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.

On Beyond Jazz: Expanding Your Appreciation of Musical Diversity

Is it safe to come out of my bunker now? Has the war between jazz and rock finally ended? I don't hear any incoming missiles. But then, I'm kind of out of the loop these days when it comes to who is presently saying what in the various music periodicals. It does seem to me that in this melting pot called America, music has come a long way in developing mutual respect between the different genres. The purist dividing lines have given way to healthy crossover and cooperative experimentation between music styles and artists, and the style racists who once wrung their hands and shouted, "Miscegenation!" back in the days of "Bitches Brew" have long since been thrust aside by open-minded musicians searching for fresh, creative possibilities. Yet I wonder to what extent the old biases still continue to influence us. Back in my college days, rock music was largely scorned by jazz musicians, and the feeling was amply returned. You couldn't pick up a "Downbeat" magazine and read an article on fusion without some reader writing in to complain, "That's not jazz!" If it wasn't bebop, it it involved an approach to the drum set that was other than tang-tanka-tang, then the purists were up in arms, donning their white hoods and burning their crosses in the letter section. Even back then, naive as I was, I found the topic of this is/isn't jazz to be petty, not to mention boring, when the groups in question involved world class musicians who knew the standard jazz vocabulary inside-out. I also found the notion that jazz was the only worthwhile music, or the idea that any one style of music was better than the rest, to be confining, narrow-minded, and pointless. I mean, I cut my teeth on classic rock music--on groups such as Jefferson Airplane, Mountain, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, and Fleetwood Mac--and I didn't stop loving rock and roll just because I was starting to become immersed in jazz. So why was it that jazzers and rockers seemed to have so little respect for each other? For that matter, what was it about symphonic musicians that gave them such an illusion of superiority over all the rest? And why did it go without saying (by me among the rest, I hate to confess) that country/western was inferior music? Tell me that things have changed since those days. I think they have. From what I can see, we've come a long way. At bottom, all music is divisible into just two categories: good music and bad music. Beyond that, it's a matter of personal preference. And that is fine; in fact, it's inevitable. Each of us is drawn to certain kinds of music and not drawn to others. It's a matter of individual taste, which fines down even beyond general categories to subcategories and artists of all kinds. It's all good as long as it doesn't lead to demeaning other forms of musical expression, or to closing ourselves off to their creativity and richness. Still today, it's unlikely that I'll ever purchase a country music CD. However, that choice is influenced not by musical snobbery, but by the fact that I'm a jazz saxophonist with a limited music budget, and on the relatively rare occasions when I purchase a CD, I usually stick with jazz, guided by a goal of learning my craft as well as enjoying its sound. It's a matter of focus and preference, not elitism. If I'm driving down the highway and happen upon a good country station on the radio, then I'll listen to it and enjoy it. Over the years and the long, long highway miles, I've come to appreciate that country music harbors some of the finest lyricists and songwriters in the world. My point: Why limit yourself in what you listen to? Jazz is awesome music, but it's not all that is out there. Broaden your world. Go to YouTube and check out some of the old film clips of Janis Joplin, Hendrix, and the Beatles. Tune in to The Thistle & Shamrock on NPR and let Fiona Ritchie give you an exhilarating earful of wild, wonderful Celtic music. The world of music has wide, wide horizons; open your ears to ways of expressing musical and creative excellence other than the ones you're used to. Allow yourself to be influenced by the amazing diversity of music in this world. Doing so will enrich your own artistry as a jazz musician.