What Is Jazz? Revisited: Part 2

Having dispensed with my rambling prelude, in part 1 of this article, to the question “What is jazz?” let’s get to the question itself. What is jazz? The answer used to be fairly simple, involving such concepts as syncopation, swing, improvisation, and African-American roots. The formats in which those elements played out were fairly straightforward. There was Dixieland. There was swing. There was big band. There was bebop. But wait . . . bebop? In its day, there were those who maintained that bebop wasn’t jazz; it was cacophony, confusion, a bunch of chromatic scales played lightning fast and signifying nothing. “Let them beat their brains out till their flatted fifths are gone, then they’ll pass and be forgotten like the rest,” taunted Louis Armstrong in “The Boppenpoof Song,” but his abilities as a prophet didn’t match his brilliance as a trumpet player. Today no one would seriously contest the prodigious contribution of bop to the evolution of jazz. Then along came Coltrane. Repeat the scenario. A lot of jazz buffs couldn’t stand him. Sheets of sound? Endless modal droning? That ain’t jazz, or so said the purists—then. Today it’s a different story; Trane has a lot of children and grandchildren. The thing called jazz broadened, embraced another icon, and forged ahead. Then came fusion, and more cries of protest. So it went, and so it has gone, and so it goes. Cool jazz, Latin jazz, free jazz, acid jazz, nu jazz, smooth jazz, punk jazz . . . from Miles to Trane to Ornette to Zorn and beyond, the list goes on, and after a while, I feel bewildered and my head hurts. Look, I just like good music, and I like improvisation, and I admire combinations of artistry and skill at a high level, and it gets to where I honestly don’t care all that much about categorizing it. This article can’t begin to cover all the complexities of a subject that so many, many writers have already addressed, and will continue to address, in far greater depth. So in the remainder of this post, I want to share what a few others, both musicians and non-musicians, have to say about the nature of jazz. Nothing definitive, just personal, insightful, and even humorous. Responses to the Facebook Survey The first to respond to my question "What is jazz?" was keyboard man Bob Van Stee: “Good question. Allegedly, Louis Armstrong was asked, and his response was, ‘If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” My good friend Ed Englerth wrote, “’Jazz is restless.’ [It can be played on] any instrument. I prefer jazz that has improvisational elements, but [it] can be written out as well.” Camera artist Myrna Jacobs doesn’t play an instrument, and her husband, Dan, is a superb jazz trumpeter and flutist. Myrna shared in-depth:
I think a lot about jazz, and to some extent why it isn't popular music (for the most part). But what I've decided is that what often passes for jazz today isn't really jazz. It lacks life and is static, trapped in some other time, much like classical music. Creating in the moment, being true to your own emotions and being in touch with the time and place you live. A willingness to get emotional with the music is so vital. I don't play jazz. I listen to it and, honestly, feel that much of what is played is not good.. simply copies or ideas of what it should be, rather than it just being musicians who love playing, love creating, know how to listen and being willing to put themselves out there emotionally through their notes and spaces. Great jazz can take you someplace... to another world. It's not even about the right chords (though it plays a part and doesn't 'feel right' if the player doesn't know them in his gut). I am a huge fan of jazz music that doesn't isolate soloists . .. but rather, all the players in the band are part of the solo in some way. They are all listening and knowing when to contribute, like a conversation. Most of all I guess that jazz at it very ultimate is a conversation.... sometimes a soloist has a lot to say, like a monologue . .. but like, in conversation, the others come in and 'nod', accent, repeat parts of what was said.. take off on it.. use the idea, the concept (musically). It's not just a speech... but a conversation. I love Dixieland for the beat.. for the interplay of instruments. I love big band when it's exciting and the power that can be generated by that many instruments is used effectively... and when it is written so that it is not just one solo after another with no relationship to each other in any way. I love a duo... of whatever instruments are used... when they are playing together.. creating together.. moving the conversation forward Sorry... I could go on and on. I have thought about this a LOT and talked about it a lot, trying to figure out why so many people do not like jazz.
Trombonist Jason Lester offered the following thoughts:
Jazz is typically defined by having extended improvisation relative to predefined melodic material: it is further distinguished from the stuff of "jam bands" and blues by harmonic content-- ii V I's, extended chords, elaborate harmonic substitution. Instrumentation is not a factor, as Bela Fleck and many other groups have demonstrated. The boundaries of jazz are (and always have been) designed to be stretched and blurred: third stream, fusion, acid, etc have allowed players to stretch and blend. This symbiosis brings new life to both jazz and to the genre it hybridizes with-- some of the best Rock sax solos were dealt down by cats like Wayne Shorter and Sonny Rollins; bringing in guitarists like John McLaughlin and Mike Stern gave Miles an entirely new sound. But improvisation and harmonic content are still the signature elements.
My response to Jason:
Given the interplay of other genres with jazz, the lines get fuzzy, don't they. Improvisation, for instance, has long been a hallmark of rock as well as jazz (though jazz came first). Yet there's an obvious difference between the extended improvisations of David Gilmour in Pink Floyd and John Coltrane in his classic quartet; both are masterful soloists in phenomenal groups, yet there's no question that Floyd is rock and Trane is jazz. However, there does come a point in modern music where it's hard to say whether you've got fish or fowl. You've mentioned harmonic complexity, and that one hits the nail on the head for me. Even the supposedly static harmony of modalism in jazz involves a complex harmonic approach not just for the soloist but also, significantly, for the rhythm section, and in particular for the chording instruments (e.g., keyboard, guitar). Once you cross over beyond swing feel into rock and Latin rhythms, it may be the harmony that's the determinant.
Jason again: “The lines really blur when you listen to Steely Dan, James Brown, Frank Zappa, or Medeski, Martin& Wood!” Finally, Bob Van Stee alerted me to the following video clip in which Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme answer the question “What is jazz?” in their own inimitable way. I can’t think of a more fitting way to cap off this post.

