to Jazz Improvisation. I'm also intrigued by The Tritone Cycle, but that can wait. I expect that I'll have my hands full for a while with the first book once it arrives. The timing is perfect; I've been wanting something to help me expand my saxophone practice in a different direction. Emile, if you read this post, it was great talking with you! I look forward to our next chat. Keep up the great work!