What Is Jazz? Revisited: A Millennial Look inside Pandora’s Box

Always one to open new areas of inquiry, searching out pristine topics glistening with intellectual dew, I recently posted this question on Facebook: "What is jazz?" Actually, one or two others before me may have given the subject some glancing bit of thought. I seem to recall blogging about it myself in the past. Wars may even have been fought over the matter. So maybe the question isn’t so novel after all. In fact, I'm quite certain it's not. Back in the nineteen seventies and early eighties, when I was studying music in college, the subject kept resurfacing with boring predictability in the letters section of Downbeat magazine. There’d be an article on some fusion band that had strayed from the sanctioned strictures of swing, bop, and tradition, and next month, you’d read one or two samples of the indignation felt by jazz purists. “THAT CRAP AIN’T JAZZ!” they'd opine helpfully. But their views would be countered by other letters from the Bold And Free who welcomed new trends and defended fresh approaches. At first such exchanges were interesting. But after a while, as the same thoughts kept recycling from both ends of the jazz/not-jazz spectrum, the argument got old and then irrelevant. After all, what did I care? I still loved rock music, something many jazz musicians of the time detested. And much as I wanted to excel as a jazz saxophonist, I sucked. So from a practical standpoint, I couldn’t relate to the vitriol behind the statement “That ain’t jazz!” In Light of Today Thirty-five years later, much has changed in music, to say nothing of the world at large. Between jazz and other musical genres, the lines have blurred to the extent that the term jazz has become almost meaningless. Perhaps the jazz police had a point after all, then, in trying to preserve a sense of definition for a word which, in coming to mean so many things to so many people, now means almost nothing at all. Though, is that really the case? I can still listen to Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker and say, with confidence, “That’s jazz.” And I can get an earful on YouTube of my favorite classic rock bands, such as Jethro Tull and Pink Floyd, and say with equal conviction, “That ain’t jazz.” Great music, absolutely; improvisational, without question; but jazz, no. It doesn’t have to be jazz to be good. There’s a powerful lot of fantastic music in this world today, with superb musicians of many stripes bringing their influences and contributions to the table. And it is a table, an art table. It's not a melting pot. For all the kinds of music available to my ears today, I don’t hear homogeneity arising as a result of allowing different genres to interbreed. Instead I hear creative combinations; and for the many different forms, both pure and hybrid, and for their practitioners, I see an appreciation and respect that didn’t exist back in my college days. You can spend your emotional and intellectual energy defining the color blue, speaking out on its behalf and defending its sacredness. Ditto the color green, if you’re a lover of green; or red, if you’re of the red camp; or yellow, or purple, or what have you. Or you can take some of this color and some of that and some of those and make a painting. Why not? The days of jazz/not-jazz haven’t entirely disappeared, nor are they likely to. And that's not a bad thing. Conceptually, jazz does need a perimeter, fuzzy though it may be, if the word is to have meaning. But I think fewer people care to make it into a heated issue. So maybe now "What is jazz?" can simply be an honest question that merits interesting, insightful, and enjoyable discussion. In part 2 of this article, look for some of the different responses I received to my Facebook inquiry "What is jazz?" as well as some of my own thoughts on the matter. (To be continued.)

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.